The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

by Daniel A. Bell


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Westerners tend to divide the political world into "good" democracies and “bad” authoritarian regimes. But the Chinese political model does not fit neatly in either category. Over the past three decades, China has evolved a political system that can best be described as “political meritocracy.” The China Model seeks to understand the ideals and the reality of this unique political system. How do the ideals of political meritocracy set the standard for evaluating political progress (and regress) in China? How can China avoid the disadvantages of political meritocracy? And how can political meritocracy best be combined with democracy? Daniel Bell answers these questions and more.

Opening with a critique of “one person, one vote” as a way of choosing top leaders, Bell argues that Chinese-style political meritocracy can help to remedy the key flaws of electoral democracy. He discusses the advantages and pitfalls of political meritocracy, distinguishes between different ways of combining meritocracy and democracy, and argues that China has evolved a model of democratic meritocracy that is morally desirable and politically stable. Bell summarizes and evaluates the “China model”—meritocracy at the top, experimentation in the middle, and democracy at the bottom—and its implications for the rest of the world.

A timely and original book that will stir up interest and debate, The China Model looks at a political system that not only has had a long history in China, but could prove to be the most important political development of the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173047
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 588,362
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Daniel A. Bell is dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University in Qingdao.

Read an Excerpt

The China Model

Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

By Daniel A. Bell


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8348-6


Is Democracy the Least Bad Political System?

It is a truism that modern Western societies are pluralistic. We argue about everything and agree, it seems, about nothing. Actually, we do agree about one thing: that we should choose our political leaders by means of one person, one vote. Electoral democracy has assumed almost sacred status in modern Western societies. We can question faith in God without being accused of having lost our moral compass, but the same tolerance is not extended to those who question faith in one person, one vote; almost inevitably, they are tarred with the brush of being apologists for "bad" authoritarian regimes.

Plus, we agree that electoral democracy is a universal political good. It is good not only for us, but for the rest of the world. Hence, when "bad" authoritarian regimes fall, they are supposed to be replaced by a form of government chosen by means of one person, one vote. Hardly anyone contemplates an alternative. From a normative point of view, democracy is seen as the best possible political regime. More precisely, it is a necessary condition for the best possible regime. Free and fair elections for political leaders need to be supplemented by other political goods — and here there are endless disputes about what those goods should be (civil society, social justice, democracy in the workplace, forums for deliberation, additional ways of monitoring power, etc.) — but we agree that those goods (whatever they are) should be implemented on a foundation of electoral democracy.

That said, political "realists" warn us that democracy cannot readily be established in poor, developing countries. In his 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington controversially argued that political order was necessary for economic and social development. Premature increases in political participation — including early elections — could destabilize fragile political systems in the developing world. Hence, a modernizing dictatorship that provides political order, the rule of law, and the conditions for successful economic and social development may be necessary. Still, Huntington did not mean to justify dictatorship as a permanent arrangement. Once the building blocks are in place, then the time is ripe for democracy and further delays are not justified from a moral point of view.

In other words, the dispute between "idealists" and "realists" is primarily a dispute about timing; neither side means to question the ideal of electoral democracy. Ethnic warfare, crippling poverty, pervasive corruption, and lack of education may pose obstacles to the successful establishment and consolidation of democracy, but they are seen as unfortunate (we hope temporary) afflictions that delay what Francis Fukuyama (Huntington's student) called the "end of history," when democracy has finally triumphed over its rivals. It is widely assumed that democracy is something that all rational individuals would want if they could get it.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the view that electoral democracy is the best possible political regime is commonly (but far from unanimously) held in China as well. Whatever we hear about "civilizational differences" between China and the West, many Chinese political thinkers share the view that democracy is the best possible political system. It is dangerous to organize a movement for the implementation of multiparty competitive elections in China — that's what landed Liu Xiaobo in jail — but Chinese political thinkers can and do argue for electoral democracy as an ideal in academic publications. An often-heard argument among Chinese intellectuals is that democracy should not be implemented now because of the prevalence of "low-quality" Chinese farmers, but democracy will become more viable once Chinese people become more educated and urbanized. The political reformer Yu Keping famously authored an essay titled Democracy Is a Good Thing and has called for more electoral competition at different levels of government. Yu Chongqing argues that the fundamental building block of democracy is multicandidate competitive elections — whether at the local or the central level of government — and it is meaningless to talk about other forms of democracy (such as intraparty democracy, democratic deliberation, or local-level democracy) without this foundation. More cautiously, Ma Ling argues that the immediate task in China is to implement "democratic supervision," but he goes on to say that it should be followed by democratic elections. Here too, the dispute is less about the desirability than about the timing of electoral democracy.

