‘The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy’ reviewed by Ryan Mitchell

The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2015. 336pp., £19.95 hb
ISBN 9780691166452

Reviewed by Ryan Mitchell

About the reviewer

Ryan Mitchell is a Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellow and PhD in Law candidate at Yale University, …


Recently, a debate has been unfolding in the English-language China-watching sphere regarding the normative legitimacy of the Chinese state. Following the political theorist Daniel Bell’s publication of The China Model, his proposal that China’s form of “political meritocracy” offers a viable alternative to “one man, one vote” democracy as a method of political organization has largely been met with incredulity from Western respondents – who tend to be either explicitly committed to liberal political norms or to be close to, or at least sympathetic with, embattled Chinese liberals outside of the opaque Party apparatus. Criticism of Bell’s argument tends to focus on one of two perceived flaws: either 1) the empirical inapplicability of the normative value system that he outlines as a description of the realities of Chinese Communist Party rule, or 2) its alleged internal inconsistency.

Both of these critiques are valid, albeit to different extents, but they are also somewhat misleading. After all, Bell’s ideal model of “democracy at the bottom (local level), experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top,” (180) is not intended as a description of the current operation of China’s political system, but as an account of the general normative guidelines underlying the self-understandings of its participants. He notes more than once that China as it stands today still falls well short of the ideals to which, in his account, it has committed itself over the past 30 years. Understanding these ideals is, precisely for this reason, crucial to attempting to determine the future course of and prospects for Party-led reform efforts (178). Simply pointing to the continuing prevalence of such problems as corruption or cases of economic mismanagement does not detract from the relevance of Bell’s model; the question is how do these problems appear to actors within China’s political class and against what norms are solutions to them evaluated? With regards to this narrow inquiry, Bell’s tripartite model is much more persuasive.

The second critique, regarding the internal consistency of the normative model that he lays out, and its ability to legitimate China’s political system, is more complicated. Periodic attempts to directly contrast the virtues of meritocratic selection of leaders against the limitations of democratic selection run into various problems, including a lack of clarity regarding the actual political responsibilities and thus performance of the individuals being selected (often, outside observers lack all but the most basic information, such as the dates and location of an official’s tenure, and state-supplied indicators regarding the economic or social factors of the area under their supervision). A basic contrast between China’s system and that of constitutional democracies is that, in the latter but not the former, the powers and duties of officials are strictly prescribed by publicly available legal documents whose provisions tend to be zealously enforced by the oversight of the public and political opposition. The Xi administration has taken steps to improve the functioning and reliability of China’s legal system, as well as to enforce stricter Party discipline, and has even spoken of the need “to keep power inside a cage.” So far, though, there have been few dramatic signs of greater transparency to public oversight. To the extent that “merit” is hidden, or can only be inferred by those supposed to be its audience, how can it properly function as the normative basis for an entire political system?

The comparison of “meritocracy” with “democracy” as a form of legitimation based on the empirical observation of particular officials is thus less than illuminating. Yet a far more interesting and valuable discussion emerges in early chapters where Bell contrasts with great insight the concrete manifestations and repercussions of different political norms in polities such as Hong Kong (47-8) and Singapore (33-6), and how the interplay between democracy and meritocracy has unfolded in these contexts. As he notes, both societies have prospered as the result of decisions made largely in the meritocratic mode (such as, in Singapore’s case, the decision to adopt English as the primary official language, which would never have been endorsed by a popular vote but which proved crucial to the city-state’s success) (34). Yet, in both cases, merit has combined with the appeal to different forms of democratic legitimation to produce a kind of corporatist model in which state power serves to further the interests of the already rich and powerful amid growing inequality and resentment. Given that China could certainly move even further in the direction of integration into global capitalism backed by the police power of a corporatist state, Bell’s comparative analysis is particularly valuable and timely. His account of legitimacy based on “merit” seems to be intended in part to convey the idea that overall GDP growth and social harmony are not sufficient; rather, there must be widespread popular and intra-system agreement that the system itself is fair enough objectively to assess, cultivate, and promote meritorious talent, even that coming from outside of the corporate “estates” whose interests it most zealously safeguards.

For another, larger reason, however, Bell’s book is an important entry into the debates on legitimacy. Bell’s appeal to merit as a legitimating value is, as he writes, based in substantial part on the key role that this concept played in the political discourse of pre-imperial China, which continues to influence modern views (86, 100). Many in China and outside have noted the current official shift to a rhetoric of cultural exceptionalism, characterized by the resurgence of Confucianism and other intellectual traditions. Often these are portrayed as “filling an ideological void” or as cynical attempts to represent Communist Party guardianship over a national essence. Slavoj Žižek has, for example, persuasively characterized the Party’s continued accommodation of global capitalism, combined with its enforcement of “social harmony,” as the overall pursuit of an alternative modernity that could be seen as approximating a kind of “national socialism.” He notes very perspicaciously that what the Party is most anxious about are, by contrast, challenges to its legitimacy based on the egalitarian ideals of communism. Bell, in a piece for the New York Times, has noted similarly that when he first began teaching in China the primary concern of officials was that he avoid espousing Marxism.

Yet the Party’s concern over Marxist critique is, in fact, matched equally by its concern over internal critique based precisely on the norms and values of China’s own intellectual traditions, which remain a perennial source of potential innovations and challenges. The history of Chinese political theory, which is as old as written Chinese itself, is both more complex and less well-understood than its usual portrayal in either foreign or domestic scholarship (or popular writing) would suggest. Regarding even the major figures of the 20th century, there are surprising leaps and apparent inconsistencies that often seem to recommend the need for an “esoteric” reading, at least as a supplement to surface doctrines. What, for example, are we to make of the seldom-mentioned fact that Mao Zedong – considered the greatest enemy of Confucian thought since China’s Founding Emperor, Qin Shihuang – wrote in a friendly 1965 message to Ho Chi Minh that “[the great Confucian scholar] Xunzi was a materialist: part of Confucianism’s left wing”?

Best known among non-specialists for his theory that human beings were “evil” (in fact, the term meant something closer to “repugnant”) by nature, as opposed to Mencius who argued for innate human goodness, Xunzi was long regarded as both the third great figure in early Confucianism and, especially by the medieval period, as representing a heterodox and non-canonical variant. Yet is it really meaningful to talk of “Confucianism’s left wing” (儒家的左派)? Arguably, this concept does deserve to be revived and analyzed by those interested in China’s ongoing project of political reordering. For Xunzi, more important than the selection of meritorious individuals by the state is the state’s function as a pedagogical project intended to cultivate and produce such public actors by means of disciplinary practices. Similarly, more important than “social harmony” is the ideal of “great unity” – the potentially limitless, peaceful expansion of the political community constituted by such disciplinary practices. These views were closer to “universal emancipation” than to essentialist particularism (though they can always be distorted for that purpose).

Without comprehensively passing judgment on Mao as an intellectual figure, it is nonetheless evident that his reading – made to a fellow revolutionary leader at the height of the Cold War, and shortly before he was to launch the Cultural Revolution – defies interpretation unless one is willing to split open the concept of “Confucianism” (and thus of any Chinese “national essence”) such that it reveals the depth of internal diversity and contention that he alludes to. The most fascinating current development in both China’s internal political discourse and in Western understandings thereof is that this analytical process may now be inevitable, for various reasons. Above all, these center on growing debates over political legitimacy. Bell’s book, by attempting a rational and comparative account of one of Confucianism’s key concepts, will undoubtedly serve to further this internal conversation in important and meaningful ways. It is not left-wing Confucianism reborn, but it is already in dialogue with the immanent possibility of such a revival.

13 December 2015

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