Political Meritocracy and the Rise of China

According to the World Bank, China’s economic rise has been, “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” In order to appreciate the scale of China’s stunning development, picture the Middle Kingdom in the early 1970’s: an entire nation dressed in standard dark-blue and grey tunics purchased food with state-rationed stamps, televisions were community-shared commodities, everyone rode bicycles, and over 80% of the population lived in abject poverty in the countryside. Since market reforms were instituted in 1978, however, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has averaged almost 10% annual growth, and approximately 800,000,000 (!) people have been lifted out of poverty. Fast forward to China today, and a visitor will find a country plugged into digital technologies, with high-speed railways connecting cities overcrowded with modern cars and teeming with people recently moved from the countryside. 

What lies behind this remarkable transformation? One of the most fundamental causes of China’s economic development was Deng Xiaoping’s influential behind-the-scenes decision-making after Mao’s death. Deftly maneuvering China’s levers of power, Deng emancipated the country from ideologically determined policies and pragmatically directed the opening and reform of China’s economy. But Deng is only one man, and China is a country of 1.3 billion people. His leadership is only part of the story. 

An additional part of the story is explored by Prof. Daniel A. Bell in his important and fascinating book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (2015). The Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University, in The China Model Bell investigates the role played by political meritocracy in China’s rise. Political meritocracy, writes Bell, is a form of governance in which political leaders with ‘‘superior ability” who are capable of ‘‘making… informed political judgments” are promoted through the ranks. Bell argues that this process is responsible in large part for China’s economic development, “Since the early 1990s, China’s political system has evolved a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political talent that seems to have underpinned China’s stunning economic success.”

Bell’s book is not, however, simply an examination of China’s system of governance. There is a political-philosophical dimension to The China Model, as Bell explores political meritocracy in order to directly challenge the Western convention that “one person, one vote” is the only morally defensible way of choosing leaders. What’s more, Bell’s political-philosophical concerns are not barren of practical consequences: in contemporary Western discourse anyone who questions the effectiveness of “one person, one vote” as a method for choosing leaders is thought to have lost his or her moral bearings. The consequence of this hard-wired mental framework is that many Westerners are constitutionally unable to see the reality, never mind the virtues, of the Chinese political system. 

Political Meritocracy in China 
In The China Model Bell delineates how China’s political governance functions on three levels: local democracy at the bottom, controlled experimentation in the middle, and political meritocracy at the top. 

Local democracy refers to elections for governing councils in villages, towns, counties and urban districts. According to Bell, “Democracy at the local level is perhaps the most widely researched plank of China’s political reform over the past couple of decades, and definitely the plank that has received the most international attention.” It’s fair to attribute this attention to the hope that, as China becomes wealthier, the desire for democracy will take root among the Chinese. But this is democracy with distinctly Chinese characteristics. After candidates for local councils are first vetted by the central government, only officially approved candidates earn the right to stand for election. Unsurprisingly, the vetting process serves to cement the central role played by the Chinese Communist Party in shaping Chinese politics. 

As for controlled experimentation, Bell notes how, “The central government checks which policies work at the subcentral level before spreading them throughout the country.” The transformation of the town of Shenzhen is the most visible example of this policy. In the early 1970’s, Shenzhen was a small town of 30,000 lying across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. It was designated a special economic zone in 1980, and economic policies that are standard in advanced East Asian or Western economies were tried out in the city. If the policies proved successful, they were applied throughout the rest of China. Serving as an economic workshop for the rest of the country, Shenzhen became a dynamic economic hub that today is home to 20,000,000(!). Writes Bell, “Experimentation with different forms of economic, social and politicl reform… is key to explaining China’s adaptability and success over the past three decades.” 

As for political meritocracy “at the top,” the Chinese concern with cultivating competent leadership emerged as a response to the leadership crisis engendered by the Cultural Revolution. During China’s decade of chaos from 1966-76, potential leaders were selected and promoted based upon “revolutionary energy” as opposed to “expertise.” However, once the chaos finally ended, “China’s leaders decided that public officials should have the managerial skills, professional knowledge, and broad understanding of China and the world necessary to lead the country to full modernity and global prominence.” Therefore, a competitive national university entrance examination system was established in the 1970s, while “ultracompetitive public service examinations” were instituted in the 1990s. 

