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Can the China Model Succeed?

A ChinaFile Presents Transcript

Following is an edited transcript of a live event hosted at Asia Society in New York on October 15, 2015, “ChinaFile Presents: Can the China Model Succeed?” Panelists examined the argument put forward by Daniel A. Bell in his new book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. Bell was joined by Mark Danner, Taisu Zhang, Andrew Nathan, and Timothy Garton Ash, in a discussion moderated by ChinaFile’s publisher Orville Schell. —The Editors

Orville Schell (4:43): Good evening everybody, it’s great you’re all here. I hope we’ll have the revelation of Tim Garton Ash on the screen, who alas was ordered by his doctor because of a pinched nerve not to get in a plane. There he is. Good evening, Tim.

Timothy Garton Ash: Good evening.

Orville Schell: We’re thrilled that you’re here at least virtually. So listen, tonight it’s really an incredibly interesting and important topic. I think probably no one in this room who’s been to Beijing has not at some time looked at its skyline, then in a high speed rail train, subway, opera hall, museum, this sort of incredible new world that has suddenly arisen as China has undergone this miraculous period of economic growth, and not wondered a) how did this happen? and b) is this a kind of a new model for how a country can develop? I think we all have that kind of an experience in China. And it raises many questions. I’ve just written a few down and I thought I’d throw them out just to get everybody going.

Is this a new model? Is authoritarian capitalism, Leninist capitalism, something that has durability? Have the rules changed about how countries develop? That used to be, remember, that open markets led ineluctably to open societies. How does it stack up against the liberal, sort of democratic model of the West, which we have grown up with and believed, actually, was a kind of ineluctable historical force? Remember when President Clinton told Jiang Zemin he was on the wrong side of history? Is it a morally acceptable model? Is it exportable? And finally, I think most importantly, what should our posture be towards it, as the United States?

So to start off, we have Daniel Bell, who has written this very interesting and I should say timely, but also very provocative and quite controversial book, The China Model. Daniel has been teaching for many years in Beijing at Tsinghua and is working with the new Berggruen Institute, will be working with the Schwarzman Institute fellowship program in China.1 So we’re going to ask Daniel to try to sum up very succinctly in ten minutes (and I’m going to be pretty draconian about it since we want to get the questions from you and have discussion). Then Tim we’re going to turn to you, and then Andrew Nathan, then Zhang Taisu, and finally Mark Danner for five minutes of their reaction to Daniel’s treatment of this notion that China has arrived at a viable model that is something we should pay attention to and has an inherent viability in its own right. So Daniel, 10 minutes. A challenge.

Daniel A. Bell: Well thank you so much for having me. And I should say I was here 16 years ago with Joanne Bauer.2 We co-edited a book called The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, I’m not sure if she’s here. But anyway, since then, I’ve lived in Beijing for most of the time and perhaps from the perspective of people here, I may have gone rogue, but what I hope to explain within ten minutes—I hope to at least suggest that my view of the Chinese political system is within the reasonable range of interpretations. That’s what I’m hoping for.

I should say that when I had lunch with a friend at Columbia who’s from China, she said “well, we should have these debates in China too.” And of course I agree, but as you know there’s a problem in China with constraints on free speech, right? At least maybe some people might have visa problems—that’s terrible. In this sense, I’m a card-carrying liberal, totally in favor of free speech, and I look forward to the day when China has much more political speech than it has. I think there’s pretty much a consensus among intellectuals in China, whether it’s liberals or Confucians or socialists, that there’s a need for more free speech on China. So there is disagreement perhaps, although my views are not very controversial in China. I think they’re quite mainstream among academics and reformist political types. As you know, there’s a kind of standard trope in much of the western media—not the sophisticated people here—but often you read it, that there’s been no substantial political reform in China. It’s still this one-party state, authoritarian, communist. That part I disagree with. I think there has been very substantial political reform over the last thirty years or so, and I also disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting political rulers and that’s one person, one vote. So to the extent there’s any controversy, I think it’s more of a controversy maybe in western liberal democracies, and those are the two assumptions that I question. Again, my views are really from the Chinese context, I wouldn’t have come up with this book had I not been living and working in China for so long.

