Abstract: It is widely believed that the allocation of occupations and social prestige in modern societies should be based on educational qualifications rather than family origin, but relatively little scholarly work has empirically studied how educational attainment shapes ordinary people’s perceptions of education-based meritocracy. An analysis of nationally-representative data from the 2010 China Family Panel Study (CFPS 2010) reveals that people with more schooling tend to hold stronger meritocratic beliefs than their less-educated counterparts. Using an instrumental variable approach, the analysis reveals that education has causal effects on meritocratic beliefs, and that the effects of education on opinions about meritocracy are greater for relatively disadvantaged social groups, who tend to believe that merit plays a more important role than family origin for socioeconomic advancement. These findings further our understanding of Chinese citizens’ high-level tolerance of inequality despite the sharp rise in income inequality in China in past decades.

Keywords: China; Compulsory education; Education; Meritocracy