The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell, Princeton University Press, 2015.
CORN July 2015 Edition.
A native Montrealer Daniel Bell has been teaching political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing for over a decade. His latest work builds upon previous books A Confucian Constitutional Order (2012) and China’s New Confucianism (2010) where he argues that the Communist Party has gradually transformed itself from a revolutionary party to a meritocratic organization drawing upon a 2000-year-old Confucian tradition. The result, Bell argues, is a new and dynamic form of government, which features meritocracy at the top and democracy at the bottom, with room for experimentation in between. The goal of his books is partly to recommend ways to improve Chinese meritocracy but also to suggest that Western democracies might have something to learn from China’s approach. Bell says that his work is not intended to be controversial, but not ten pages in, he attacks Churchill’s famous maxim that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.
Bell suggests that political meritocracy, without elections based on universal suffrage, may in fact be a better system of government. He laments the fact that citizens in electoral democracies rarely question the wisdom of selecting leaders by one-person one-vote elections. Not only does electoral democracy go unquestioned in the West but some consider it a universal good to be exported and implemented elsewhere—either immediately or within a short transition period. If anyone’s thinking is closed-minded and dogmatic, Bell argues, it is those of “democratic-exporting” Westerners convinced of the virtues of electoral democracy.
Bell’s Four Flaws of Electoral Democracies
Bell clearly thinks that a critique of liberal democracy will be a hard sell in the English-speaking world, so he starts by exploring four key flaws of electoral democracies: the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the minority, the tyranny of the voting community and the tyranny of competitive individualism.
“Tyranny of the majority” occurs when rulers are chosen by people unable or unwilling to understand the issues and make decisions in the public interest. The result is complete irrationality with most people voting for politicians promising lower taxes and more services. Theoretically, a majority of 51% could also vote to permanently deprive the other 49% of healthcare or other benefits—decisions that would be perfectly legitimate in such a system of electoral democracy. How can such a theory be the best of all possible systems?
Bell’s alternative to electoral democracy is Singaporean-style political meritocracy. “The basic idea is that everybody should have an equal opportunity to be educated and to contribute to politics, but not everybody will emerge from this process with an equal capacity to make morally informed political judgments. Hence the task of politics is to identify those with above-average ability and to make them serve the political community” (p. 32). This involves training and examination, language skills, overseas education, and long experience before individuals are able to take part in the political process. Certain restrictions on freedom of expression and other freedoms have been part and parcel of this approach in Singapore. And Chinese leaders have no doubt been influenced by Singapore’s experience.
Bell’s “tyranny of the minority” refers to the influence of money on elections. The US system is probably more correctly described as one-dollar one-vote but most other electoral democracies suffer from different degree of the same problem. The excessive influence of money on politics is compounded by the the increasing income inequality in the developed democracies which leaves fewer and fewer people with more and more influence. Bell acknowledges that income disparity is also a big problem in China, but he argues that a non-electoral meritocracy is better equipped to find solutions to this problem.
Bell’s third key flaw of electoral democracy is what he calls the “tyranny of the voting community”, which means that the elected legislators answer only to the voters—a diminishing number in most states. What about the interests of future generations? He points out that in Singapore, the President has a veto over any legislation passed by the elected House and is expected to use it in the long-term interest of the state. Bell then asks rhetorically: who is more likely to keep long-term pledges such as the promise to phase out fossil fuel by the end of the century—a one-party meritocracy that will still be in office in the year 2100 or an electoral democracy whose government might have changed 20 times between now and then?
Bell’s final flaw is the “tyranny of competitive individualists”, which refers to the harm done to the body politic by nasty election campaigns and negative advertising. One way to mitigate that would be through consensus-based politics and non-party elections instead of the hyper-partisan contests that have become the norm. Such elections are better suited to village and small-town elections where people know each other and China has been using them at this level for some time.
Reconciling Democracy and Meritocracy
Having made the case to question the view that democracy is the least bad system, Bell proceeds in the next two chapters to consider first the selection process for good leaders in a political meritocracy and then some of the problems inherent with political meritocracy. He is not a flag-waving apologist for the status quo in China and he points out a number of ways the Chinese system could be improved short of adopting Western-style democracy. Both chapters are a prelude to the central issue of the book: is political legitimacy possible without electoral democracy based upon universal suffrage?
Chapter 4 considers how to combine democracy and meritocracy. It suggests three possible ways and, at the outset, Bell admits he has changed his mind about which is best. The first approach is through the voting process itself. This is basically John Stuart Mill’s idea of giving extra votes to people with advanced university degrees, limiting the voting age to people over 40 or 45, or introducing elements of random selection. He concludes these would be non-starters from a practical point of view in China as well as in the rest of the world.
The second approach, the so-called “Horizontal Model” consists of melding democracy and meritocracy in central political institutions. Bell has supported this approach since the mid-1990s. He explains the idea of Sun Yat-sen whereby the three traditional branches of government would be augmented by two additional branches – an independent supervisory branch similar to the Censorate (a kind of institutionalized leader of the opposition) in imperial China but freed from its dependence on the monarchy and an Examination Branch responsible for the recruitment and training of public officials, both politicians and bureaucrats.
