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Foreign Policy

One World, Two Systems

Nov 11 , 2016
  • Daniel Bell

    Chair Professor, Schwarzman Scholars program, Tsinghua University

The China Model has been more widely reviewed and discussed than any of my previous books, all within a few months of its publication. Of course I feel honored and gratified that the book has had an impact on public discourse, however, it has also drawn its fair share of critical fire. The main thrust of my book should not be too controversial: it’s an argument for taking Chinese political theory and institutions seriously and for the view that Chinese political culture and history should serve as the main standards for judging political progress (and regress) in China.

While The China Model has been perceived as an attack on democracy, its aim is simply to “desacralize” the ideal of one person, one vote by showing that electoral democracies do not necessarily perform better than political meritocracies according to widely shared standards of good government.

The leading political ideal in China—widely shared by government officials, reformers, intellectuals, and the people at large—is what I call “vertical democratic meritocracy,” meaning democracy at lower levels of government, with the political system becoming progressively more meritocratic at higher levels of government. The country was primed for rule at the top by meritocratically selected officials following a disastrous experience with radical populism and arbitrary dictatorship in the Cultural Revolution, and China’s leaders could reestablish elements of its meritocratic tradition, such as the selection of leaders based on examination and promotion based on performance evaluations at lower levels of government, without much controversy. This idea of vertical democratic meritocracy has inspired political reform over the past three decades, but there remains a large gap between the ideal and the reality. Hence, my book provides a critical perspective on political reality; it is not a defense of the political status quo. I argue for change on the basis of ideals widely shared in China, not ideals imported from abroad that do not resonate widely with Chinese history and recent efforts at political reform.

But isn’t there something deeply problematic about an argument that democracy is suitable for some countries but not for China? Shouldn’t we be wary of “Orientalism” that seems to harken back to John Stuart Mill’s arguments against democracy in “barbarian” countries? If so, similar accusations can be raised against Chinese intellectuals who often argue that the “quality” of Chinese people is too low for electoral democracy. But my argument is different: based on solid empirical evidence, I argue that the quality of voters is also low in countries such as the United States,and there is no reason to believe that Chinese voters will become any more rational or public-spirited than voters anywhere else. And since China has evolved and implemented—in highly imperfect form—meritocratic mechanisms to select and promote political leaders with superior intellectual, social, and moral qualities, shouldn’t any improvements be built on such a system? Isn’t it important to ask how political meritocracy can be improved, and its disadvantages minimized, in a political context where the ideal has a long history, has inspired political reform over the past three decades, and is widely supported by the people according to reliable political surveys?

I’ve given many book talks over the past year, and I’m often asked: “if electoral democracy can work in Taiwan, why can’t it work in mainland China?” Size matters. Small political communities can afford populism and small-minded navel-gazing even at the cost of neglecting long-term planning or political concern for future generations and the rest of the world. But China is a huge political community and its policies shape the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese now and in the future, as well as the rest of the world. Mainland China cannot afford the downside of Taiwan-style electoral democracy.

That said, there is much that mainland China can learn from Taiwan and other political communities that have gone down the liberal democratic road. Taiwan implemented affirmative-action schemes that successfully increased the proportion of women in government:the lessons for China’s male-dominated politics are clear. And there is nothing incompatible between the quest to improve political meritocracy and other features of democratic societies short of one person, one vote: the freedom of speech, the freedom of association short of the right to form political parties to compete for power at the top, the rule of law, and various democratic innovations such as the use of referenda and deliberative polls. As we will see, China will need to open up to such democratic values and practices as it continues to modernize in the future.

The main reason that theorists have been reluctant to defend nondemocratic political systems, of course, is that the main alternatives to democracy in the twentieth century—Nazism, Soviet-style communism, and Maoism—have imposed untold suffering on tens of millions of people. Some Western intellectuals did attempt to defend those political systems, but their efforts have been rightly consigned to the dustbin of history.

Contemporary China is a different political animal. It is a big, complex country, and we all know about censorship, restrictions on civil liberties, and lack of political transparency. But it is possible to access sufficient information to make an informed judgment about the political system and the values underlying it. Anyone who speaks the language, travels within the country and outside, speaks to diverse groups of people (including political leaders at different levels of government), reads widely in Chinese and English, and subscribes to websites and WeChat groups with diverse political outlooks can make an effort to provide a plausible interpretation of the society’s leading political ideas. It is fine to disagree with my interpretation, but it is not fine to compare my efforts to those of earlier thinkers who unknowingly defended totally closed political systems ruled by tyrants who murdered tens of millions of people.