So, what’s my motivation? Well, I start off as more of a political philosopher, right? Interested in Confucianism, and this tradition of political meritocracy which really refers to the idea that the political system should aim to select and promote leaders with superior qualities. What did that mean in early Confucianism, and how can we make sense of it today? It was more like an abstract idea, not really connected with political reality. But then when I started reading about Chinese imperial history, and I’m grossly simplifying here, but for much of imperial Chinese history, political or public officials were selected first by examinations and then by performance evaluations at lower levels of government. The fascinating thing is that this system has been re-established in form over the past thirty years in China—highly imperfectly, as we’ll see. When this idea hit me, I started writing op-eds, and I was in, for example, the Financial Times and elsewhere, and I was really severely criticized by my liberal friends, and even more surprising to me was by my Confucian friends, who said “What’s happening to this guy? He’s become a staunch defender of the government.” And then I said “No, no, that’s not what I mean.” So basically I took two years off to just write this book and no op-eds and now that I have the book, I can go back to writing ... anyway.

Orville Schell: You go from the sacred to the profane.

Daniel A. Bell: Right. So what is my method? I’m going to call it contextual political theory, and this is the idea that a political theorist should aim to make coherent and rationally defensible the leading political ideals of a society. I happen to find myself in China, so it’s really an effort to make coherent and rationally defensible the leading political ideals of Chinese society. And what are those political ideals? Well, I label it “vertical democratic meritocracy.” I argue in the book that this is the political ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years, but there’s still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. And that this ideal is good, at least reasonably good, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the foreseeable future. So that’s my basic thesis, and to be frank I don’t have much time here so it may sound a bit provocative, but again the book has tons of footnotes and qualifications and elaborations and so on, and I don’t have time to elaborate here, so let me just state boldly what is this idea of “vertical democratic meritocracy.”

This is the idea that democracy works well at lower levels of government, right? This is a view that western political theorists have argued in favor for, starting from Aristotle to Montesquieu and so on, and Rousseau. If you have a small political community, the issues are fairly easy to understand, it’s easier to establish sense of community, you know the moral character of the leaders you’re choosing, so therefore it’s a very strong case for democracy at the local level. But especially in a huge country, as you go up the chain of political command, the issues become more complex, political experience matters more, mistakes become more costly, and there’s a need to institutionalize a system to select and promote leaders with superior qualities. What are those qualities? Well, I try to make sense of that in the book to a certain extent. But basically it’s this idea that if you have a huge country, at lower levels of government, a very good case for democracy. As you progressively go up the chain of political command, a strong case for more political meritocracy. And in between, we don’t exactly know what’s going to work and what’s not, so let’s allow for lots of experimentation and testing for different ways of selecting and promoting political rulers. So basically this model—I’m simplifying here—democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy on top. That’s a pretty good way of thinking about how to govern a large country, and I argue that it fits Chinese political culture well. There’s a long history of this kind of political meritocracy. There’s also actually a terrible experience with populism in the Cultural Revolution, so there’s a very strong case to re-establish this kind of political meritocracy, and we can argue that it’s hard to export outside—but anyway. The point is that in China, there’s a very good case to develop this kind of vertical political meritocracy, and I argue that this model has been informing political reform over the last three decades in China, in an imperfect form. That is because it’s a good model, and because it fits Chinese political culture and Chinese political reality, there's a very strong case to use that as the standard for judging political progress and regress in China. That’s the argument in the book. Again, I don’t think it’s very controversial in China.

