By Pritish Gupta
Daniel Bell is Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University. The China Model authored by Bell primarily talks about ‘political meritocracy’. Meritocracy is a political philosophy which holds that certain things such as economic goods or power should be vested in individuals based on talent and achievement. Political meritocracy is a systematic process of selecting and recruiting political leaders according to superior talent and integrity. The China Model has had a controversial run in the literary world as it was seen as the defendant of the political system of China under the clout of political meritocracy. It cannot be falsified that China has always been a riddle for most Western societies. Napoleon Bonaparte once quoted “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world”.
The China Model is a bold and challenging move to present a defensive account of China’s political model. Bell sets out and makes a case that political meritocracy which is practised in China is a better system of governance than the democracy of western countries. His approach towards the models is very balanced and he presents the arguments in a very lucid and efficient way being bipartisan in weighing the merits & demerits of both the systems. Bell tries to make the reader think about how democracy which is considered almost ‘sacred’ in western liberal societies is flawed in some respects and how some merits of the Chinese model can be borrowed and incorporated in the democratic setup.
Bell begins with the critique of democracy and the criticism of ‘one person one vote’ system of electing political leaders. It cannot be denied that putting a question mark on this system of electoral democracy is anathema in western liberal democracies. He mentions inherent issues with electoral democracy such as voter’s lack of time, ignorance, information asymmetry, income inequalities etc. He further argues that the promotion of democracy in poor, ethnically divided countries actually increased political violence.
Bell points out that meritocracy is an ideal model and far from political reality in China. It has its own flaws. Public officials elected through this system can become corrupt and abuse their power with no checks and balances. They can lose sympathy and cover themselves in the veil of elitism which is not in line with the harmonious ideals of Confucianism. This system of political governance may lack morality and empathy.
Bell emphasizes that the Chinese style of meritocracy is influenced by Singapore. He mentions about Singapore’s awe-inspiring economic success and gives the credit to its system of meritocracy. China’s economic growth of the past three decades is somewhat attributed to its political meritocracy though economic growth started showing results since the late 1970s. Nevertheless, China’s political reforms of the 1990s were one of the most important factors for China’s stellar growth. It needs to be mentioned that Bell provides no credible evidence that economic growth is indeed a result of a political meritocracy.
The book further talks about the selection of good leaders in a political meritocracy. Bell argues that the selection criteria of the political leaders need legitimacy. And political legitimacy could not last long in China if the political leaders selected fail to respond to sudden crises. Slowing economic growth in China could not pose a direct threat to the regime or the CCP but prolonged negligence to certain important issues such as corruption, climate change, and rise in pollution levels may put a question mark on the entire system of political meritocracy. Public officials and political leaders need to be adaptive to sudden shocks in economic and social spheres, Bell states. He proposes a system of referendum which would pose the question to the Chinese whether the merit-based system is a viable option and should it be continued. This is because, according to Bell, the regime will lack legitimacy if its leaders are seen to be corrupt and inefficient. It threatens the whole political system. Bell tries to put forth some suggestions of the issue of political legitimacy. Like opening up the ruling party to more diverse social groups, the inclusion of more women in the Politburo and more opportunities for political participation with the consent of the people.
Bell discusses the pros and cons of different models of democratic meritocracy and largely selecting political leaders with a democratic procedure which lets people choose the leaders. The first model he talks about is combining democracy and meritocracy at the voter level i.e. giving extra votes to educated voters. However, the question remains, is it possible? The second model looks to combine democracy and meritocracy at the helm of political institutions but China favors political meritocracy and such a change looks good on paper but not feasible. The third model tries to match political meritocracy at central government and democracy at the local level. This can become a political reality in China and can be defended.
The China model also incorporates experimentation at both the lowest and highest levels of government. Bell talks about how political reform is China is guided by “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top”. The exportability of the China model is quite limited as the model is unique to China. It has been set against the backdrop of Chinese characteristics which dates back to imperial China. China has never followed the Westphalia model. Adoption of such a model is not possible completely. Different countries have different political set up and culture, Bell elaborates. The entire system is only replicable by a ruling party similar to CPC. The author mentions that selective adoption of some of the aspects of political meritocracy as practised in China is feasible. The experimentation aspect may take years to yield the desired results because electoral democracies have an election cycle and therefore it not workable. Meritocracy at the top level to be parachuted to democratic countries would be seen as an infringement on the citizen’s right to vote. Political meritocracy can be inspiring to democratic institutions elsewhere both in case of voters and elected political leaders where they can adopt the best traits of the system and incorporate them in their political set up.
Pritish Gupta, the author, is a student of the Jindal School of International Affairs.
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