When the Berlin-based group Transparency International released its annual ranking of international corruption levels in December 2014, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a blistering statement. Chinese authorities were upset that their country had sunk from 80th to 100th place on the watchdog’s influential Corruption Perceptions Index, even though Beijing was pursuing a high-profile anticorruption campaign. “As a fairly influential international organization,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “Transparency International should seriously examine the objectiveness and impartiality of its Corruption Perceptions Index.”
This wasn’t the first time Beijing had dismissed the results of an international ranking. A year earlier, it had called for the elimination of the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business Index, in which China had similarly underperformed, citing what Chinese officials described as flawed methodologies and assumptions.
China’s anger reveals just how powerful such ratings have become. Today’s ratings, produced by nongovernmental organizations and international agencies alike, score governments on nearly every aspect of a state: democracy, corruption, environmental degradation, friendliness to business, the likelihood of state collapse, the security of nuclear materials, and much more. The ratings’ customers are equally diverse. Government officials and activists refer to these indexes as measures of state performance, and international organizations and domestic bureaucracies use them as comparative benchmarks. Scholars and analysts use them to compare countries, and journalists routinely cite them as authoritative in their stories.
The ratings craze threatens to dumb down global governance and lower the quality of public debate.In theory, grading and comparing states should help the public hold governments accountable. In practice, however, ratings are fraught with unexamined assumptions and unintended consequences, limiting their value as tools for improved governance. They often oversimplify complex public policy issues, obscure policy tradeoffs, and invite manipulation by states eager to improve their reputations without undertaking real reform. Without a clearer understanding of these limitations, the ratings craze threatens to dumb down global governance practices and lower the quality of public