Is the China Model Better Than Democracy?

Meritocracy could avoid the pitfalls of American-style politics -- at least in theory.

A general view shows the third session of the 12th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2015.  China's Communist Party-controlled legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), gathers in the capital for the annual show of political theater, with the "rule of law" high on the agenda.      AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO        (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows the third session of the 12th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2015. China's Communist Party-controlled legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), gathers in the capital for the annual show of political theater, with the "rule of law" high on the agenda. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 15, Daniel A. Bell, the author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, sat on a panel hosted by Asia Society’s ChinaFile Presents series. The event, co-hosted by the New York Review of Books, also included panelists Timothy Garton Ash, Zhang Taisu, Andrew Nathan, and others, who discussed with Bell the question his book addresses — does China have an identifiable political model, and if so, what is it? The following ChinaFile conversation includes excerpts, edited for clarity, of that discussion.

Daniel A. Bell, chair professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing and director of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center:

For much of Chinese imperial history, public officials were selected first by examination and then by performance evaluations at lower levels of government. The fascinating thing is that this system has been reestablished in form over the past 30 years in China — highly imperfectly, as we’ll see. When this idea hit me, I began writing op-eds, and I was severely criticized by my liberal friends and my Confucian friends who asked, “What’s happened to this guy? He’s become a staunch defender of the government.” But that’s not what I mean.

I call my method contextual political theory: the idea that a political theorist should aim to make coherent and rationally defensible the leading political ideals of a society. I happen to find myself in China, so what are the leading political ideals of Chinese society? I label it “vertical democratic meritocracy,” the ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years. But there is still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. This ideal is good, at least reasonably good, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the foreseeable future.

What is this idea of “vertical democratic meritocracy”? This is the idea that democracy works well at lower levels of government. This is a view that Western political theorists have argued, starting with Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. If you have a small political community the issues are fairly easy to understand, and you know the moral character of the leaders you’re choosing, thus making a strong case for democracy at the lower level. But, in a huge country, as you go up the political chain of command, the issues become more complex and mistakes become more costly.

There’s a need to institutionalize a system to select and promote leaders with superior qualities. It’s a good case for democracy at the lower level, and for meritocracy up top — and in between, we don’t exactly know what’s going to work, so there should be allowances for lots of experimentation and testing for different ways for selecting and promoting political leaders. Democracy on the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy on top — that’s a pretty good way of thinking about how to govern a large country, and I argue that it fits Chinese political culture pretty well. There was a terrible experiment with populism during the Cultural Revolution, so there’s a strong case to reestablish this kind of political meritocracy.

Let me say a little bit about the gap between the reality and the ideal. I am not defending the status quo. I am defending this ideal that I use as a standard to evaluate the status quo. How could it be improved? For one thing, democracy at the lower levels of government: elections at the village level have improved but there’s still a long way to go to make the elections more free and competitive. There’s a very good case for other features of democratic values and institutions to inform the political process — deliberation, consultation, public hearings, referenda. All these tools are very important, as well as certain levels of democratic elections at higher levels of government. There’s a case for more democracy. There’s also a case for better scientific evaluation of the experiments. Nowadays you have experiments at middle levels of government, but who decides whether they’re successful or not? There’s a need for more expert evaluation of what counts as success.

Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford:

I think we owe Daniel a debt of gratitude for giving us a much more sophisticated version of the China model than Eric Li, Zhang Weiwei, or the egregious Col. Liu Mingfu. This is at least one we can engage with rationally.

Secondly, I think it would be a very good thing if there were a China model. It would be good for China, because it would increase the probability of a peaceful evolution. It would be good for the West, I think, because it’s good for the West to have a serious credible ideological competitor. I would argue many of the problems of the West — the hubris of the Iraq invasion, the financial crisis — are partly derived from the fact that after the end of the Cold War we did not have a serious competitor. So, it would be great if it existed.

Thirdly, and this is in agreement with Daniel, clearly there has been significant political reform and change. This is not a version of the Soviet Union. There’s policy experimentation in the cities and local government of the provinces. Anyone who’s been to a Chinese university knows that there’s fierce competition from the brightest if not the best students to be recruited to the Communist Party. All true. Nonetheless, I’m afraid that the system I see on repeated visits to China and compare with other communist and post-communist systems, is simply not the one that Daniel describes. He just said political meritocracy is not working as well as it should. But the answer is that it’s not working as well as it should, because it isn’t political meritocracy. It actually isn’t.

Let me give you one example from the book. He describes a meeting with the minister responsible for the organization department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who describes the selection process for the secretary general of that important department. Nominations from all sides. Examinations. Examinations put out in the corridor for public scrutiny. An inspection team. Finally a vote. A wonderful meritocratic process. Now, neither Daniel nor I were actually behind those closed doors, but we know a lot about how the CCP works — and it doesn’t work like that. There is massive factionalism, factional struggle, clientelism, patronage, and corruption. We know that from numerous studies of the party, and indeed from books the party itself has published. So we know that the selection of that very important person was not the glorious theory described by the ministry of the organization committee. And incidentally, I think one thing we have to discuss with Daniel is whether he’s actually looking at the practice, in which case we have to test what he says against the practice, or the theory, in which case let’s look at the theory, which is largely Leninist. Daniel also mentioned the lack of free speech, the…worsening lack of free speech. How you can have a genuine meritocracy, when you cannot publicly canvas all the credible policy alternatives, is very hard to see. In short, I think political meritocracy is not working because it’s not political meritocracy. And I think this means it’s actually going to be very difficult for this system to manage the extremely complex challenges it’s facing as economic growth slows down, the supply of cheap labor is exhausted, and society becomes increasingly mature and educated, with higher aspirations. So I wish it were true. But I’m afraid it’s not.

