Meritocracy with Chinese Characteristics


Review of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel Bell

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015

As natural as it may seem for the more than three billion people in countries where it has taken root, in the grand sweep of history the idea that ordinary people should choose their own leaders is still revolutionary. Nonetheless, a kind of ideological hegemony has taken hold wherever democracy flourishes. Defenders habitually quote Churchill’s quip that democracy is “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Others have heralded democracy as “the end of history”; in other words, the form of government that is most morally legitimate, stable, and likely to secure peace and prosperity.  

China, according to Daniel Bell’s book, The China Model¸ ought to challenge this hypothesis. Bell, a professor and political theorist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, makes the case for what he terms “political meritocracy,” the selection of leaders “in accordance with ability and virtue” (6) and not by the ballot. Political meritocracy, he argues, is a distinct form of government separate from a despotic authoritarianism in which power is held by the threat of force, not merit. The book is as thought-provoking as it is frustrating, earning The China Model a place on as many “best of” lists last year as it did strident rebuttals.

Beginning in the 1990s, Singapore’s late founder, Lee Kuan Yew, asserted the concept of “Asian values” that privilege the collective over the individual. Democracy, in this view, is both inimical to Asian values and not valued by their people. Bell draws on his deep knowledge of Confucian thought to reinforce these claims, but his strongest case exists in the present. Singapore, a highly developed city-state with GDP per capita greater than that of the United States, is an inspiration to Bell and is known to be admired by many of China’s elite. In Singapore, Bell finds his proof that serving the public welfare – not “one person, one vote” democracy – is what underpins a state’s legitimacy, and that a meritocratic political order does just this. Moreover, Singapore demonstrates that a nondemocratic country can be subject to sufficient rule of law and offer enough in the way of civil (if not political) liberties to evade definition as authoritarian. (Freedom House judges the city-state “partly free.”)

This is what Bell wishes for China. Democracy, he argues, runs the risks of tyranny by the majority and an elite minority, disregards the well-being of future generations, and is disruptive to social harmony. He draws on familiar critiques of American democracy to reinforce his claims. Bell’s reliance on the United States as the model of the limitations of democracy is obvious given the country’s influence, but not particularly sophisticated.[1] And yet, we find in the likes of South Korea and Taiwan, and perhaps the first steps in Myanmar, a repeated history of transition within Asia from authoritarianism to democracy.

Each year the best and brightest of China's college students vie to join the Communist Party. Those deemed most outstanding and having the right moral and ideological character are invited into the 80-million strong fold. For many, the prospect of a secure and prosperous career is greater than the appeal of any private start-up or multinational. Those who accept will be scattered at positions at all levels of government throughout the country, beginning a perpetual cycle of work, training, evaluation, and promotion. Those adept at managing at cities are given their chance at managing provinces. Others may instead be directed to serve at a major state-owned enterprise. For years, the surest path to further promotion was delivering economic growth.

Those ultimately chosen to lead the country will have acquired decades of governing experience along the way. It is nothing at all like the United States: a self-styled community organizer is more likely to wind up a prisoner than president of the People's Republic. Still, many in the west hold out hope that China too will ultimately embrace the ballot. Why? The economic literature has found some evidence that development lends itself to democracy and that democracy enables development. This is the bet that many have consistently used to promote deeper engagement with China. Once basic needs are met, the consequences of economic development – from inequality to pollution to leisure to higher education – create a less uniform populace with diverse needs and aspirations. These differences create tensions that are difficult to be resolved by means other than the prioritizing and supervising influence of the ballot box.

In China, these tensions are played out through rising levels of popular protest each year. A clear link can be drawn between a promotion system that privileged economic growth and the consequences of destabilizing land seizures, pollution, and risky speculation. “What gets measured gets managed” is no less true for the Communist Party than it is for corporate America. Leaders judged primarily on economic growth (and with limited fiscal autonomy) were willing to appropriate land for sale to developers, angering the communities that depended upon it, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation. When local governments were not reporting growth statistics that raised doubts about their veracity, they were assuming large debts to fund development that met GDP targets, and not necessarily their people’s needs. When GDP counts constructing a new road, but not social-security transfers, it is little surprise that China’s welfare system trails far behind its often world-class infrastructure.

Various reforms to the evaluation system – including those which take into account environmental protection – have been made or proposed in recent years, a necessary enabler for broader reform to progress. Bell believes that a combination of limited local elections, experimentation in official evaluations, attentiveness to popular opinion, and a greater emphasis on peer selection is enough to set a responsive political agenda and select appropriate leaders. At the most senior levels, Bell proposes that a seat on China’s highest body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, be designated to a younger person so that it does not fall behind the times (133).

Bell trumpets the Chinese government’s tendency to run what are effectively thousands of experiments in economic development and other policy matters, absorb those that work best, and spread them across the country. For technocratic experimentation and diffusion, China likely has no equal. Its capacity to “experiment” with the much larger questions of ideology seem more questionable, even if the Communist Party has demonstrated a prior capacity to reinvent itself. Yet Bell gives no reason why the government must play this role instead of organically allowing the private and social sectors to do so. No less interesting is the question of how the diverging state of China’s provinces will challenge its top-down governance model. When China was uniformly poor, one set of policies dictated from the center could fit all. The country’s increasingly uneven progress and diverging needs complicate the feasibility of centralization. Bell’s perspective on whether experimentation will lead to a form of “federalism with Chinese characteristics” or “one China, many systems” would have been welcome.   