Okay, so let me say a little bit about the gap between the reality and the ideal. Again, my book is not a defense of the status quo. I’m defending this idea which I use as the standard to evaluate the status quo. How could it be improved? Well, for one thing, democracy at the lower levels of government. Electoral democracy in villages has improved, but there’s still a long way to go to make the elections more free and competitive, and there’s a very good case for other features of democratic values and institutions to inform the political process. Deliberation, consultation, public hearings, referenda, all these democratic tools are very important, as well as certain levels of democratic elections at higher levels of government. So, there’s a case for more democracy. There’s also a case for better scientific evaluation of the experiments. What happens now is that you have many experiments at lower levels of government, but who decides whether it’s successful or not? It tends to be a very politicized process. But there’s a need for more expert evaluation of what counts as success of these experiments. So at the middle levels of government, a need for ... I’m going to just be frank and say a more scientific process. At the higher levels of government, to be frank, there’s lots of studies that show that at least in cities and so on, economic performance matters when it comes to deciding who gets promoted. Pretty much at the city level and above, leaders tend to have good intellectual ability, and good social skills. But the third thing that matters when you care about superior quality is virtue, and as we know there’s tons of corruption in the Chinese political system. So this means that the political meritocracy is not working as well as it should because by definition you’re there as a leader because you’re supposed to have superior qualities. What are those qualities? Intellectual ability, social skills, and virtue in a very minimal sense, that the leaders shouldn’t be corrupt, they shouldn’t misuse public funds for private or family purposes. We know that there’s tons of problems in that sense, and that is really a stake in the heart of the Chinese political system. Because in a democracy, corruption isn’t such an existential threat to the system, right? In a democracy, if the leaders are corrupt, you vote them out of power. If they’re still corrupt, you vote them out of power again. And if they’re still corrupt, well then it’s literally the people’s fault, not a fault with the political system. But in a meritocracy, if the leaders are corrupt, it means that meritocracy is not working. So it’s a stake in the heart of the political system, and I think that’s really what drives the longest and most sustained anti-corruption drive not just in Chinese communist history, but in all of Chinese history. They know that if we don’t deal with this corruption problem, the system is in deep danger. So what is needed, in short, is more democracy, more science in between, and more meritocracy on top, especially dealing with the corruption problem. Now, again, my views—because they’re the product of the Chinese political culture and I do think it’s really different than in Canada where I’m from or the U.S., it’s hard to sound persuasive in ten minutes, but nonetheless I’ve done my best and I apologize for the drawbacks.

Orville Schell: Well thank you, and you'll have some more time. Okay, now Timothy Garton Ash is from Saint Anthony’s at Oxford, but is presently at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, so Tim, I remand you five minutes.

Timothy Garton Ash: Thank you, Orville. First of all, I’m very sorry I’m not with you in person. I think we owe Daniel a debt of gratitude for giving us a much more sophisticated version of the “China model” than Eric Li, or Zhang Weiwei’s The China Wave or the egregious Colonel Liu Mingfu. This is at least one we can engage with rationally. Secondly, I do want to say, I think it would be a very good thing if there were a China model. It would be good for China, because it would increase the probability of a peaceful evolution. It would actually be good for the west, I think, because I think it’s good for the west to have a serious credible ideological competitor. I would argue many of the problems of the west—the hubris of the Iraq invasion, the financial crisis—are partly derived from the fact that after the end of the Cold War we did not have a serious competitor. So, it would be great if it existed.

Thirdly, and this is in agreement with Daniel, clearly there has been significant political reform and change. This is not a version of the Soviet Union. There’s policy experimentation in the cities and local government of the provinces. Anyone who’s been to a Chinese university knows that there’s fierce competition from the brightest if not the best students to be recruited to the Communist Party. All true. Nonetheless, I’m afraid that the system I see on repeated visits to China, and compare with other communist and post-communist political systems, is simply not the one that Daniel describes. He just said political meritocracy is not working as well as it should, and the answer is that it’s not working as well as it should because it isn’t political meritocracy. It actually isn’t.

Let me give you one example from the book. He describes a meeting with the minister responsible for the organization department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, who describes the selection process for the secretary general of that important department. Nominations from all sides. Examinations. Examinations put out in the corridor for public scrutiny. All examinations. An inspection team. Finally a vote. A wonderful meritocratic process. Now, neither Daniel nor I were actually behind those closed doors, but we know a lot about how the Chinese Communist Party works—and it doesn’t work like that. There is massive factionalism, factional struggle, clientelism, patronage, and corruption. We know that from numerous studies of the Chinese Communist Party, and indeed from books the Party itself has published. So that, we know that the selection of that very important person, whatever it was, was not the glorious theory described by the ministry of the organization committee. And incidentally, I think one thing we have to discuss with Daniel is whether he’s actually looking at the practice, in which case we have to test what he says against the practice, or the theory, in which case let’s look at the theory, which, by the way, much of it is Leninist. I would also say, Daniel mentioned the lack of free speech, the worsening lack of free speech. How you can have a genuine meritocracy, when you cannot publicly canvas all the credible policy alternatives, it’s very hard to see. In short, I think political meritocracy is not working because it’s not political meritocracy. And I think this means it’s actually going to be very difficult for this system to manage the extremely complex challenges it’s facing as economic growth slows down, the supply of cheap labor is exhausted, and you have an increasingly mature educated society with higher aspirations. So I wish it were true. But I’m afraid it’s not.

