This week there has been a fair amount of hoopla about the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, a document signed in a field in Runnymede that became the bedrock of the English-speaking world’s rule of law. If anything, the Americans take the ‘Great Charter’ even more seriously than the Brits, seeing in it the progenitor of their own Declaration of Independence.
Indeed, the sheer amount of news coverage given to the Magna Carta this week is a reminder of how seriously the Anglo-Saxon world takes what it stands for. Few actually know exactly what was in the original document, or even care that it was signed by a bloodthirsty bunch of medieval barons. Today when the words Magna Carta are uttered, they are associated with the flowering of democracy, first on a small damp island, and then on a vast continent.
And in one of those strange paradoxes – for WiC doesn’t imagine it was a deliberate publishing strategy – this month, coinciding with the Magna Carta celebrations, a book has been published that asks which is the more effective: Western democracy or China’s one-party system.
The China Model is by Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell and its central premise will likely be viewed as heresy by some readers. In fact WiC imagines that many Western reviewers are going to have a lot of trouble with this book. How could anyone prefer Beijing’s authoritarian system to the universal franchise?
In fact, Bell argues that China’s one-party state has produced a successful system that he terms ‘political meritocracy’. His proof? The hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted out of poverty over the past three or so decades. Bell argues that only a political system capable of grooming smart, technically expert leaders could have achieved that.
However, Bell is also at pains to stress that past success does not guarantee that the exact same formula will work over the next three decades. Conditions have changed, he points out. That said, he sees no prospect of nationwide multi-party elections occurring in China, run along either the Washington or Westminster models. He argues instead that the best outcome would be a hybrid formula that blends choosing the most capable leaders for top roles with grassroots democracy (more on which later; it’s problematic).
So why did he write the book? “Over the past few years I came to realise that China’s political system has meritocratic characteristics, if only because my own high-achieving students at Tsinghua University were increasingly recruited by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). I realised I had stumbled onto something of political importance and wrote some op-eds in leading media outlets in China and the West. However, I was ruthlessly savaged by critics, and accused of being an apologist for the CCP.”
He has spent five years on the book and readily admits, “I would have been shocked by some of my own arguments had I read them two decades ago.” But he feels The China Model (subtitled ‘Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy’) is explaining a concept few grasp in the West: “There is a much better understanding of Western-style democracy in China than Chinese-style meritocracy in the West, and my book is meant to provide some symmetry.”
His book begins by taking issue with the common view – at least in the West – that democracy is the best (or in Churchill’s famed phrasing “least worst’) form of government. To do so he focuses primarily on what he views as the failings of the US system. He starts his critique with the voters themselves: “Given that most voters lack the time, motivation and cognitive skills to acquire political knowledge, it should come as no surprise that most voters often seem ignorant on key issues. For example, 79% of Americans cannot identify their state senators… In 1987 – before the Soviet Union collapsed – about half of Americans thought Karl Marx’s dictum ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ was in the US constitution.”
(As an aside, the protagonist of HBO’s satirical comedy Veep moaned in this week’s episode that the American voters “were ignorant and dumb as shit, and that’s democracy”.)
In the realm of policymaking, such ignorance can prove disastrous in dealing with future problems, Bell believes: “Poor knowledge of science in the voting community also has negative political consequences. Most obviously, the disjunction between expert opinion and voter ignorance makes it harder for US policymakers to counteract climate change, which perhaps ought to be the biggest political issue of our day.”
Bell adds short-termism and self-interest to US democracy’s list of short-comings, as well as money: “The influence of money on politics is the scourge of most existing democracies, and the US is perhaps the most extreme case… From tax laws to deregulation to corporate governance to safety net issues, business interests pressured government to enact policies to allow those who were already wealthy to amass an ever-increasing share of the nation’s wealth.”
Then there is the matter of the elected officials themselves. He cites Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China who in his own day was critical of US democracy because of the low quality of its politicians: “With respect to elections, those endowed with eloquence ingratiated themselves with the public and won elections, while those endowed with learning and ideals but lacking eloquence were ignored. Consequently, members of America’s House of Representatives have often been foolish and ignorant people who made its history quite ridiculous.”
This brings him to the Chinese system – one where to become a senior leader is to prove your worth over decades, rising from amid a competitive talent pool of over 80 million Party members. He calls it a political meritocracy (likening it to what Singapore achieved under Lee Kuan Yew). Its advantage? “Once Chinese leaders reach positions of political power, they can react more quickly to crises and undertake great infrastructure projects that underpin economic development. Meritocratically selected leaders can make long-term oriented decisions that consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders, including future generations. In multiparty 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 being re-elected.”
Bell points out that public service exams in China are designed to filter out those without superior analytical skills, commenting “it is highly unlikely that someone like Sarah Palin could pass such examinations”.
The author believes a meritocracy can deliver superior results: “A meritocratic system can be explicitly designed to increase the likelihood that political leaders have the motivation and ability to enact sound policies and in that sense China has a clear advantage over electoral democracies that leave the whole thing up to the whims of the people unconstrained by the lessons of philosophy, history, and social science.”
Actually, one of the most revealing passages in the book is a conversation Bell had back in 2012 with Li Yuanchao, then minister of the Party’s Organisation Department. “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 Organisation Department of the Party’s China 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 questions such as how to be a good Secretary General. More than 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 scores 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 twelve ministers who each had a vote, and the candidate had to have at least eight votes to succeed.”
