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

Democracy has its problems. The world – especially the US – could learn from China's 'political meritocracy.' Its one party selects leaders based on ability and judgment. They balance the interests of an entire country – and the world, not just finicky voters or big donors.

Ng Han Guan/AP
A military band conductor rehearses before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing's Great Hall of the People March 3. Op-ed contributor Daniel A. Bell says: 'Instead of judging political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic...[t]he question is also whether the Chinese political system is becoming more meritocratic.'

Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is, political meritocracy has two key components: 1) The political leaders have above-average ability and virtue; and 2) the selection mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.

Political meritocracy has been largely eclipsed from political theorizing in the modern world, but there are three important reasons for reviving and reinterpreting this political ideal, particularly in a Chinese context.

First, political meritocracy has been, and continues to be, central to Chinese political culture. Second, democracy is a flawed political system and meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Third, the Chinese Communist Party itself has become a more meritocratic organization over the last three decades or so. Let us discuss each of these factors.

1. Political meritocracy and Chinese political culture

Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinese political culture. The idea of “elevating the worthy” emerged in the wake of the disintegration of the pedigree-based aristocratic order of the Spring and Autumn period. This idea was shared by the vast majority of known thinkers in the Warring States period, and political thinkers debated how to define merit and how to develop political practices and institutions based on merit.

For Confucius, political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody should be educated. However, not everybody will emerge from this process with an equal ability to make morally informed political judgments. Hence, an important task of the political system is to select leaders with an above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments, as well as to encourage as many people of talent as possible to participate in politics. Such rulers, in Confucius’s view, would gain the trust of the people.

In Imperial China, political meritocracy was institutionalized by means of the imperial examination system that put successful candidates on the road to fame and power. Whatever the flaws of the system, it did provide a minimal standard of talent selection and allowed for a modest level of social circulation. The examination system spread to Korea and Vietnam and also influenced the development of civil service examinations in Western countries. In the post-World War II era, East Asian societies developed rapidly at least partly due to the sound decision-making of meritocratically selected political rulers.

Today, political surveys show that there is widespread support for the ideal of political meritocracy in East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage. In China, Shi Tianjian and Lu Jie show that the majority of people endorse “guardianship discourse.” This is defined as the need to identify “high quality politicians who care about the people’s demands, take people’s interests into consideration when making decisions, and choose good policies on behalf of their people and society” over liberal democratic discourse that privileges procedural arrangements ensuring people’s rights to participate in politics and choose their leaders (“Cultural Impacts on People’s Understanding of Democracy,” 2010 APSA Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C.).

The idea of political meritocracy is also central to Western political theory and practice. Plato famously defended a meritocratic political ideal in “The Republic”: The best political regime is composed of political leaders selected on the basis of their superior ability to make morally informed political judgments and granted power to rule over the community.

Meritocracy was influential throughout subsequent history, though subsequent thinkers rarely defended a pure form of political meritocracy. US Founding Fathers and 19th century “liberal elitists” such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville put forward political ideas that tried to combine meritocracy and democracy. Yet theorizing about meritocracy has all but faded from modern Western political discourse. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on the theory and practice of democracy, but it is hard to think of a single recent (and decent) English-language book on the idea of political meritocracy.

2. Democracy and meritocracy

The dearth of debates about political meritocracy would not be problematic if it were widely agreed that liberal democracy is the best political system (or the least bad political system, as Winston Churchill famously put it). But there are growing doubts. The “crisis of governability” in Western democracies caused by the unprecedented globalized flow of goods, services, and capital has been well documented by political scientists (see, e.g., Charles Kupchan, “The Democratic Malaise,” Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2012).

Capitalist interests have disproportionate power in the political process, especially in the American political system, which has been described, perhaps not unfairly, as “one dollar, one vote” rather than “one person, one vote.”

Political theorists have raised questions about the voting system itself. Part of the problem is that voters are often selfishly concerned with their narrow material interest, and ignore the interest of future generations and people living outside national boundaries. Jason Brennan has argued that voters should stay away from the voting booth if they cannot make morally informed political judgments (“The Ethics of Voting,” Princeton University Press, 2011).

Certainly there are some issues where the pursuit of narrow economic self-interest at the voting booth could lead to disastrous consequences for non-voters who lack representation (consider global warming). Just as worrisome, perhaps, voters often misunderstand their own interests. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy (“The Myth of the Rational Voter,” Princeton University Press, 2007).

Of course, such proposals are non-starters in liberal democracies. The principle of political equality expressed in the form of one person, one vote has assumed quasi-sacred status today. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill could propose extra votes for educated people, but today, proponents of such proposals are considered (in Western countries) to have lost their moral compass.

Fortunately, political theorists are not so dogmatic in the Chinese context. Jiang Qing, founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang, has argued that democratic forms of legitimacy – which in the West is grounded in notions of popular sovereignty – should be balanced by two other sources of legitimacy that come from Heaven and Earth.

