Does bureaucratic ability predict promotion in governments? We show that self-reported performance in enforcing the One Child Policy predicts mayoral promotion in China. However, misreporting handicaps screening — a non-manipulated performance measure does not predict promotion. We show that this is consistent with a model where a government has a meritocratic objective but underestimates the imperfect verifiability of performance, rather than a model where a government is only interested in the illusion of meritocracy. Thus, despite meritocratic intentions, we challenge the notion that a successful promotion system effectively substituted for democratic institutions in explaining Chinese growth.