Over the past 30 or so years this style of personnel system has generated impressive results: “The key priority of government – to reduce poverty – has been widely shared among both leaders and people. And since economic growth is an essential condition for the reduction of poverty, government officials were often promoted according to the level of economic growth in their district. At least partly as a result of this promotion mechanism, China has seen perhaps the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in human history.”
Bell’s attacks on democracy may put off some readers, and there are passages in the book that will rile his liberal critics (“I will not pursue the question of whether China should adopt one person, one vote and competitive multiparty politics”; “There is little doubt that the large majority of Chinese consider the current political system to be the appropriate system for their country”; China is “more harmonious than large democratic countries such as India and the US”).
However, his book also makes plain that the Chinese system must adapt too. What worked in the prior 35 years, he makes clear, may no longer be fit for purpose.
For example, in the past it was straightforward to tie bureaucratic promotions with local GDP growth. Now, with China’s severe environmental concerns, the incentives are tougher to devise. “The more serious problem is that the appropriate standard for measuring performance needs to change… Most obviously China’s growth has come at the expense of the environment and people’s well-being, with pollution now surpassing land disputes as the leading cause of social unrest in China.”
Bell admits it is very difficult to create measuring tools that link cadre achievements with such economic externalities (after all, when you don’t do something environmentally destructive, it often doesn’t show up in any figures).
He also concedes that China’s political meritocracy remains far from the ideal: “The system is still in its early stages and plagued by imperfections: officials are selected and promoted not just on the basis of ability and morality, but also (if not more so) on the basis of political loyalty, social connections and family background. The political system is notoriously corrupt and the practice of buying and selling posts at lower levels of government in poor areas has yet to be completely eradicated.”
In fact, a major chunk of Bell’s book is taken up with the problem of corruption. He clearly feels that the country is at a crossroads and the Party’s own legitimacy is being undermined by graft (ironically, the opportunities to behave corruptly have grown for China’s poorly-paid officials as a byproduct of the wealth generated by their successful stewardship of the country’s economy).
“The overall level of corruption has exploded over the past three decades,” he observes. “In a political meritocracy such as China, the system is supposed to select leaders with superior virtue, meaning that rulers are supposed to use power to serve the political community, not themselves. In other words, the higher the level of political corruption, the less meritocratic the political system. Put negatively, the regime will lack legitimacy if its leaders are seen to be corrupt.”
In this respect, Bell notes: “Electoral democracy may not guarantee superior rulers, but at least voters can get rid of their rulers if it turns out they made a bad choice.”
Bell is less convincing on whether the corruption in the ‘China Model’ is fixable. Anticorruption campaigns may not succeed. “The connection between low salaries and high levels of corruption is familiar to students of Chinese history: in the Ming Dynasty, when officials’ salaries were the lowest and anticorruption campaigns the fiercest, the level of corruption stubbornly remained the highest.”
He suggests that public salaries be raised and the monopolies of the state-owned enterprises broken in favour of greater competition. But these financial fixes are not likely to be enough: “Money per se is not sufficient to deter corruption. This brings us to the fourth cause of corruption in China: lack of ethics… At the end of the day, corruption in China can be substantially curtailed only if it is seen to be deeply shameful and being clean is seen to be a matter of honour for private officials.”
Of course, for the shame culture to work there needs to be transparency. Here he has another model in mind: “Nondemocratic Hong Kong relies on a powerful and independent anticorruption agency, the rule of law, and a relatively free press.”
In fact, he thinks the Chinese model may need to look to the West after all. “Sustainable political meritocracy requires features typical of democratic societies: the rule of law to check corruption and abuses of power, and freedom of speech and political experimentation to prevent the ossification of political hierarchies.”
However, one thing that is glaringly absent from the book is any discussion of how likely it is that rule of law will prevail in China. Since coming to power in 1949, Party diktat has always trumped legal code. It remains hard to see how a one-party state would surrender its supremacy and instead subordinate its decisions to those made by independent courts and judges.
In fact, in his most recent book Political Order and Decay Francis Fukuyama has argued that China is the only world civilisation that never developed “true rule of law” (see WiC258).
In his final chapter Bell looks at a series of alternative ways of governing China and concludes that the nation is going to need a model that incorporates political meritocracy at the central government level, and more democracy at the local level. But he doesn’t specify how the judicial branch will interact with either, and in WiC’s view that’s really the ‘Magna Carta question’ facing China.
Towards the end of this political study Bell states “I want to emphasise this book is not a defence of the status quo” and indeed, he points to a lot of the problems within the existing system.
However, his most concrete suggestion may in fact be the rebranding exercise he proposes in his final paragraph. He says the Chinese Communist Party “needs” to change its name because “the CCP is neither Communist nor a party… it is a pluralistic organisation composed of meritocratically selected members of different groups and classes, and it aims to represent the whole country. A more accurate name might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union (Zhongguo xianneng lianmeng). A more politically correct name – given the importance of the term democracy (minzhu) in official Chinese political discourse and among independent Chinese intellectuals, as well as the fact that the political system as a whole incorporates democratic characteristics – might be the Union of Democratic Meritocrats (Minzhu xianneng lianmeng).”
It remains to be seen whether Xi Jinping sees merit in such an idea…
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