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Social Development

Meritocracy Is a Good Thing

Nov 14 , 2012
  • Daniel Bell

    Chair Professor, Schwarzman Scholars program, Tsinghua University

Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is, political meritocracy has two key components: (1) the political leaders have above average ability and virtue and (2) the selection mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.

Political meritocracy has been largely eclipsed from political theorizing in the modern world, but there are three important reasons for reviving and reinterpreting this political ideal, particularly in a Chinese context. First, political meritocracy has been, and continues to be, central to Chinese political culture. Second, democracy is a flawed political system and meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Third, the Chinese Communist Party itself has become a more meritocratic organization over the last three decades or so.

Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinese political culture. For Confucius, political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody should be educated. However, not everybody will emerge from this process with an equal ability to make morally informed political judgments. Hence, an important task of the political system is to select leaders with an above average ability to make morally informed political judgments, as well as to encourage as many people of talent as possible to participate in politics. Such rulers, in Confucius’s view, would gain the trust of the people.

In its early days, Communist China under Mao explicitly rejected Confucian-inspired ideas of political meritocracy. Understandably, perhaps, the main task was rewarding revolutionary energy and securing military strength for the state to put an end to abuse and bullying by foreign powers. But now, the establishment of a relatively secure and strong Chinese state under the leadership of the CCP means that China has less to worry about survival qua political community. Hence, the emphasis has shifted to the task of good governance led by able and virtuous political leaders, and the selection and promotion mechanisms of the CCP have become more meritocratic.

In the 1980s, talented students at leading Chinese universities often did not seek to join the CCP. Today, it’s a different story. At elite schools like Tsinghua University, 28 percent of all undergrads, 43 percent of graduating seniors and up to 55 percent of grad students were CCP members in 2010. The CCP is also targeting the “new social stratum “of young professionals in urban areas, including business people and managers in private firms, lawyers, and accountants.

The advantages of “actually-existing” meritocracy in the CCP are clear. Cadres are put through a grueling process of talent selection, and only those with an excellent record of past performance are likely to make it to the highest levels of government. The training process includes the cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged by such means as limited periods of work in poor rural areas. Moreover, this kind of meritocratic selection process is only likely to work in the context of a one-party state. In a multi-party state, there is no assurance that performance at lower levels of government will be rewarded at higher levels, and there is no strong incentive to train cadres so that they have experience at higher levels, because the key personnel can change with a government led by different party. So even talented leaders, like US President Obama, can make many “beginner’s mistakes” once they assume rule because they haven’t been properly trained to assume command at the highest levels of government.

Leaders in China are not likely to make such mistakes because of their experience and training. The fact that decision-making at the highest-levels is by committee—the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo—also ensures that no one person with outlandish and uninformed views can decide upon wrong-headed policies.

Once Chinese leaders reach positions of political power, they can make decisions that consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders, including future generations and people living outside the state. In multi-party democracies with leaders chosen on the basis of competitive elections, by contrast, leaders need to worry about the next election and they are more likely to make decisions influenced by short-term political considerations that bear on their chances of getting reelected. The interests of non-voters affected by policies, such as future generations, are not likely to be taken seriously if they conflict with the interests of voters.

Moreover, the fact that the real power holders in Western-style democracies are supposed to be those chosen by the people in elections often means that “bureaucrats” are not considered to be as important; hence, less talent goes to the bureaucracy. This flaw may be particularly clear in the American political system

This is not to imply that the US and other countries should strive to emulate Chinese-style meritocracy. For one thing, political meritocracy is more likely to be workable and stable in a certain type of political culture: as noted above, political surveys show that people in East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage tend to value political meritocracy, but the same may not be true in other cultures.

Nor do I mean to imply that “actually-existing meritocracy” in China cannot be improved. The success of meritocracy in China is obvious: China’s rulers have presided over the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history, with several hundred million people being lifted out of poverty. Equally obvious, however, some problems in China—corruption, gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, overly powerful state-run enterprises that skew the economic system in their favor, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent, repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang—seem to have worsened during the same period the political system has become meritocratic. Part of the problem is that China lacks democracy at various levels of government that could help to check abuses of power and provide more opportunities for political expression by marginalized groups. But part of the problem is also that political meritocracy has been insufficiently developed in China. The system has become meritocratic over the last three decades or so, but it can and should become more meritocratic in the future.