Orville Schell: Ok Tim, thanks. Now listen, because each person is going to raise some really interesting, meaty questions, I think that it’s only fair—I don’t want this to be a debate, but let Daniel respond quickly, so you won’t forget after each presentation.

Daniel A. Bell: I don’t think it’s a matter of either the system is there or it’s not. I mean, can we agree that it’s partly there and needs to be improved? I mean, that’s not very controversial, right? You know, there’s a whole department of organization which has this special task of thinking about what criteria we should use to select and promote leaders, and they’re not necessarily doing it great, but definitely there’s been this effort to implement and institutionalize political meritocracy. And I’m not so confident that it’s all false. It’s partly there, and what’s wrong with saying that it should serve as a standard for evaluating more political progress and regress? I agree with you that it’s much more important for the system to be transparent. That’s why this meeting with Li Yuanchao was important. Because he really made it very explicit and very detailed, and in the past they’re not so detailed.

The prominent organizations are becoming more transparent about what they’re doing but still not transparent enough. Why are they not so transparent? I think it’s more of an incentive problem. If they’re very transparent and then things go wrong, it’s very easy for people to be identified and punished, so I think in terms of the system as a whole it would benefit from being more transparent, because it would be, I think, more evident that there’s more political meritocracy in the system than is seen from outside. But on the other hand, it’s not in the interests of any one official within the system to encourage transparency.

Orville Schell: Ok, Andrew Nathan from Columbia.

Andrew J. Nathan: Daniel has said correctly that this is a book of political theory. His training at McGill and his early writing was to promote, explain a theory called communitarianism, which is a critique of liberal democracy that is internal to the west. And then as he says he’s been to China, and he’s written in some places that when he got to—Singapore, Hong Kong, and then China—he found in Confucianism and in Chinese culture an even stronger and better, to him, version of communitarianism. So, it is not really a book about the real China. It isn’t intended to be a book about the real China. However, it’s very easy to misunderstand it as a book about the real China, and you’ve just heard, I think, him talking in a way that shows why it’s easy to misunderstand it that way because he says that the China model is partly there. Tim feels that it really isn’t partly there. I mean, it’s partly there maybe 5 percent. But it’s really, really a book of theory, a book of idealism, a book of a model in the sense not of the China model that Orville talked about at the beginning—the real China, how does it work—but in the other meaning of the word model as something that we might imagine as a kind of blueprint. So I want people to understand that Daniel himself is describing the book as a book of theory. So don’t think of it as a book really about China, even though he talks about China as his utopia, or there’s an imaginary China that he uses to describe the model. What is the theory behind it? It is chiefly as he says in the book, he mentions here three levels: democracy, experimentation, and meritocracy. He does talk about those in the book. We could talk about each of them. But as he says in the book, it is chiefly a defense of political meritocracy. So that’s the key to his argument. And what is meritocracy? It’s the selection of leaders who have both ability and virtue, and virtue’s very important to Daniel as a political philosopher and as an ethical philosopher.

My big disagreement with the book is whether the meritocratic selection of people by ability and virtue produces a better form of government. And I think the core fallacy in that argument as theory is that it overlooks the exercise of power. It focuses on the selection of rulers but doesn’t pay attention to how those rulers are checked and balanced and overseen by a free society. Whether the Chinese system or whether an imaginary meritocratic system could actually select better people than democracy selects is speculative. I admit that democracy doesn’t always select the best people. I think that examples that we’ve seen of dictatorships also show us that they don’t usually select the best people. Whether Xi Jinping is a man of ethical superiority, I doubt, but I think Obama is probably a more virtuous person than Xi Jinping, but who knows? The key to democracy is not in the selection of leaders. The selection of leaders is very important, but what makes democracy better than authoritarianism is the checking of leaders by the freedom of others, and this is a point I think that Daniel overlooks, though he has acknowledged what he calls a gap between the ideal and the practice in China. That gap is not an accident. That gap is produced by the structure of the political system. When he talks in his book about liberal democracy, he doesn’t talk about a gap between the ideal and the practice. He just talks about the imperfections of actual liberal democracies, as they are in practice, and those imperfections exist. I yield my remaining 45 seconds to Taisu.

