Debating the China Model

Debating the China Model

In June, Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell published “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy,” which expounded on his views of “political meritocracy” in China. From the book’s synopsis on Amazon:

Over the past three decades, China has evolved a political system that can best be described as “political meritocracy.” The China Model seeks to understand the ideals and the reality of this unique political system. How do the ideals of political meritocracy set the standard for evaluating political progress (and regress) in China? How can China avoid the disadvantages of political meritocracy? And how can political meritocracy best be combined with democracy? Daniel Bell answers these questions and more. [Source]

Bell recently discussed and defended his views in a debate hosted by Asia Society in New York. Eric Fish summed up the discussion for The Atlantic:

“I disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting leaders: one person, one vote,” Bell said at a recent debate hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York.

Bell is under no illusion that China has already perfected its political recipe, admitting that the ideal “China model” is still very theoretical. This involves a “vertical democratic meritocracy,” as he puts it, with open democratic elections at the local level, meritocratic assessment (like China’s civil-service exam) to choose top national leaders, and experimentation in the middle. In this system, local leaders—who handle relatively basic issues—are still accountable to voters. But national leaders, who must handle more complex issues and make tough decisions that may not be popular (like enacting serious climate-change measures), can be chosen based on experience and knowledge without American-style political gridlock or susceptibility to populist approval.

“This is the political ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years,” Bell said. “But there’s still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. This ideal is reasonably good though, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the future.”

Bell dismissed views that he’s an apologist for the CCP, saying that the ideal he writes about requires far more transparency, freedoms, and genuine local democracy than exist in China currently: “There’s a problem in China: There are constraints on free speech, people have visa problems, and that’s terrible. In this sense I’m a card-carrying liberal. I look forward to the day when China has much more political speech than it has.” [Source]

Columbia University political science professor and debate participant Andrew J. Nathan responded to the arguments put forth in Bell’s book in a lengthy article in The National Interest, subtitled, “The Bogus China Model”:

Bell’s latest book is something of a summa of the themes he has developed over the years. The title of the book plays on the ambiguity of the word “model”: is a model something real, or something possible? But in fact the model he describes is neither real nor possible. The book has little to do with either a real or a possible China. It is instead a continuation of his long-term polemic against liberal democracy dressed up as a book about China.

BELL’S CHINA model has three features: “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top.” At the bottom, a regime can generate legitimacy by allowing citizens to vote for local leaders. (By this he means the village level, which is so close to the ground in China that it is not formally considered a level of government. Elections somewhat above the village level are desirable but, he believes, not possible for the time being, and they are not desirable at the national level.) In the middle, the system can encourage the creation of smart policies by allowing different jurisdictions some flexibility to find policies that work. And at the top, the system can promote public-minded decision makers who are the most qualified in the terms of what he calls “ability and virtue.” Most important to the China model, in his view, is this last feature, meritocracy: “My book,” he says, “is a defense of political meritocracy.”

Bell gives a good description of formal recruitment procedures in the Chinese civil service (tough written examinations and oral interviews) and at the political level (secretive inner-party processes that evaluate cadres on numerous criteria throughout their careers). But his conflation of the Chinese political system with meritocracy is misleading in several ways. [Source]

Bell, Nathan, and others continued the discussion online in a ChinaFile conversation. Timothy Garton Ash agrees with Nathan’s assessment and argues against the idea that the Chinese government operates as a “political meritocracy”:

I’m afraid that the system I see on repeated visits to China and compare with other communist and post-communist systems, is simply not the one that Daniel describes. He just said political meritocracy is not working as well as it should, and the answer is that it’s not working as well as it should because it isn’t political meritocracy. It actually isn’t.

Let me give you one example from the book. He describes a meeting with the minister responsible for the organization department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, who describes the selection process for the secretary general of that important department. Nominations from all sides. Examinations. Examinations put out in the corridor for public scrutiny. All examinations. An inspection team. Finally a vote. A wonderful meritocratic process. Now, neither Daniel nor I were actually behind those closed doors, but we know a lot about how the Chinese Communist Party works—and it doesn’t work like that. There is massive factionalism, factional struggle, clientelism, patronage, and corruption. We know that from numerous studies of the Chinese Communist Party, and indeed from books the Party itself has published. So that, we know that the selection of that very important person, whatever it was, was not the glorious theory described by the ministry of the organization committee. And incidentally, I think one thing we have to discuss with Daniel is whether he’s actually looking at the practice, in which case we have to test what he says against the practice, or the theory, in which case let’s look at the theory, which, by the way, much of it is Leninist. I would also say, Daniel mentioned the lack of free speech, the…worsening lack of free speech. How you can have a genuine meritocracy, when you cannot publically canvas all the credible policy alternatives, it’s very hard to see. In short, I think political meritocracy is not working because it’s not political meritocracy. And I think this means it’s actually going to be very difficult for this system to manage the extremely complex challenges it’s facing as economic growth slows down, the supply of cheap labor is exhausted, and you have an increasingly mature educated society with higher aspirations. So I wish it were true. But I’m afraid it’s not. [Source]

Read more by and about Daniel Bell and different interpretations of the “China Model” via CDT.


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