In a modern context, he argues that this political ideal should be institutionalized by means of a tri-cameral legislature, with authority divided between a House of the People, a House of the Ru, and a House of Cultural Continuity that correspond to the three forms of legitimacy. Similarly, Bai Tongdong and Joseph Chan have argued for models for a hybrid political regime that combines elements of democracy and meritocracy with meritocratic houses of government composed of political leaders chosen by such means as examination and performance at lower levels of government. (I have also argued for a hybrid regime, with a meritocratic house of government termed the House of Exemplary Persons.)

These models may be utopian, but they provide us with a new and, arguably, better standard for evaluating political progress in China and elsewhere. Instead of judging political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic, the new standard provides a more comprehensive way of judging political progress (and regress). The question is also whether the Chinese political system is becoming more meritocratic. And here there may be grounds for optimism.

3. Meritocracy and the Chinese Communist Party

In its early days, Communist China under Mao explicitly rejected Confucian-inspired ideas of political meritocracy. Understandably, perhaps, the main task was rewarding revolution energy and securing military strength for the state to put an end to abuse and bullying by foreign powers. But now, the establishment of a relatively secure and strong Chinese state under the leadership of the CCP means that China is less concerned about security than it is about political community.

Hence, the emphasis has shifted to the task of good governance led by able and virtuous political leaders, and the selection and promotion mechanisms of the CCP have become more meritocratic.

In the 1980s, talented students at leading Chinese universities often did not seek to join the CCP. Today, it’s a different story. College campuses have become the main location for recruitment efforts today (Gang Guo, “Party Recruitment of College Students in China,” Journal of Contemporary China, May 2005).

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.

First, I wonder if the lack of transparency of the talent-selection process negatively affects the government’s legitimacy. If people are not aware of the selection process, they may suspect that promotion is based primarily on loyalty, connections, or corruption. But shedding light on the actual mechanism will help to dispel such suspicions.

Once I heard from Minister Li about the rigorous selection process for the secretary general of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee, my respect for that successful candidate increased tenfold. I assume other people would have a similar reaction. Of course, the very fact that Minister Li told us about the process suggests that there is a decision to increase transparency, which is good sign.

Second, I wonder if constraints on freedom of speech, especially political speech, inhibit meritocratic decision-making. The best political decisions, of course, need to be based on complete information, but fear of negative consequences may inhibit stakeholders from expressing their viewpoints. I realize that the CCP carries out internal polling to get as much information as possible, and that cadres are encouraged to constantly learn and improve, but fewer barriers to the freedom of speech may improve the quality of decision-making.

Third, I wonder if the rigorous, multi-year talent selection process discourages risk-taking. In other words, it is possible that relatively creative and original minds may be weeded out early because they have offended people or challenged the “normal way of doing things.” In times of crisis, perhaps the Chinese political system allows for substantial change, but in ordinary times, there may be unnecessary attachment to the status quo long after it has extended its practical utility. Perhaps this problem (if it is a problem) can be remedied by allowing for one or two positions in important government posts to be reserved for talented people from other walks of life, such as business or academia.

Fourth, I wonder if the leadership selection process is biased against women. The process seems so time-consuming that it seems hard to reconcile with ordinary family life. Since women are often the main caretakers of family members, they may not have sufficient time to compete fairly with men for top government posts. This matters if we agree that leaders should have compassion. If compassion is mainly a female trait (perhaps this statement is controversial), then we should encourage more women in government. Perhaps half of the government positions at the highest levels of government should be reserved for women.

Fifth, I wonder if the leadership selection process allows for enough time for systematic reflection on ethical and political matters. Perhaps a few weeks at the Party School is not sufficient for leaders to read the great works in politics, history, and philosophy that deepen one’s knowledge as to possibilities of morally informed political judgments. If political leaders were encouraged, say, to take a six-month leave period with few obligations other than reading great works (especially the Confucian classics), the long-term effect on the ability to make morally-informed political judgments is likely to be positive.

Sixth, I wonder if there is a need for more international exposure in the selection process. The main task of the Chinese Communist Party is, of course, to serve the Chinese people. But China is now a great global power, and what it does also affects the interests of people living outside of China, and it needs to be as humane as possible in its dealings with other countries.

It is a good sign that the children of government leaders are often educated abroad, because they can serve as informal advisors, but nothing takes the place of personal exposure to foreign ways of doing things. Perhaps the selection process of high-level government leaders can also value experience abroad and even foreign-language skills.

Seventh, I wonder if the Chinese Communist Party can consider changing its name so that it better corresponds to the institutional reality of the organization. For one thing, the organization is no longer communist. Political meritocracy was valued neither by Marx nor Mao. Lenin’s idea of the vanguard party was also different. Moreover, the party is not a political party among others. It is a pluralistic organization composed of different groups and classes that represents the whole country and, to a lesser extent, the world. A more accurate name might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union.

Daniel A. Bell is a professor of comparative political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of “China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.”

© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/Huffington Post. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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