Method matters because the question of which ideals should be used to evaluate the political reality is a political choice. My critics argue that liberal democracy should serve as the standard for evaluating political progress and regress in China, and they don’t show any interest in drawing on political ideals in China’s own political traditions. Here they follow in the footsteps of Western thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Hegel, and even Marx himself. Not coincidentally, such views were most common when Western colonialism was in its heyday.

Today, China is not a colonized country; it is a proud and increasingly powerful country with a rich and diverse political tradition, and its leaders, reformers, intellectuals, and people at large are increasingly turning to tradition for inspiration. Naturally, there is resistance to Western thinkers who seek to evaluate China’s political reality strictly according to ideals that owe nothing to China’s own traditions, just as Westerners would resist efforts by Chinese thinkers to evaluate actually existing democracy in Western countries strictly according to, say, Confucian ideals.

However pure the intentions of Western democrats, they will poison relations with China if they do not make an effort to understand and (to a certain extent) sympathize with the leading ideals of Chinese political culture when they engage with China. Of course, this is easier said than done. But there is no alternative if we are to live peacefully with a rising China.

Many Western critics contest the very idea of superiority in politics and reject the whole idea of selecting and promoting leaders with superior qualities. Political science professor, Andrew Nathan claims that “the biggest problem with Bell’s theory of meritocracy is that the idea of getting quality leaders to make high-performance decisions is based on the notion that there are right and wrong decisions.” I agree that decisions cannot be free of controversy, but some decisions are better than others: at least, we expect political leaders not to make disastrous decisions when it comes to dealing with climate change, invading other countries, and promoting sustainable growth. Is it not fortunate that China has selected and promoted leaders with enough good sense to focus the country’s energies on poverty reduction over the past three decades and without going to war with other countries? There will be new political challenges in the future, but it seems obvious that improvements in the political system need to build on, rather than undermine, meritocratic mechanisms for the selection and promotion of rulers.

Of course, the power of meritocratically selected political leaders needs to be constrained. Any decent political system needs to both empower leaders to do good things and limit their power to do bad things. But there can be justifiable disagreements about how to balance the two desiderata. Given differences in political culture and what Chinese call “national conditions,” I expect Chinese to typically draw the line closer to empowering leaders to do good, and Americans closer to limiting their power to do bad things. At least for the long term, the choice is clear. If China can open its political system while maintaining its commitment to political meritocracy, its own distinctive model of governance may get a new lease on life. But China’s political model can best thrive if it is welcomed, not undermined, by the rest of the world.

Here is my hope for the political world. Democracies use elections to select rulers at all levels of government, and meritocracies select rulers at higher levels of government by means of examinations and decades-long training. Both political systems recognize that they are flawed and compete with each other to do the things governments are supposed to do: serve the people, including all those affected by the policies of government. Democracies aim to improve their democratic system while learning from the best of meritocratic practices, and meritocracies aim to improve their meritocratic system while learning from the best of democratic practices. There is no more talk about which system is superior: both political systems recognize each other as morally legitimate even though they are built on different foundations. The United States is the dominant power in the West, China in East Asia,but they strive to cooperate in areas of common concerns. Diversity of values is a good thing, and surely we’d all be better off with a diversity of morally legitimate political systems that compete with each other to do good things.

But I worry about more pessimistic scenarios, and I worry more about the long-term fate of democratic systems. In China, it is widely recognized that different countries with different cultures, histories, and conditions need to adopt different political systems, whereas political pluralism of this sort is comparatively rare (as a belief system) in the United States. Moreover, China is a learning culture, and its leaders constantly seek to innovate and learn from the rest of the political world. Even during this dark period of economic slowdown and in- creased repression, China still sends its public officials abroad to learn best practices and welcomes input by foreigners in the process of pre- paring government work reports. But democracies are plagued by a kind of self-congratulatory complacency that spells political doom for the future. To the extent there is any demand for fundamental political change, it tends to take the form of angry and insular populism that looks only inside for solutions. If Chinese-style political meritocracy continues to innovate and reform while democracies do nothing more than rest on their laurels, close themselves off to learning from the rest of the world, and cast aspersions on political alternatives, democracies will eventually lose their hold on people’s “hearts and minds” and political meritocracy will become the globally dominant political system. It seems inconceivable now that citizens would voluntarily agree to limit their own power to choose rulers, but those beliefs may change if meritocratic countries consistently outperform democracies at meeting the needs of the people. Perhaps one hundred years from now it will seem blindingly obvious that top political leaders should be selected by means of examinations and performance evaluations at lower levels of government, and we will wonder how it was that human beings ever came to think that one person, one vote was the only legitimate way of selecting political leaders.

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