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Society & Culture

Democracy at the Bottom, Meritocracy at the Top, Experimentation in Between

Jan 23 , 2013
  • Daniel Bell

    Chair Professor, Schwarzman Scholars program, Tsinghua University

In the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs, Eric X. Li and Yasheng Huang debate the merits of the Chinese political system (article can be previewed here). While I do not wholly endorse Eric X. Li’s arguments (especially regarding political legitimacy), I think Yasheng Huang’s arguments against Li are weak. Let me explain why.

Yasheng Huang argues that democracy in the form of one person, one vote to choose political rulers is China’s only desirable political future. In contrast, Eric Li is said to argue against democracy at all levels of government. Unlike China’s own leaders and its people, Li does not even pay “lip service to democracy.”

In fact, Li’s position is more nuanced. He defends a political model that has inspired political reform in China over the last couple of decades: democracy at the bottom, meritocracy at the top, with room for experimentation in between (disclosure: I have coauthored an article with Eric Li published in the Financial Times).

There is a good case for democracy at local levels. People usually know what’s needed in their communities – a new school, hospital, or road – and they have a good sense of the competence and character of the leaders they choose. Hence, over 700 million Chinese have participated in local-level elections since the early 1990s. Local elections take different forms, such as Qiu He’s innovations discussed in Li’s article. They have had their share of problems, but just about everybody agrees that reforms of local level politics should take place on the basis of democratic values and practices. Hence, the finding that “village elections in China has improved accountability and increased expenditure on public services” should be regarded as good news by both Huang and Li.

The key issue is how to choose central level political leaders. Li argues that they should be chosen on the basis of political meritocracy, that is, the selection mechanisms should aim to choose leaders with above average ability and morality. Huang argues that Chinese political leaders should be chosen on the basis of one person, one vote. Huang invokes three reasons for his view:  (1) most Chinese people favor democracy; (2) democracy can best deal with China’s problems, such as corruption; and (3) democracies can do what the Chinese political system does well, such as promoting policy innovations at lower levels of government. Let me criticize each of these arguments in turn.

Do Chinese people support democracy?

To support his point that Chinese people favor democracy, Huang points to statements of political leaders such as Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao. It is true that Premier Wen has called for democracy, but it does not amount to a call for one person, one vote to choose the country’s most powerful leaders. Neither he, nor any other political leader in China, has put forward this argument. True, Wen has called for reform, but in fact nobody objects to reform. The question is what model should inspire further reform. Li argues – and I agree with him– that it should be democracy at the bottom, meritocracy at the top, with room for experimentation in between.

Huang also points to political surveys that allegedly show support for democracy in China. He cites a survey discussed in the 2003 edited collection, How East Asians View Democracy: 72.3 percent of the Chinese public believed that democracy is “desirable for our country now,” and 67 percent said that democracy is “suitable for our country now.” But democracy means different things in different contexts. The data on China is discussed in Tianjian Shi’s chapter and Shi points out that nearly two thirds of respondents rated the current regime as already democratic (p.235). In a more recent article, Shi Tianjian and Lu Jie explain the apparent paradox that Chinese citizens profess faith in democracy while endorsing non-democratic rule: “democracy in the minds of ordinary Chinese may not match the meaning defined in liberal democracy discourse; rather, it is based on guardianship discourse” (“Cultural Impacts on People’s Understanding of Democracy”, 2010, p.10). In other words, Chinese citizens generally endorse political meritocracy (at the top), though they still call it democracy. What Li proposes to do is call it like it is.

Will democracy help to reduce corruption?

Huang’s other argument against political meritocracy (at the top) is that non-democratic regimes tend to be more corrupt: “Worldwide, there is no question that autocracies as a whole are far more corrupt than democracies.” He recognizes that some democracies have high levels of corruption, but he says it’s because they were governed by “ruthless military dictators” before they democratized and “no one should confuse the symptom with the cause.”

In fact, the main cause of corruption is underdevelopment, and countries tend to become less corrupt as they become wealthier. As Li points out, the US had high levels of corruption when it was going through its industrialization. In his book China Modernizes, Randall Peerenboom argues that the quality of governance in the East Asian region, including the control of corruption, tends to improve along with levels of economic development.

This is not to imply that the country should become complacent or relax its efforts to fight corruption. Huang misses the main reason why Chinese leaders have recently called corruption a mortal threat to the state and the ruling party. In democratic countries, corruption won’t shake the foundations of the political system. Leaders get their legitimacy from being chosen by the people, and the people can change their leaders the next election if they aren’t satisfied. If the next batch of leaders is still corrupt, to a certain extent the people need to blame themselves.

