We examine the short- and long-run effects of affirmative action in the setting of China. The most academically talented individuals were chosen to take official jobs in imperial China through a centrally regulated, multi-stage examination process. Because of the stark differences in exam performance across the country, a reform to minimize the disparities in access to these positions was initiated in 1712. As acceptance rates were made equitable among the provinces, more candidates from underrepresented provinces were chosen. Using a novel dataset on the exam performance and career outcome of successful candidates, we demonstrate that, after the intervention, there was a steady convergence in the quality and performance of successful candidates chosen from underrepresented provinces and the other provinces. A divergent trend between sub-provincial units suggests greater inequality within provinces, but this disparity was mitigated by the existence of non-governmental organizations that covered exam-related travel expenses. We demonstrate that after the reform was dropped in 1905, the gap between the underrepresented provinces and other provinces reopened. Nonetheless, some of the reform’s effects persisted. The intervention had spillover effects that reached all the way down to secondary education.
STEG Working Paper • Cross-Cutting Issue 3: Inequality and Inclusion