Daniel Bell, Professor of Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University, made waves last month when, prior to the announcement of the next generation of Chinese leadership, he wrote an op-ed with venture capitalist Eric X. Li praising China’s “meritocratic” political system. Mark MacKinnon recently interviewed Professor Bell for the Globe and Mail.
Bell’s argument, which he has made before without the assistance of Li (who is a far more blatant and less academically qualified apologist for the regime and thus far less interesting), posits that China’s political system, with its constant examinations and “gruelling process of talent selection”, sorts the wheat from the bureaucratic chaff, allowing talented cadres to advance to the highest ranks of leadership without the need for popular consent. “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,” Bell wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post.
An expert on Confucianism, Bell argues that the modern meritocracy has its roots in the Imperial Chinese political system, in which the civil service examinations “put successful candidates on the road to fame and power”. Bell’s argument however, skates over the dynastical and hereditary nature of Chinese imperial rule. The “Mandate of Heaven” used by Confucian philosophers to legitimize imperial rule as divinely approved, was marginally more meritocratic than the “divine right of kings” favoured by despots like Charles I of England. However, whilst the mandate could be “withdrawn” from a ruler who proved himself to be “unjust” (usually by being overthrown or killed) it more often than not was window dressing in support of hereditary rule. Additionally, the “meritocratic” imperial examination system could never elevate a candidate to the upper echelons of leadership reserved for nobility, nor did it prevent emperors promoting their favoured courtesans to positions of power and responsibility regardless of talent.
Furthermore, the imperial examinations, as with the modern day gaokao, were a far cry from a truly meritocratic system. The ability to study for and sit numerous exams over several years naturally favours those who do not have to labour for their food. Nor could poorer candidates afford to hire tutors to help them study. Just as the gaokao disproportionately favours middle class Chinese children, the imperial exams were weighted heavily in favour of the elite.
In his piece, “Political Meritocracy is a Good Thing”, Bell offers an overwrought anecdotal account of the procedure, described to him by Li Yuanchao, to select the Secretary General of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee. The “rigorous selection process” contained five stages of tests, during which results were displayed publicly to ensure transparency. Bell argues that it “is hard not to be impressed” by this system, ignoring the fact that he himself describes its inherent flaw in the very first stage: “First, there was a nomination process, including retired cadres. Those who received many nominations could move to the next stage.” The final selection process may be judged by ability, but the candidates put forward are not selected in anything close to an objective fashion. Just as the child of a rich Western politician may be perfectly qualified to work for their parent doesn’t make the process any less nepotistic; in the “meritocratic” process described by Bell, there is a clear space for the type of guanxi and corruption he claims the system prevents.
Nor does Bell’s characterisation of the Chinese political system account for the power and influence of the so-called princelings. That the most powerful man in China reached his position partly because his father was a revolutionary general does not speak well for the Chinese meritocracy. Bell also ignores the indisputable impact party elders have on the selection process, both in the top ranks and in the supposedly meritocratic middle, or the “democratic” lower levels.
Professor Bell characterises his critics as having a “sense of superiority” about liberal democracy. “Any time you say something mildly positive about the Chinese government, there tends to be extreme hostility among some people.” It’s difficult not to be hostile or scornful however, when confronted with something as detached from reality as “Leaders in China are not likely to make such [beginner’s] mistakes because of their experience and training.” The countless scandals and mistakes involving officials at all levels of Chinese politics belie Bell’s claims for the effectiveness of their training. Despite his half-hearted acknowledgement that there are “some problems in China”, Bell also fails to explain satisfactorily how a meritocratic political system, without democratic oversight, can prevent problems such as corruption and the abuse of power, both of which are endemic in the current Chinese system.
Despite his dismissal of critics as dogmatic or narrow-minded, Bell’s own view of China and the Communist Party is clearly heavily influenced by his personal situation. Married to the daughter of a Communist revolutionary who now works as a senior executive at Goldman Sachs China, Professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University, and darling of the Chinese intellectual circuit, Bell is firmly entrenched in the upper strata of the modern Chinese elite. One does not doubt that the government officials he comes across are all extremely intelligent men (and they are invariably men, China’s supposed meritocracy doesn’t do much for its daughters), and it must be tempting to assume that those men are in their positions on merit. But by looking at the end product and declaring the system good, Bell is doing no more than propping up a political Ponzi scheme.
With regard to his analysis of democracy, Bell is barely worth engaging with, so half-hearted are his critiques. To read Bell’s writing, one would be surprised to learn that there are forms of democracy other than that which is currently practised in the USA; an especially surprising oversight from a Canadian. Bell cites as one example of China’s superior political system that “decision-making at the highest-levels is by committee [ensuring] that no one person with outlandish and uninformed views can decide upon wrong-headed policies”. Whilst the idea that an American President can simply decide policies all by himself may demonstrate a lack of understanding of US politics and inattention to US affairs for say, the last 50 years; Bell also ignores the cabinet based, consensus-led systems of government used in (democratic) Canada and the United Kingdom. Nor does Bell’s legitimate criticism of the hugely negative influence of money in American politics necessarily hold true in other democratic systems (he also ignores the negative influence money has in Chinese politics).
Along with a few other defenders of the Chinese political system who should know better, Bell is more than just a mere apologist. By forcefully promoting themselves as the one-true-alternative to democracy, these political “philosophers” drown out any chance we might have for a much needed debate on democracy.