In China, however, political leaders derive an important part of their legitimacy because the system is supposed to be meritocratic, and the leaders are chosen by means of a system that rewards those with superior ability and morality. Put negatively, the regime will lack legitimacy if its leaders are seen to be corrupt. Until recently, most dissatisfaction in China was directed at corruption by lower level officials, but the Bo Xilai case, as well as recent revelations about Premier Wen’s family wealth, points to rot at the top that more directly threatens the very foundations of the political system.

But can corruption be reduced without elections that make leaders accountable to the people? Huang himself says “The problem is the absence of any checks and balances on [the government’s] power and the lack of the best breaks on corruption of all, transparency and a free press.” But democracy is not necessary for such measures. Hong Kong and Singapore are less-than-democratic and yet both have effective independent anticorruption agencies and (particularly in the case of Hong Kong) a relatively free press.. Other measures can reduce corruption in China: the power of state-run enterprises needs to be curbed so that political power does not readily translate into economic power. Political education should be informed by an ethical system such as Confucianism that emphasizes self-restraint and social responsibility. All these measures can effectively reduce corruption in China without democratic elections for top leaders.

In short, meritocratically selected rulers have a more urgent need to deal with corruption compared to democratically chosen leaders and corruption can be reduced without “full” democratization in the form of one person, one vote to choose rulers. More likely than not, China will soon do better at reducing corruption compared to democratic countries at similar levels of economic development, if only because regime survival depends on it. China’s new leaders are already showing signs of moving in a positive direction, such as experimenting with a policy that calls for the public declaration of assets by government officials in Guangdong province.

Constitutional democracy versus innovation

Huang’s argument against the third plank of the China model – experimentation between local and central levels of government – is that democratic countries have similar advantages: “The features of the Chinese political system that allowed Qiu to experiment with policy innovations, subsidiarity (the organizational principle that matters should be handled by the lowest authority capable of handling them) and federalism, are actually the foundations of any well-functioning democracy.” But the Chinese system has an advantage compared to democracies that enshrine the decentralization of political power. In a federal system, for example, what works well in one sub-unit cannot necessarily be generalized to the rest of the country if the central government does not have the constitutional power to do so. But the power to spread desirable local innovations is precisely the main advantage of the Chinese model. If the Shenzhen model proves to be effective at promoting economic development, or the Chengdu model at promoting social justice, or the Wenzhou model at promoting financial reform, or the Hangzhou model at promoting environmental sustainability, or the Hong Kong model at promoting more civil liberties, or the Guangdong model at curbing corruption, the central government can and should do what is possible to generalize those models to the rest of the country.

The real source of dynamism in China is that the government usually takes a hands-off approach to dealing with local affairs, except when they prove to be particularly innovative and effective at dealing with social problems, in which case the central government seeks to generalize good policies elsewhere, to the extent conditions allow. China’s flexible constitutional system allows for such experimentation, unlike more rigid constitutional systems that enshrine strict divisions of powers between different levels of government. Perhaps U.S.-style federal systems made more sense in an age when economic and social developments took place at a snail’s pace, but in today’s world, where technological developments and global shocks can change ways of life almost overnight, China’s flexible system may more appropriate.

The Meritocratic Ideal and the Reality

This is not to imply that China’s political meritocracy is perfect. Like any other system, there is a large gap between the ideal and the practice. Huang points to a study by Shih et al that “found no evidence that Chinese officials with good economic track records were more likely to be promoted than those who performed poorly. What matters most is patronage.” But other factors, such as environmental targets, and should also influence promotion. As party secretary of Jiangsu province, for example, Li Yuanchao (then promoted to head of the Organization Department) assessed officials in terms of social and environmental factors, not just economic growth. More pertinent, perhaps, Huang doesn’t point out that Shih’s study refers to the promotion within the higher ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, and not to sub-provincial performance where economic performance could matter more. Most competitors for central level positions would already have proven themselves in terms of good performance at lower levels, and one might expect patronage to have more influence at that point. Moreover, the system of meritocratic selection of leaders discussed in Li’s article dates from the early 1990s, and it has yet to be implemented at the highest levels of government. As meritocratically selected leaders get more power in the system, one might expect more emphasis on meritocracy at the top. In twenty years time, it is quite unlikely that political leaders will be able to rise to the top without, for example, stellar academic records.

In short, the China model – democracy at the bottom, meritocracy at the top, with room for experimentation in between – is both an ideal and a reality. It is an ideal that has motivated political reform in China over the last couple of decades, and one that should be used as a standard to evaluate political progress (and regress). It is also a reality in the sense that China has been moving closer to the ideal over the last couple of decades, though it remains an unfinished project, just as there is no such thing as a “full” democracy in the real world.

Daniel Bell is a Professor at JIaotong University in Shanghai and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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