But the decision to promote leaders according to their merits instead of their ideological commitment didn’t simply grow out of China’s needs in the late 1970’s. As Bell explains, political meritocracy has deep roots in Chinese history and culture, “The idea of ‘elevating the worthy’ emerged in the wake of the disintegration of the pedigree-based order of the Spring and Autumn period (770-453 BCE) and proliferated rapidly throughout the Warring States period (453-221 BCE).” In time, Imperial China institutionalized political meritocracy by establishing examinations that were both written and public. These imperial examinations became a central feature of Chinese political culture, and, “For more than thirteen hundred years, public officials were selected largely by means of competitive examinations.” By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), public service exams were offered at the county, provincial and national levels. The imperial exmainations were abolished in 1905 as China stagnated and struggled to modernize, but the competitive national exams established in the 1970s and the public service examinations instituted in the 90s were, in a sense, variations on a venerable Chinese tradition. While the content of the contemporary public service examinations is radically different than the content of the imperial examinations, the practice of such examinations in shaping political leadership is deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

Interestingly, Bell claims that the decision to reinstitute political meritocracy also received a push from the stunning economic success of Singapore, the small city-state in Southeast Asia whose population is approximately 75% ethnic Chinese. From the outset, Singapore’s founder and first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, consciously cultivated meritocracy for Singapore’s political system and championed it throughout his career. In Lee’s own words, “Singapore is a society based on effort and merit … The main burden of present planning and implementation rests on the shoulders of 300 key persons … Singapore is a meritocracy… these men have risen through their own merit, hard work, and high performance.” 

What enabled political meritocracy to successfully take root in Singapore? Lee well understood that “the rule of the talented” deeply resonated with the cultural-political sensibilities of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese. Writes Bell, “The basic idea of political meritocracy is that everybody should have an equal opportunity to be educated and to contribute to politics, but not everybody will emerge from this process with an equal capacity to make morally informed political judgments… If the leaders perform well, the people will basically go along. Such an approach resonates strongly with the Confucian ideals of the Singapore’s Chinese community.” Lee’s son and the present Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsiang Loong, likewise explained, “Many Confucian ideals are still relevant to us. An example is the concept of government by honorable men, who have a duty to do right for the people.” Lest one suspect nepotism in the younger Lee’s appointment, Bell notes, “Lee Hsien Loong… graduated from (Cambridge University) by scoring twelve more alphas than the nearest competitor (which had never been seen in the history of Tripos at Cambridge).” What is most important for present purposes, however, is that beginning in the early 1990’s, “Chinese officials have gone to Singapore for training and to learn from the Singapore experience… From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, China’s leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to study aspects of Singapore’s political model.” And the Chinese learned from Singapore’s experience and political model that the traditional Chinese political-cultural affinity for political meritocracy retains its relevance in the modern world. 

The Future of Political Meritocracy in China
Bell is aware that Chinese political meritocracy is not practiced today in its ideal form. There are a number of issues preventing the full implementation of political meritocracy. As he noted in a 2012 interview, “Some problems in China – corruption, gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, overly powerful state-run enterprises that skew the economic system in their favor, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent, repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang – seem to have worsened during the same period the political system has become meritocratic.”

Two especially acute problems, according to Bell, interfere with the proper implementation of political meritocracy. The first issue is tied up with nepotism, “The practice… often deviates from the ideal. The most glaring gap is the political dominance of ‘princelings.’” While the dominance of present-day leaders with family ties to past leaders is a real problem, Bell also considers the problem to be, in part, a carry-over from the previous era, “The princelings began their rise before the institutionalization of examinations for public officials in the early 1990s.” He accordingly expects the problem of princelings to moderate as the previous generation of leaders passes on.

That said, a more serious problem is that, “Cadres are often promoted on the basis of loyalty to political superiors.” In this case Bell is referring to the famous Chinese practice of guanxi, a term that is difficult to translate but that refers, basically, to relationships of reciprocal obligation that in Chinese society are practically binding. These relationships constitute the pathways through which Chinese can legitimately and effectively move from the private to the public sphere and these practices are not going to disappear anytime soon. 

What is the future of political meritocracy in China? Bell believes that, in practice, today’s Chinese Communist Party is far more meritocratic than it is Marxist, and he accordingly argues that, “The CCP should change its name so that it better corresponds to the institutional reality of the organization, as well as to what it aspires to be.” Riffing on Voltaire’s quip that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, Bell writes that, “The CCP is neither communist nor a party… With eighty-six million members, including card-carrying capitalists, the party is not a political party among others. It is a pluralistic organization 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.” In other words, Bell challenges the Chinese government, “not simply to walk the meritocratic walk; it should also talk the talk.”

It is, of course, doubtful that the Chinese government will be following Bell’s advice in the near future, as changing the name of the CCP would undermine the foundation of the CCP’s claim to rule within China. Bell, of course, knows this, but his rhetorical flourish still points to an important truth: the reality of China’s political governance is very different from the public perception. Since incorrect perceptions bedevil the relationship between China and the rest of the world, especially the Western world, The China Model constitutes an important contribution to moving beyond the myth and showing how political governance actually functions in contemporary China. More fundamentally, because these perceptions are rooted in profound political-cultural passions, The China Model also demonstrates how the problem of mental frameworks remains central to the tensions inherent in today’s ambiguous global order.