Orville Schell: Taisu, all yours.

Taisu Zhang: Thank you. I want to further follow on this theoretical discussion. One theoretical concern I had when reading the book was whether the book is actually comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. The argument of the book kind of goes like this: There is a theory of political meritocracy which is partially embodied in the Chinese system. It has the potential to generate better governance results, better governance outcomes than this arguably flawed model of western democracy. In a sense, you are judging both the Chinese model and the western model on whether it generates good governance results. But that is, to some political theorists, kind of a strange way to judge the western democratic model, because the western democratic model initially conceived, especially for example in the early American republic, was not necessarily purely or even primarily designed to generate good governance results. It was designed to further the democratic ideal of one person, one vote, of representative government. The core virtue of democratic government was in the innate legitimacy and the innate justice of elections, of the selection process. In which case, arguing that democracy tends to generate bad governance results kind of tends to miss the theoretical point of what actually makes democracy go in democratic countries. And you could actually even further this point to discuss whether this actually also overlooks some certain theoretical aspects of the meritocracy model.

For example, if you look at the meritocracy model and how it functions in late imperial China by the examination system, because of the increasing shrinking of the size of the state throughout the Qing [dynasty], the state goes from extracting 8 to 9 percent of GDP per year as state revenue to pretty much less than one percent by the end of the dynasty. The increasing insignificance of the state meant that generating good governance via the state itself was of increasingly less importance. But that said, the overwhelming social importance of the examination still held. And why was that? Because in the mind of Chinese elites, this is the only just way, the only socially legitimate way to select leaders, through an open, transparent, free-for-all academic examination. So there is also an element of selection-based legitimacy in the meritocracy model as well. So even there is purely evaluating that model on the basis of whether it generates good governance results may be overlooking some of the other things that go into whether that model actually functions or not. So, perhaps a separate question the book maybe should ask, but at this point does not fully ask, is does either model agree with the perceived social legitimacy of selection in either society? Are they actually selecting leaders in a perceived-to-be legitimate way, based on the conditions of their own society? Now of course what is perceived to be a legitimate way of selection evolves over time, and you could argue that in China today, arguably the most socially legitimate way and socially popular way of selecting leaders may be considerably more democratic than the Party actually allows and that could actually be a problem. But, ultimately, one thing that I was wondering was whether you could discuss what you think the book might have to say about that kind of selection legitimacy issue.

Orville Schell: Ok, Daniel, you have one minute. Why don’t you respond quickly, and then we’ll have Mark.

Daniel A. Bell: Ok. Thanks, Andy. It’s a work of political theory, but it’s a work of contextual political theory. So it’s very much influenced by the environment in which I find myself, and I wouldn’t have written the book had I been here or in Canada. How do I do it? Talking to people, intellectuals, reformers, reading, lots of social science, lots of philosophy, lots of history, in Chinese, English, and French—I'm from Montreal. It’s a book that’s very much literally determined by the context in which I find myself. There’s different kinds of political theory. One is very abstract, but the other is contextual. Mine is contextual, and it’s just an effort to make sense of the political ideals that people talk about, and that already inform the political process. I think it’s important to do that. It’s not like there’s truth and there’s reality. My interpretation, I think, is reasonable. There’s other reasonable interpretations of the political system in China, we can argue about that. It’s not like one is true and one is wrong, or one is fact and one is fiction. I don’t think that’s a very, to be frank, liberal way of thinking about political theorizing. I’ll just end with that polemical quote.

Orville Schell: We want to get to the end of this and you’ll have some time. We have Mark Danner from the University of California, Berkeley.

Mark Danner: Well, one of the downsides of going last, particularly with a distinguished panel like this, is many of the ideas I wanted to put forward have been mentioned, but the one that hasn’t been mentioned is what a low blow it is to publish a book claiming superiority for the China model over the American model in the age of Donald Trump. That is, the American model at the moment does not look very good. There is a glaring difference between the two models at the present time, and I’m going to try to recover it slightly, I hope. When I was coming down to the city after reading this book—which is a fascinating book, which everybody should read. It provokes thought in the best kind of way, which is it gets to your own preconceptions. You realize the sort of preconceptions you had that you’d never realized before. The book does that, and I commend you for it. It’s very entertaining, as well, in many ways.