Bell also discusses the more recent proposals by Jiang Qing, the most original and influential Confucian political theorist in mainland China. Jiang proposes—a position Bell supported until recently—a tricameral legislature for China that corresponds to the three forms of legitimacy in the Confucian philosophy, a House of the People (to represent popular legitimacy) a House of Exemplary Persons (to represent the wisdom of the Elders) and a House of the Nation (to represent cultural legitimacy and territorial units). Bell now views this and similar proposals by Joseph Chan, Bai Tongdong and himself, as insufficient to override or even curb the power of elected House. “Just like the House of Lords, any sort of meritocratic chamber is almost certain to be progressively weakened, once some political leaders are chosen on the basis of one person, one vote.” (p.167)
Instead, Bell opts for a third approach to reconciling democracy and meritocracy. He calls this the “Vertical Model” with democracy at the bottom and meritocracy at the top. This is the present direction of the Chinese state. Direct village elections were introduced in 1988 and direct village committee elections were made mandatory in 1998. By 2008, more than nine-hundred million Chinese farmers had exercised the right the vote in these elections.
But in a populous, modernizing, complex country like China, it seems logical that different criteria for selection and promotion be applied to different levels. Whereas democracy may be desirable at the local level as one moves to the central institutions, it is imperative that the leaders have a sophisticated understanding of economics, science, international relations, history and political philosophy. They need a long-term outlook that takes into account the interests of all those affected by government policies—not just those with the loudest or most emotional or best financed voices. The work of the Organization Committee of the Communist Party to ensure that the best talent rises to the top is outlined in some detail and it has been highly successful in selecting experienced and competent leaders.
But even if the examination and promotion system worked perfectly—and Bell admits they do not—can an unelected system enjoy political legitimacy? Some maintain that legitimacy can come from providing good government and lifting people out of poverty – the so-called “make the trains run on-time” argument, which has been used to justify authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the past.
Bell argues that there also needs to be more freedom of political speech, more democracy at higher levels of government, more independent social organizations and stronger rule of law. But “is it possible to secure the people’s support for a more open society and increased political participation without going the way of Western-style democracy?” (p.174).
The answer, he suggests, would be what he calls “a referendum against electoral democracy”. He proposes that the Communist Party takes the leap of faith and call a referendum asking the people to vote in favour of a more open form of political meritocracy but one without one-person-one-vote to choose top leaders. A victory here would provide the missing element of democratic legitimacy and would silence the critics who claim the Chinese system is fundamentally illegitimate. Bells believes that “[t]he dominant narrative in global media coverage would change from ‘what’s wrong with China’s political system’ to ‘what can we learn from China’s political system’.” (p. 176).
Exporting Chinese-Style Meritocracy
Since many countries have not consolidated electoral democracy, China could assist those seeking to build up similar meritocratic systems. Instead of a US-style National Endowment for Democracy, China could create a National Endowment for Meritocracy to fund experiments in political meritocracy designed to improve governance in other states.
The referendum idea is inspired by the Chilean experience where Augusto Pinochet proposed a referendum to consolidate his power—but lost. In the case of China, Bell thinks the results would support the current path. Public opinion polls—both Chinese and Western such as ones by the Ash Centre at Harvard University—tend to confirm that a high percentage of Chinese view their form of government as quite legitimate. Bell even suggests the wording for the question: “Do you endorse vertical democratic meritocracy as an ideal that will guide political reform over the next 50 years?”
The most enlightening part of the book is the discussion of flexibility and political reform going on at the local level. Some reforms such as the creation of autonomous economic zones are well known. But others are less known, such as the asset disclosure provisions for government officials in Guangzhou or the city of Foshan, which gives the public a direct role in evaluating the performance of officials via online questionnaires. While Western political institutions seem incapable of self-correction, for Bell, China is a labyrinth of reform and experimentation.
On the central issue of combining meritocracy and legitimacy, it is sad to see Bell move away from the more philosophical and institutional approach of his earlier works. They were more in the tradition of Aristotle, Montesquieu, the US Founding Fathers and others who have attempted to think through the relationship between political philosophy and political institutions.
Bell’s referendum appears more in the tradition of high-priced political consultants, who come up with gimmicks to solve particular problems. One can only imagine the ferocity of the American propaganda campaign that would be waged to show that any Chinese referendum would not be a free vote. Whatever legitimacy was gained within the country would hardly be replicated outside.
A more serious critique of Bell and most other Confucian critiques of western electoral democracy is that they assume electoral democracy means the American model. In fact there are various forms of electoral democracy including the Westminster model, which in theory at least would seem to have a great deal in common with the Confucian tradition. Confucians would no doubt appreciate collective cabinet government, an appointed Upper House, the importance of ritual and symbolism, unwritten rules based on an honour system and the concept of fair play. Unfortunately, the practice of Westminster governments has strayed so far from its philosophical origins and succumbed to so many American influences, that we cannot be too critical of Bell for largely excluding Westminster from the conversation.
Ultimately, despite Bell’s wonderful insights, when it comes to China’s political reform, most Westerners would probably agree with another Churchillianism—albeit one intended for Russia—that China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. We hope Bell continues his effort to unwrap and explain China for the rest of us. For the moment the main takeaway from The China Model is that outsiders would be well-advised to encourage experimentation in China rather than hoping for failure or even worse: promoting a pro-Western democracy agenda designed to increase the likelihood of failure.
Gary Levy is currently a Fellow with the Bell Chair for the Study of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has taught political science at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Ottawa. For many years he was Editor of the Canadian Parliamentary Review and a researcher with the Parliamentary Library in Ottawa. He has been Co-President of the Canada-China Friendship Society – Ottawa Branch since 2013.