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What America's flawed democracy could learn from China's one-party rule

Democracy has its problems. The world – especially the US – could learn from China's 'political meritocracy.' Its one party selects leaders based on ability and judgment. They balance the interests of an entire country – and the world, not just finicky voters or big donors.

A military band conductor rehearses before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing's Great Hall of the People March 3. Op-ed contributor Daniel A. Bell says: 'Instead of judging political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic...[t]he question is also whether the Chinese political system is becoming more meritocratic.'

Ng Han Guan/AP

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Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is, political meritocracy has two key components: 1) The political leaders have above-average ability and virtue; and 2) the selection mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.

Political meritocracy has been largely eclipsed from political theorizing in the modern world, but there are three important reasons for reviving and reinterpreting this political ideal, particularly in a Chinese context.

First, political meritocracy has been, and continues to be, central to Chinese political culture. Second, democracy is a flawed political system and meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Third, the Chinese Communist Party itself has become a more meritocratic organization over the last three decades or so. Let us discuss each of these factors.

1. Political meritocracy and Chinese political culture

Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinese political culture. The idea of “elevating the worthy” emerged in the wake of the disintegration of the pedigree-based aristocratic order of the Spring and Autumn period. This idea was shared by the vast majority of known thinkers in the Warring States period, and political thinkers debated how to define merit and how to develop political practices and institutions based on merit.

For Confucius, political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody should be educated. However, not everybody will emerge from this process with an equal ability to make morally informed political judgments. Hence, an important task of the political system is to select leaders with an above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments, as well as to encourage as many people of talent as possible to participate in politics. Such rulers, in Confucius’s view, would gain the trust of the people.

In Imperial China, political meritocracy was institutionalized by means of the imperial examination system that put successful candidates on the road to fame and power. Whatever the flaws of the system, it did provide a minimal standard of talent selection and allowed for a modest level of social circulation. The examination system spread to Korea and Vietnam and also influenced the development of civil service examinations in Western countries. In the post-World War II era, East Asian societies developed rapidly at least partly due to the sound decision-making of meritocratically selected political rulers.

Today, political surveys show that there is widespread support for the ideal of political meritocracy in East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage. In China, Shi Tianjian and Lu Jie show that the majority of people endorse “guardianship discourse.” This is defined as the need to identify “high quality politicians who care about the people’s demands, take people’s interests into consideration when making decisions, and choose good policies on behalf of their people and society” over liberal democratic discourse that privileges procedural arrangements ensuring people’s rights to participate in politics and choose their leaders (“Cultural Impacts on People’s Understanding of Democracy,” 2010 APSA Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C.).

The idea of political meritocracy is also central to Western political theory and practice. Plato famously defended a meritocratic political ideal in “The Republic”: The best political regime is composed of political leaders selected on the basis of their superior ability to make morally informed political judgments and granted power to rule over the community.

Meritocracy was influential throughout subsequent history, though subsequent thinkers rarely defended a pure form of political meritocracy. US Founding Fathers and 19th century “liberal elitists” such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville put forward political ideas that tried to combine meritocracy and democracy. Yet theorizing about meritocracy has all but faded from modern Western political discourse. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on the theory and practice of democracy, but it is hard to think of a single recent (and decent) English-language book on the idea of political meritocracy.

2. Democracy and meritocracy

The dearth of debates about political meritocracy would not be problematic if it were widely agreed that liberal democracy is the best political system (or the least bad political system, as Winston Churchill famously put it). But there are growing doubts. The “crisis of governability” in Western democracies caused by the unprecedented globalized flow of goods, services, and capital has been well documented by political scientists (see, e.g., Charles Kupchan, “The Democratic Malaise,” Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2012).

Capitalist interests have disproportionate power in the political process, especially in the American political system, which has been described, perhaps not unfairly, as “one dollar, one vote” rather than “one person, one vote.”

Political theorists have raised questions about the voting system itself. Part of the problem is that voters are often selfishly concerned with their narrow material interest, and ignore the interest of future generations and people living outside national boundaries. Jason Brennan has argued that voters should stay away from the voting booth if they cannot make morally informed political judgments (“The Ethics of Voting,” Princeton University Press, 2011).

Certainly there are some issues where the pursuit of narrow economic self-interest at the voting booth could lead to disastrous consequences for non-voters who lack representation (consider global warming). Just as worrisome, perhaps, voters often misunderstand their own interests. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy (“The Myth of the Rational Voter,” Princeton University Press, 2007).

Of course, such proposals are non-starters in liberal democracies. The principle of political equality expressed in the form of one person, one vote has assumed quasi-sacred status today. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill could propose extra votes for educated people, but today, proponents of such proposals are considered (in Western countries) to have lost their moral compass.

Fortunately, political theorists are not so dogmatic in the Chinese context. Jiang Qing, founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang, has argued that democratic forms of legitimacy – which in the West is grounded in notions of popular sovereignty – should be balanced by two other sources of legitimacy that come from Heaven and Earth.

In a modern context, he argues that this political ideal should be institutionalized by means of a tri-cameral legislature, with authority divided between a House of the People, a House of the Ru, and a House of Cultural Continuity that correspond to the three forms of legitimacy. Similarly, Bai Tongdong and Joseph Chan have argued for models for a hybrid political regime that combines elements of democracy and meritocracy with meritocratic houses of government composed of political leaders chosen by such means as examination and performance at lower levels of government. (I have also argued for a hybrid regime, with a meritocratic house of government termed the House of Exemplary Persons.)

These models may be utopian, but they provide us with a new and, arguably, better standard for evaluating political progress in China and elsewhere. Instead of judging political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic, the new standard provides a more comprehensive way of judging political progress (and regress). The question is also whether the Chinese political system is becoming more meritocratic. And here there may be grounds for optimism.

3. Meritocracy and the Chinese Communist Party

In its early days, Communist China under Mao explicitly rejected Confucian-inspired ideas of political meritocracy. Understandably, perhaps, the main task was rewarding revolution energy and securing military strength for the state to put an end to abuse and bullying by foreign powers. But now, the establishment of a relatively secure and strong Chinese state under the leadership of the CCP means that China is less concerned about security than it is about political community.

Hence, the emphasis has shifted to the task of good governance led by able and virtuous political leaders, and the selection and promotion mechanisms of the CCP have become more meritocratic.

In the 1980s, talented students at leading Chinese universities often did not seek to join the CCP. Today, it’s a different story. College campuses have become the main location for recruitment efforts today (Gang Guo, “Party Recruitment of College Students in China,” Journal of Contemporary China, May 2005).


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