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

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At elite schools like Tsinghua University, 28 percent of all undergrads, 43 percent of graduating seniors, and up to 55 percent of grad students were CCP members in 2010, according to government figures. (I’ve been teaching at Tsinghua for nearly eight years, and nearly all my best students are party members.) The CCP is also targeting the “new social stratum” of young professionals in urban areas, including businessmen and managers in private firms, lawyers, and accountants.

The promotion system for cadres is even more explicitly meritocratic. At a recent dialogue session with several foreign and Chinese academics, Li Yuanchao, Minister of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee, provided some fascinating and illuminating details. Minister Li noted that different criteria are used to judge abilities and virtues at different levels of government.

At lower levels, close connection with the people is particularly important (put differently, perhaps, democracy is more important at the lower levels). At the higher levels, more emphasis is placed on rationality since cadres need to take into account multiple factors, and decision-making involves a much broader area of governance, but virtues such as concern for the people and a practical attitude also matter.

Cadres are also expected to set a model of corruption-free rule. To illustrate the rigorous (meritocratic) nature of selection at higher levels of government, Minister Li described the procedure used to select the secretary general of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee.

First, there was a nomination process, including retired cadres. Those who received many nominations could move to the next stage. Next, there was an examination, including such questions as how to be a good secretary general. Over 10 people took the exam, and the list was narrowed to five people. To ensure that the process was fair, the examination papers were put in the corridor for all to judge the results. Then, there was an oral examination with an interview panel composed of ministers, vice-ministers, and university professors.

To ensure transparency and fairness, ordinary cadres who work for the general secretary were in the room, which allowed them to supervise the whole process. Three candidates with the highest score were selected for the next stage.

Then the department of personnel led an inspection team to look into the performance and virtue of the candidates, with more emphasis placed on virtue. Two people were recommended for the next stage.

The final decision was made by a committee of 12 ministers, who each had a vote, and the candidate had to have at least eight votes to succeed. If the required number of votes was not secured the first time, the ministers discussed further until two-thirds could agree on a candidate.

4. Improving Meritocracy

The advantages of “actually existing” meritocracy in the CCP are clear. Cadres are put through a grueling process of talent selection, and only those with an excellent record of past performance are likely to make it to the highest levels of government. The training process includes the cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged by such means as limited periods of work in poor rural areas.

Moreover, this kind of meritocratic selection process is only likely to work in the context of a one-party state. In a multi-party state, there is no assurance that performance at lower levels of government will be rewarded at higher levels, and there is no strong incentive to train cadres so that they have experience at higher levels, because the key personnel can change with a government led by different party.

So even talented leaders, like President Obama, can make many “beginner’s mistakes” once they assume rule because they haven’t been properly trained to assume command at the highest levels of government (see, e.g., "Obama, Explained," The Atlantic Magazine, March 2012). Leaders in China are not likely to make such mistakes because of their experience and training.

Once Chinese leaders reach positions of political power, they can make decisions that consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders, including future generations and people living outside the state. In multi-party democracies with leaders chosen on the basis of competitive elections, by contrast, leaders need to worry about the next election, and they are more likely to make decisions influenced by short-term political considerations that bear on their chances of getting re-elected. The interests of non-voters affected by policies, such as future generations, are not likely to be taken seriously if they conflict with the interests of voters.

Moreover, the fact that the real power holders in Western-style democracies are supposed to be those chosen by the people in elections often means that “bureaucrats” are not considered to be as important; hence, less talent goes to the bureaucracy. This flaw may be particularly clear in the American political system.

A recent conversation with a young recipient of a Rhodes scholarship is revealing. She is interested in international affairs, and I suggested that perhaps she can join the US State Department, but she said that she had been warned that the department has many mediocre people, and it’s hard for people of talent to succeed in that setting. In contrast, the Chinese political system does not clearly distinguish between “bureaucrats” and “power holders,” and thus ambitious people of talent are not discouraged from joining the political system at the lower levels, with the hope of moving upwards.

However, Chinese-style meritocracy may not be universalizable. For one thing, it may only be stable in a political culture that values political meritocracy: As noted above, political surveys show that people in East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage tend to value political meritocracy, but the same may not be true in other cultures.

For example, the American political culture has developed a strong “anti-elitist” ethos, so it is hard to imagine support for meritocratic one-party rule. This is not to deny that there are elitist elements in the American political system (for example, recent US presidents are graduates of Harvard and Yale), but political leaders tend not to be too open about such elitist characteristics.

More important, it is difficult to imagine major constitutional reform of the US political system that would encourage more meritocracy. (It is possible to foresee change for the worse – e.g., more militarism in the event of another major terrorist attack on American soil – but not change for better.)

In contrast, the Chinese constitutional system seems more amenable to substantial political change if circumstances require.

That said, there may be ways to improve Chinese-style political meritocracy. Actually, I’m not sure about this, because my views are still not sufficiently well grounded in a deep understanding of the political system, so let me just ask some questions.

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