On the face of it, it is hard to understand why electoral democracy came to have such widespread appeal. For one thing, the practice of choosing a country's top leaders by means of free and fair competitive elections has had a relatively short history (less than a century in most countries, compared to, say, thirteen hundred years for China's examination system). Like any other political system, it has advantages and disadvantages, and it seems too soon to affirm that it's the best system of all time for all time. More fundamentally, it seems peculiar to take an almost unquestioned stance in favor of a system that does not require experience (and expertise) for leadership. There are many ways of exercising power — in workplaces, schools, hospitals, prisons, and so on — and the natural assumption is that prior experience is necessary for the exercise of power by top leaders. No corporation or university would pick a top leader without substantial leadership experience of some sort, preferably in the same field. Yet political power is an exception: it's fine to pick a leader with no prior political experience, so long as he or she has been chosen on the basis of one person, one vote.

So why exactly did we come to believe that electoral democracy is a necessary foundation for a morally desirable political system? Few people have the time and motivation to read the debates in political science journals, so the key explanation cannot be the result of reflective endorsements of arguments in the academic literature. The value placed on equal voting rights may be a result of prolonged political struggles by (formerly) marginalized sectors of the political community, such as women and minority groups. Another reason may be the growing significance of national identities in the twentieth century: as more and more people think of their prime identities as tied to their nation, they come to value the equal right of participating in national politics as key to human dignity. Another reason may be the economic, political, and ideological hegemony of the United States in the post–World War II period, especially since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The United States promotes electoral democracy as the "only game in town," and the rest of the world sits up and listens. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the ideas of the ruling country are the ruling ideas. Perhaps the idea that we are equal in the eyes of God became transmuted into the idea that we are political equals in the eyes of the government, and the idea that we are political equals then became translated in the popular mind into the (mistaken) belief that political equality must take the form of one person, one vote. There is something about the act of voting that confers an experience of psychological power: I come to feel that I have a say in choosing my ruler (even if my vote does not make any difference), and I come to treasure the right to vote, a sense of empowerment that may also extend to other areas of social life. Any attempts to modify or abolish one person, one vote will be intensely controversial because those deprived of an equal vote will feel that they are "losers" and officially labeled as inferior in terms of the capacity to make informed political judgments. Perhaps the idea of choosing leaders by means of competitive elections is easy to understand and implement. And maybe voting is a communal ritual that produces and reinforces a sense of civic solidarity for the people involved: we feel part of a community when we vote. Most likely, different combinations of these factors operate to different degrees in different contexts.

Whatever the history and the psychological mechanisms that underpin support for voting, it is worth asking if the arguments for electoral democracy are morally defensible. Philosophers tend to distinguish between two sorts of arguments for democracy. Some philosophers argue that the rights to vote and run for political office are intrinsically valuable for individuals whether or not they lead to collectively desirable consequences: democratic procedures such as the equal right to vote and majority decision making express intrinsically valuable goods such as equality, fairness, dignity, autonomy, participation, solidarity, and mutual trust, which do not depend on desirable consequences for their moral power. But such arguments have been vigorously contested, and the leading Anglo-American philosophers from J. S. Mill to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin tend to defend political equality in the form of one person, one vote on instrumental grounds. And if the aim is to promote electoral democracy in China, arguments for democracy appealing to the intrinsic value of voting will not be very effective because political surveys show that citizens in East Asian societies typically understand democracy in substantive rather than procedural terms: that is, they tend to value democracy because of its positive consequences rather than valuing democratic procedures per se.

So the politically relevant question is whether democratic elections lead to good consequences. The prodemocracy case in terms of consequences is perhaps best captured by Winston Churchill's famous quip: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." This quotation is endlessly trotted out as a defense of democracy, more often than not as a way of silencing debate about the pros and cons of democracy. Whatever the flaws of democracy, other alternatives are even worse, so let's not push too hard to undermine our faith in democracy. Even the harshest contemporary philosophical critic of the right to vote in the Western world affirms (without any empirical evidence) that "democracy performs better, even with low voter participation, than its competitors (oligarchy, etc.) do."

But is democracy really the least bad system? True, the two major political alternatives in Churchill's day — Nazism and Soviet-style communism — have been (rightly) consigned to the dustbin of history. But the case for democracy as the least bad regime is not so clear if the alternative is political meritocracy as it has been practiced in the modern world. Consider the two most seemingly iron-clad consequentialist arguments in favor of democracy: (1) Amartya Sen's argument that famines do not occur in democracies, and (2) the argument that democracies do not go to war against one another. Without questioning the validity of such arguments, it is worth noting that they also hold true in two nondemocratic countries — China and Singapore — since they have consciously implemented meritocratic reforms designed to improve the quality of political leadership (starting from the mid-1960s in Singapore and the early 1980s in China). Singapore has achieved a stunning economic miracle and has not gone to war since independence in 1965. In the case of China, not only has it eradicated famine, it also has a much better record on malnutrition than, say, democratic India. And China's last full-scale war was with Vietnam in 1979. Still, I do not mean to question the point that democracies have the best record overall compared to other forms of government in the past. What I do mean to question is the idea that democracies will continue to perform better than political meritocracies on key indicators of good government in the foreseeable future.