Perhaps the most significant improvement within the Chinese Communist Party over the last three of decades has been more emphasis on the selection and promotion of officials with above average intellectual ability, especially at the higher levels of government. However, the system is not as meritocratic as it could be, even in this respect. Consider the “anti-meritocratic” effects of constraints on freedom of political speech. The best political decisions, of course, need to be based on complete information, but fear of negative consequences may inhibit stakeholders from expressing their viewpoints.

Another area of concern is that the rigorous, multi-year talent selection process may discourage risk-taking. In other words, relatively creative and original minds may be weeded out early because they have offended people or challenged the “normal way of doing things

There may also be a need for more international exposure in the selection process. The main task of the Chinese Communist Party is of course to serve the Chinese people. But China is now a great global power, and what it does also affects the interests of people living outside of China, and it needs to be as humane as possible in its dealings with other countries. It is a good sign that the children of government leaders are often educated abroad because they can serve as informal advisors, but nothing takes the place of personal exposure to foreign ways of doing things.

Equally important, there may be a need for more representation by members of minority groups at the highest levels of government, even if they didn’t rise through the political system. Only sincere adherents of a religion can really know what’s best for their religion and meritocratic decision-making would involve more representation by members of religious communities.

Of course, meritocratic-decision making is not just a matter of having the ability and knowledge to make political decisions. Immoral decision-makers with high-level analytical skills and local knowledge can do more damage than not-so-competent political leaders who may not be able to figure out the best means to realize immoral ends.

Term and age limits for Chinese leaders are helpful. But there is a need for other mechanisms to reduce corruption—a relatively independent anti-corruption agency (similar to Hong Kong and Singapore), more transparency, more freedom for media to report on cases of corruption, financial audits for leaders and their family members, higher salaries for leaders, and harsh punishments for corruption. More rigorous emphasis on ethical education for political leaders is also necessary.

Of course, a political decision maker should do more than refrain from corruption. He or she much also be motivated by humanity and compassion for people, animals, and the natural world. But is it difficult to reconcile this desideratum with the extreme under-representation of females in the political decision-making bodies, especially at the highest levels. The current leadership selection process is biased against females: the process is so time-consuming that it seems hard reconcile with ordinary family life. Perhaps half of the government positions at the highest levels of government should be reserved for females. I have no doubt that a government composed of more female leaders is more likely to rule in a compassionate and humane way.

Obviously, the process of “meritocratization” is a long term transformation for which there is no clear end-point (unlike, say, “democratization,” which usually means free and fair competitive elections for a country’s top political leaders). But one clear way forward would be for the Chinese Communist Party to change its name so that it better corresponds to the institutional reality of the organization, as well as to what it aspires to be. Most obviously, the organization is no longer Communist and few Chinese, including members of the CCP, believe that the party is leading the march to higher communism. A more accurate name might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union.

Let me end with one point that will be intensely controversial in countries with a democratic heritage. China can learn much from the political virtues typically associated with democratic regimes: political participation, freedom, transparency, and toleration. But the country can and should build upon the actual and potential advantages of political meritocracy: the decades long training of political officials entrusted with the top political decision making powers, the ability to make decisions that take account of the interests of future generations, the rest of the world, and the natural world, even when they conflict with the interests of the majority of citizens, and decision-making by committee rather than vesting ultimate decision-making powers in one individual (such as the US President). These advantages of meritocracy are compatible with more freedom, transparency, toleration, political participation at sub-national levels of government, and a certain degree of political competition at the top. But meritocracy is incompatible with multi-party competition at the top and one-person one vote for the selection of top decision makers. Hence, the task in China is to improve meritocracy and learn from parts of democracy, but not from what many democrats today would consider to be its core element.


Daniel A. Bell is professor of political theory at Tsinghua University (Beijing) and Jiatong University (Shanghai). His latest book is the coedited volume, A Confucian Constitutional Order.


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