As engaging as the debate Bell provokes in the abstract, he troublingly does not prove that China’s leaders actually see their system in the same way he envisions it. Indeed, to many Chinese and China experts, including Columbia professor Andrew Nathan, the system that Bell describes is an unrecognizable “illusion.” Bell imposes his ideal on a far messier reality, losing sight of how leaders are actually chosen. He blithely dismisses the political nepotism so endemic to China as “not likely to be reproduced” (193) after the current generation of “princelings” passes from the stage and ignores the intense factionalism that dominates Chinese politics.

Writing in the midst of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s far-reaching clean-up, Bell acknowledges that corruption is an existential risk to China. Yet, he claims that “meritocratically selected leaders have more incentive to clean up corruption than democratically elected leaders, if only because regime survival depends upon it” (114). But what if the corrupt are playing for themselves? In a democracy, the incentives are structured such that even an attorney general interested only in self-advancement can nonetheless serve the public good by tackling corruption in the pursuit of votes. Bell suggests that mainland China consider adopting Hong Kong’s model of an independent nationwide anticorruption agency (105), but never materially discusses the nuanced debates within China on adopting rule of law that would make it possible. Moreover, there is little discussion of the conflicted relationship the CCP has with the press – often treated as a useful check on abuses of power at a lower level, but as a threat at higher levels. In all seriousness, Bell proposes that China adopt South Korea’s ban on public officials and business persons playing golf together (despite the fact that many business persons are Party members of state-owned firms) and suggests extending it to other “social settings conducive to corruption, such as karaoke parlors” (119).  

These are just some of the omissions that give the unmistakable sense that Bell has subjected himself to a high degree of self-censorship. In passing he acknowledges that “freedom of speech is necessary to identify unconventional sources of merit appropriate for new circumstances” (134) but does not seriously dwell on how this can be realized. Bell’s calls that the Communist Party rename itself as the “Union of Democratic Meritocrats” (198) or allow for a nationwide referendum on the status quo come across as rather absurd cover for the more substantive criticism that is missing. His acknowledgment (253) that even what he has chosen to write would be subject to extensive censorship is a commentary on the tightening in academic freedoms in recent years, and raises questions about whether what he has written reflects his entire view.

The irony is that those potentially most open to Bell’s arguments will get the least constructive insights from it because of his unwillingness to directly criticize China. By contrast, Western governments and companies are learning from China without sacrificing their democratic character. Much has been made of the “long-term” perspective afforded to governments subject to less frequent trips to the voting booth. The argument is that leaders insulated from pressure for immediate gratification from the voting public can make the tough, but necessary decisions and investments which pay off well beyond a Western politician’s term in office. Democracies are taking a longer-term perspective by embracing old ideas such as infrastructure banks with new enthusiasm. Democracies’ potential to realize similar solutions undermine political meritocracy’s claim to distinctiveness.

The debate The China Model provokes is not how the state is run, but for what purpose. It is a classic argument between limited and maximalist government written in metonym. If the purpose of government is limited, it can still, to appropriate Hobbes’, have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence without needing to have a monopoly on talent. Bell makes much of the fact that someone with the limited pre-presidential experience of President Obama could never rise to the top in China. But that proves little, if anything. The answer to the famed question “why are great men not chosen president” is that great men and women are rarely needed to be the American president by virtue of its limited purpose. With the exception of the most extraordinary moments, democracy’s great men and women are channeling their potential in productive endeavors far beyond government. By contrast, the Chinese government must hoard the nation’s best talent wherever its ambit reaches. The losses to society had those individuals been able to exercise their talents elsewhere are immeasurable. If a political meritocracy’s success is contingent upon access to the very best talent it should expect to lose a cultural, economic, and technological edge. This is the defining tradeoff of China and the ruling Communist Party’s future.

For those interested in a deeper understanding how China’s government works, Richard McGregor’s The Party remains first choice. But for those who need to understand the complex ideological challenges to democracy in the post-Cold War era, there is nonetheless value in reading The China Model. The feeling of the taboo that many Western readers will feel instinctually upon encountering The China Model’s arguments is an indicator of how much they are needed. From time to time, the defenders of democracy and free-market capitalism ought to be reminded of writer Ursula Le Guin’s warning against blind faith in orthodoxy: we too once believed in the divine right of kings.

KYLE HUTZLER is a member of the inaugural class of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University, where Daniel Bell is chair professor. His email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


[1] Many of the weaknesses he attributes to American politics can be solved with more, not less, democracy such as opening gerrymandered districts to greater competition. Democracy takes on many guises on a spectrum from direct to representative forms. Some like France blend democracy with meritocratic elements: most of its modern leaders have come from one school.