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A Look at China’s ‘Political Meritocracy’

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A system of above-average ability with below-average virtue.

Can the democratic United States draw lessons from one-party China to improve the American political system? Yes, says Tsinghua University professor Daniel A. Bell, writing for The Christian Science Monitor. Put simply, his argument is that (a) “political meritocracy” is in many ways a superior system to liberal democracy; (b) the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which runs the Chinese government, is a meritocratic system; and (c) by the transitive property, China’s political system is in many ways superior to America’s. “Democracy is a flawed political system,” Bell writes, “and meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws.”

While Bell is unfair, I would argue, in comparing his ideal of meritocracy to real-world democracy (which he disdains as “one dollar, one vote”), I will leave theoretical arguments about the relative merits of each system to political scientists. Bell’s positive characterization of the Chinese system, however, deserves closer inspection.

Bell defines political meritocracy as follows:

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.

And political meritocracy, Bell goes on, is “central to Chinese political culture.” He supports this contention by citing Confucius, by referencing political surveys that demonstrate support for the system “in East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage,” and by describing the selection process (in which politics play no role, if Bell’s CCP interlocutor is to be believed) for the secretary general of the CCP Central Committee’s Organization Department. (Oddly, Bell completely ignores the concept of guanxi—the unique role that connections and relationships play in all facets of Chinese life—which is also central to Chinese political culture.)

In a one-party state, those at the top get to define ‘merit’ and ‘virtue.’

Does this argument hold up? Let’s measure the CCP against Bell’s description of meritocracy. I’ll concede that CCP leaders are of above-average ability, but can they really be said to be virtuous? Do they exhibit even “average” virtue? Tiananmen Square, the ban on Falun Gong and other organized religions, oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang, disappearances of dissidents, the use of torture, support for Pyongyang, rampant human rights violations, the one-child policy—these all suggest that virtue and “morally informed political judgments” are lacking. That’s not to say that there aren’t virtuous members of the CCP, but they aren’t the folks in charge.

Bell might argue—certainly others would—that the realities of China’s darker side are unfortunate but necessary for the greater good. And therein lies the problem: In a one-party state, those at the top get to define “merit” and “virtue.” Bell is mistaken if he thinks China’s leaders are “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” (the words of Chinese scholars Shi Tianjian and Lu Jie, which Bell quotes).

He is likewise wrong to argue that “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.” Continued political oppression is, in fact, evidence of a very insecure CCP—a CCP whose primary interest is its own survival, rather than the betterment of the lives of the Chinese people. Indeed, the latter appears to be little more than a means to ensuring the former.

So the CCP only meets Bell’s first condition for a political meritocracy if we are willing to accept an astounding level of moral relativism—not only that a different morality applies to China’s unique circumstances, but that China’s leaders get to decide what that system of morality is.

Tiananmen Square, the ban on Falun Gong and other organized religions, oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang, disappearances of dissidents, the use of torture, support for Pyongyang, rampant human rights violations, the one-child policy—these all suggest that virtue and ‘morally informed political judgments’ are lacking.

And what about Bell’s second condition? Is the CCP’s selection mechanism for leaders designed to choose leaders of above-average ability and virtue? Again, that all depends on how ability and virtue are defined. The “mechanism” advances cadres who place value on the CCP’s continued rule. For example, Hu Jintao’s overseeing of a harsh crackdown in Tibet in 1989 at least in part propelled him to higher leadership. On the other hand, CCP Central Committee General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was purged from the party for his liberal-minded approach to the Tiananmen Square protests later that year. More recently, the 2005 Dongzhou incident—at the time the greatest use of deadly force against protesters since the Tiananmen massacre—doesn’t seem to have damaged the career of Zhang Dejiang, then-party secretary of Guangdong province. Three years later, Zhang became a vice premier on the State Council and is now a potential candidate to join the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member group that rules China.

Still, Bell’s biggest mistake is not in arguing that the CCP is a meritocracy—I’ll concede that the most effective cadres are more likely to be promoted than the least effective. Bell’s big mistake, rather, is to assume that what is good for the CCP is good for China. Indeed, he goes so far as to write that the CCP “is a pluralistic organization composed of different groups and classes that represents the whole country and, to a lesser extent, the world.” Somehow, apparently, China has achieved representative government without allowing its citizens any say over the makeup of that government.

Bell seems to believe that the party’s leaders set about their daily business with Mao’s dictum to “serve the people” firmly at heart. Perhaps some local cadres do (certainly not all—see the recent Chen Guangcheng case, for example). But the provincial and national leaders—those deemed to merit high political office—ignore, sanction, or perpetrate numerous injustices against the Chinese people on a daily basis.

Yes, democracy is a flawed political system. But Chinese meritocracy is an ugly one.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also writes “Two Wars and the 38th Parallel,” “The Top Five Ways Things Could Go Wrong in the Hermit Kingdom,” and “Don’t Ditch Taiwan.” Michael Auslin says “China's Party Is about to End.” John R. Bolton contributes “Time to ‘Interfere.’” Dan Blumenthal discusses “The Great China Crack-Up?

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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