Hence, in this chapter I will discuss some standards of good government that should not be too controversial — voters should do their best to select wise leaders, the government should try to structure the economy so that the benefits do not accrue only (or mainly) to a small group of rich people, leaders should not enact policies that wreck the environment for future generations, and the political system should not poison social relations and unduly penalize those who seek harmonious ways of resolving conflict — and ask if there are meritocratic alternatives, both in theory and practice, that produce better (or less bad) consequences than democracies. My aim here is simply to cast doubt on the idea that one person, one vote is the least bad way of choosing leaders to enact good policies, not to provide a comprehensive defense of political meritocracy as an alternative to electoral democracy. In other words, I seek only to establish that the consequentialist case for democracy is not so straightforward. Once we "desacralize" democracy, then we can proceed to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of political meritocracy with a more open mind.

To make my case harder, however, I want to emphasize that my target will be free and fair competitive elections (or the kinds of elections that would be endorsed by the Carter Center). The political economist Paul Collier has written a grim book on democracy in poor, ethnically divided countries (the "bottom billion"). Over the past two decades or so, high-income countries have actively promoted democracy across the low-income world, with the result that democracy increased political violence. But elections in the poorest countries tend to be characterized by bribery, the intimidation of voters, exclusion of strong candidates, and miscounting votes; in other words, the elections are not free and fair. It would be too easy (from a theoretical point of view) to criticize flawed elections, so I will criticize the main flaws of free and fair elections.

And to make my case even harder, I will draw most of my examples from the most powerful and influential democracy in modern times: the United States. Given that my book is mainly written with the Chinese context in mind, it might make more sense to compare China with democratic countries such as India and Indonesia, which are closer to China in terms of GDP per capita and population (in the case of India). It would not be a big challenge to point to widespread malnutrition in India or corruption in Indonesia to show the superiority of the Chinese political system in terms of delivering benefits that the population cares about. But I draw most of my examples from the United States for the following reasons: (1) there is an extensive academic literature on the pros and cons of the American political system, and (2) most Chinese intellectuals and reformers typically compare their system to the American political system on the (implicit) assumption it should set the standard for evaluating China's political future.

To make my case that there are desirable (or less bad) alternatives to democracy, I need to argue for alternatives that conflict with the practice of free and fair competitive elections. It will not suffice to argue for meritocratic institutions within an overall democratic context, such as the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, and the military in the United States or the civil service in the United Kingdom. These institutions can exercise power only in a restricted domain and are ultimately accountable and subordinate to democratically elected politicians; they are meant to supplement, rather than pose alternatives to, electoral democracy. In other words, I need to argue for political proposals and institutions composed of leaders not chosen by means of free and fair elections (one person, one vote) with the power to debate and decide on a wide range of issues affecting the political community in ways that can override the decisions of democratically elected leaders.

In this chapter, I will discuss four key problems with electoral democracy: the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the minority, the tyranny of the voting community, and the tyranny of competitive individualists. Criticisms of democracy have a long history — from Plato onward — but I will focus mainly on key drawbacks of electoral democracies today. Following a discussion of each drawback, I will argue for theoretical alternatives to electoral democracy that do better (or less badly) than actually existing democracies. However, it seems unfair to compare the flaws of actually existing democracies with as-yet-unrealized theoretical alternatives, so I will end each section by discussing examples of actually existing political meritocratic arrangements in China and/or Singapore that may minimize the flaws of electoral democracies.


Excerpted from The China Model by Daniel A. Bell. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition ix

Acknowledgments xxi

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Is Democracy the Least Bad Political System? 14

Chapter 2 On the Selection of Good Leaders in a Political Meritocracy 63

Chapter 3 What's Wrong with Political Meritocracy 110

Chapter 4 Three Models of Democratic Meritocracy 151

Concluding Thoughts: Realizing the China Model 179

Notes 199

Selected Bibliography 283

Index 307

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"For many Western readers, Daniel Bell's book will be hard to digest because it calls into question 'fundamental truths.' For Chinese readers, Bell's book will assure them that at least some Westerners understand them. Over many centuries, right down to the present, the institution that Chinese people have held in highest regard is their examination system, because it is meritocratic and objective. This regard for individual achievement has always been coupled to a moral obligation to serve one's community. The China Model explains how this duality continues to operate at the heart of modern China."—George Yeo, former foreign affairs minister of Singapore

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