Andrew J. Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University:

Daniel has said correctly that this is a book of political theory. His training at McGill and his early writing was to promote and explain a theory called communitarianism, which is a critique of liberal democracy that is internal to the West. He���s been to China, and he’s written that when he got to some places — Singapore, Hong Kong, and then China — he found in Confucianism and in Chinese culture a version of communitarianism that seemed to him even stronger and better. So this is not really a book about the real China. It isn’t intended to be a book about the real China. It’s very easy, however, to misunderstand it as a book about the real China. But it’s really a book of theory, a book of idealism, of a model in the sense of the other meaning of the word model — as something that we might imagine as a kind of blueprint. I want people to understand that Daniel himself is describing the book as a book of theory. What is the theory behind it? Bell mentions three levels: democracy, experimentation, and meritocracy. It is chiefly a defense of political meritocracy. So that’s the key to his argument. And what is meritocracy? It’s the selection of leaders who have both ability and virtue, and virtue is very important to Daniel as a political philosopher and as an ethical philosopher.

My big disagreement with the book is whether the meritocratic selection of people by ability and virtue produces a better form of government. And I think the core fallacy in that argument as theory is that it overlooks the exercise of power. It focuses on the selection of rulers but doesn’t pay attention to how those rulers are checked and balanced and overseen by a free society. Whether the Chinese system or whether an imaginary meritocratic system could actually select better people than democracy selects is speculative. I admit that democracy doesn’t always select the best people. I think that examples that we’ve seen of dictatorships also show us that they don’t usually select the best people. Whether Xi Jinping is a man of ethical superiority, I doubt, and I think Obama is probably a more virtuous person than Xi Jinping, but who knows? The key to democracy is not in the selection of leaders. The selection of leaders is very important, but what makes democracy better than authoritarianism is the checking of leaders by the freedom of others, and this is a point I think that Daniel overlooks, though he has acknowledged what he calls a gap between the ideal and the practice in China. That gap is not an accident. That gap is produced by the structure of the political system. When he talks in his book about liberal democracy, he doesn’t talk about a gap between the ideal and the practice. He just talks about the imperfections of actual liberal democracies, as they are in practice, and those imperfections exist.

Taisu Zhang, associate professor at the Duke University School of Law:

I want to further follow on this theoretical discussion. One theoretical concern I had reading the book was whether the book is actually comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. The argument of the book goes like this: There is a theory of political meritocracy, which is partially embodied in the Chinese system. It has the potential to generate better governance results, better governance outcomes than this arguably flawed model of Western democracy. In a sense, you are judging both the Chinese model and the Western model on whether it generates good governance results. But that is, to some political theorists, kind of a strange way to judge the Western democratic model, because the Western democratic model initially conceived, especially for example in the early American republic, was not necessarily purely or even primarily designed to generate good governance results. It was designed to further the democratic ideal of one person, one vote, of representative government. The core virtue of democratic government was in the innate legitimacy and the innate justice of elections, of the selection process. In which case, arguing that democracy tends to generate bad governance results tends to miss the theoretical point of what actually makes democracy go in democratic countries. And you could even further this point to discuss whether this also overlooks some certain theoretical aspects of the meritocracy model.

For example, if you look at the meritocracy model and how it functions in late imperial China by the examination system, because of the shrinking of the size of the state throughout the Qing [dynasty], the state goes from extracting eight to nine percent of GDP per year as state revenue to pretty much less than one percent by the end of the dynasty. The increasing insignificance of the state meant that generating good governance via the state itself was of increasing less importance. But that said, the overwhelming social importance of the examination still held. And why was that? Because in the mind of Chinese elites, this is the only just way, the only socially legitimate way to select leaders, through an open, transparent, free-for-all academic examination. So there is also an element of selection-based legitimacy in the meritocracy model as well. Even purely evaluating that model on the basis of whether it generates good governance results may be overlooking some of the other things that go into whether that model actually functions or not. Perhaps a separate question the book should perhaps ask, but at this point does not fully ask, is — does either model agree with the perceived social legitimacy of selection in either society? Are they actually selecting leaders in a perceived-to-be legitimate way, based on the conditions of their own society? Of course what is perceived to be a legitimate way of selection evolves over time, and you could argue that in China today, what may be the most socially legitimate way and socially popular way of selecting leaders may be considerably more democratic than the party allows. That could be a problem.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 19, 2015: A previous version of this article mistakenly misspelled Timothy Garton Ash’s name as Timothy Garten Ash.

Daniel A. Bell is Chair Professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing and director of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center. He is the author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2015).
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Andrew J. Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University.
Taisu Zhang is an Associate Professor at Yale Law School.

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