Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

Making China Into a Meritocracy That Works

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Trying to remake China into something like a Western democracy is a fool's errand, Tsinghua University political theorist Daniel A. Bell argued in his 2015 book, "The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy." That's partly because the current Chinese regime simply wouldn't countenance such a change, but also because he thinks a meritocratic model of government (think Singapore) has some potential advantages over one-person, one-vote democracy. In a column Wednesday, I focused on some of Bell's criticisms of elective democracy in light of recent voter behavior in the U.S. and U.K. What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with him last week in Beijing, with the emphasis on his views on China.

Fox: Your arguments have been having a good year.

Bell: Some people say, "Oh, you must be happy that Donald Trump is winning, or that Brexit voters showed that, well, here we have the world's most mature and modern democracy voting against economic rationality." I'm not cheering that at all. I'm horrified, because I think the alternative is something like very authoritarian populism.

There's this perception that I’m cheering for China and against the West, but that's not true. My basic argument is that any political reform in China needs to be built on the meritocratic foundations. Of course it's a highly imperfect regime, but why throw it away? Just as any improvements in societies that have one-person, one-vote, need to be built on that foundation. 

Fox: "Meritocracy" as a term -- and you go into this -- arose from a depiction of how it might work that wasn't exactly complimentary.  How do you think about the balance between the good side of meritocracy and the inevitable negative tendencies that seem to be built into it?

Bell: In China there is this huge organization that has a process to select and promote public officials based on superior intellectual skill, social skill and virtue. It's a highly imperfect system, but it has a long history in China. In the past two decades or so it's been brought back, and I think the country was primed for it because of its terrible experience with radical populism and arbitrary dictatorship in the Cultural Revolution. The advantages are pretty clear: you have long periods of training for public officials, you don't have to be so short-term minded. But the disadvantages are also clear: it can be easier for officials to be corrupt, to exercise arbitrary power, for the system to be ossified. But the disadvantages have to be addressed on the basis of a meritocratic foundation.

In China people generally accept -- intellectuals, government people -- that of course there are different countries with diverse political cultures. But somehow in the U.S. and Canada, where I'm from, there is still a view that the only morally legitimate form of selecting leaders is one person, one vote, and it's just a matter of time till China comes around.

Fox: There's this standard Western view that there were the Dark Ages, and then Enlightenment came and things got better. Whereas when you look at things from a Chinese historical perspective, there were long periods of stability and prosperity that would get interrupted by bad, chaotic times. Now, after 100 years of a very bad, chaotic time, we seem to have a new, stable regime.

Bell: So many Chinese intellectuals and government officials look for legitimacy to China's pre-20th-century past. If there's one unifying thing in terms of being Chinese, it's this pride of being part of a long history and civilization.

Fox: Did that ever stop under Communist Party Chairman Mao?

Bell: You can argue that the main tradition of the 20th century was this tradition of anti-traditionalism. It wasn't just Marxists, it was liberals, it was anarchists. And it took a very extreme form in the Cultural Revolution. That said, Mao himself was very steeped in this history. He in some sense carried on the tradition, although the rest of the population was discouraged from doing so.

Another way of looking at it, if you're looking for sweeping historical statements, is that there are two main political traditions in China. One is the Confucian tradition, which encourages political meritocracy and relying on what today we call soft power to exercise rule -- moral example and persuasion and ritual and so on. Whereas the legalist tradition -- in a way it's a misleading translation -- is this idea that in times of chaos the only way to have social order is through ruthless use of of harsh punishments, uniformly applied regardless of context and emotion.

The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, basically unified China according to legalist principles, but it was a very short-lasting regime. Mao himself appealed to the legalist tradition -- he explicitly compared himself to the first emperor, who said we need to use these very harsh means to have social order. But that's not a way of governing a country in the long term.

Fox: The "China model" you talk about in the book is some amount of democracy at the bottom, some experimenting in the middle, and then this meritocracy at the top. Are there instances where they're falling back?

Bell: I think on local-level democracy there's not as much of a commitment as there was before. It's a very important source of corruption, and the existential threat to the government now, really, is corruption. In a democracy, if the government is corrupt you just vote them out of power. But in a meritocracy if the government is corrupt it's not meritocratic, and it's a stake in the heart of the system. So there's much more focus on eradicating corruption, which means sometimes appointing people from the top to control and monitor what goes on at the local level.

Experimentation is still going on as much it was before, but sometimes it's too politicized in terms of determining what counts as a successful experiment or not.

As for meritocracy, it means having superior intellectual ability, social skills and virtue -- and now most of the emphasis is on the virtue part because of this corruption. In that sense I'm less cynical than many Western observers who think that, "Oh, it's all politicized."  I do think they're seriously committed to it because they view it correctly as an existential threat to the regime. Why did the Communists win against the KMT? A very important reason was that they were viewed as less corrupt. Why did the Ming Dynasty fall, the Qing Dynasty? Corruption was a very important reason.

They're having some success. A few years ago in Beijing you would see these cars with military license plates driving like crazy, just totally ignoring the rules. That really angered people. You don't see that anymore, you don't see extravagant banquets. Of course some of that's just appearances, but almost anybody who deals with Chinese officials over the past years knows that there's been a significant change of attitude.

Fox: At the same time, it's being portrayed in the West -- I'm thinking of Andrew Nathan's piece in the New York Review of Books from a few weeks ago -- as a power consolidation by President Xi Jinping and a repression of civil society. 

Bell: Of course Xi Jinping is more powerful relatively speaking than Hu Jintao was, but it's still collective leadership. If he abolishes collective leadership after two terms and continues repression then we would know that it's pretty much the end of collective leadership. But until that happens I think it's much too early to say that we're onto something new.

Fox: One of the big problems with meritocracy is what you call ossification. What is the best way to deal with that?

Bell: I think more freedom of speech is essential. And that's not just a liberal view, it's also Confucian. The recipe for disaster is when the rulers don't listen to criticism, because that's the only way in which mistakes can be exposed and corrected. It's also necessary to identify different sources of merit outside of the mainstream.

You can argue -- and that's what they say actually, at least in private -- that these times of reform are the most dangerous. That's one reason why Tocqueville's book, "The Old Regime and the [French] Revolution," was assigned among the top leadership, because one of the takeaways from that is that it's in times of radical reform that a regime is most vulnerable. So in order to go through this dangerous and sensitive period you need to have a unified front. But if this continues the way that it's going in the next years, then I think it's really dangerous to not just democracy, but to meritocracy as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net