But as I was coming down, I wrote a list of three fallacies: the fallacy of the real and the ideal china; the fallacy of selection versus governance; and the fallacy of technocracy.

And several have mentioned, there is an ambivalence, an ambiguity, a kind of flickering in the book between China that you know very well, intimately, and that you write about very well, and a kind of ideal China of the mind that you see in the near future. And it’s somewhat fascinating and beguiling, actually, because next to this ideal model that you’ve done a lot to construct and that you write about, as I say, very well, is a very powerful critique of contemporary China which seems to undermine your point about the near future.

I had a quote that I can’t resist: “Corruption, the gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent,” which we haven’t talked much about, “seem to have become worse while the political system has become meritocratic.” There’s also another problem, of course, with the idea of meritocracy, which is you claim great success for it, basically tied to China’s strong economic success over the last three or four decades, but at the same time the meritocratic system that you’re talking about really wasn’t installed until the early ’90s, and of course the current president is a princeling, famously. He is a son of a very high Communist official, an associate of Mao. So we have this kind of flickering between real and ideal. I remembered, I was struck by a memory that had been buried. My first visit to China I met a dissident, someone who’d been jailed after Tiananmen… I’d marveled, as everyone does in their first visit, at the building, the incredible construction, you know—I’d just been to Xi’an where there was a five-lane—it’s a spectacular, sorry, ten-lane highway leading in from the airport, with no one on it. We were literally the only car on it, my taxi. And I said this to this person I met and she said, what you see before you, Mark, is power being transformed into money. Those with power are transforming their power into money. And it was an image that stayed with me because the argument implicit in it is that the corruption is intrinsic to the system. And the system moves along at such an incredible overheated clip of growth because of the corruption, and the growth itself is part of the new social compact, of course—the compact that with the disappearance of Communist legitimacy, now becomes the growth legitimacy. And the question is, can you through meritocratic means get rid of corruption? You have a fascinating discussion about this in the book.

I would argue that to get rid of corruption, you need a single thing that China will not at the end produce, or not produce under your model, which is countervailing institutions.

This brings me to the second fallacy, which Andrew Nathan actually talked about considerably, which is the fallacy of selection versus governance. That is, you’re treating the selection of elites and the selection at the end of the day of political leaders, and that’s Trump, as what democracy is—or what meritocracy is, really. And I think that’s wrong. I think that the system we’re talking about, certainly on the democratic side, is a system of governing, of balancing of interests, of mediating institutions, of public scrutiny, of scrutiny not only by the press but by various other interested institutions. And that is what you see on the democracy side, although it’s working very terribly and there’s a lot of incredible public corruption built into it now: thus Trump. But on the Chinese side, basically most of that—most of it—is squelched. I think that is a key thing you have to come to grips with, it seems to me. In a way, talking about meritocracy limits you to talking about political selection as a model of politics, selection of political leaders. There’s so much more to it than that, obviously.

Final fallacy is the fallacy of technocracy, which is assuming that political problems have solutions if we just are smart enough. That’s wrong. That is wrong. Political problems have solutions based on balancing of interests. Social security I could fix right now. New York Review could fix it, it’s written a lot about it, if there were no problem with political interests. It’s a political problem. The book has a technocratic presumption, which I think at the end of the day limits the analysis, really. Having said that, I’m pleased to be talking about it and I’m very pleased to have read it. I found it immensely provocative, and everybody should read it. Thank you. And Donald Trump should read it.

Daniel A. Bell: Well, thank you for the generous and critical comments. Let me begin a little bit backwards. Of course I agree with you that some problems are political and that it’s more a matter of implementation, how to solve them we have to balance certain interests. But other problems are more, let’s say, have to be informed by lots of scientific knowledge. For example, climate change. We can argue about it but the scientists have pretty much clear consensus about what the problem is. And in China one good part is that in the political system you don’t have to persuade people much about the science. It’s more a matter of how to deal with it in a way that is reasonable—and this goes to your point—and that doesn’t undermine too many other valued goals in society.

Look, there’s lots of problems with the Chinese political system, but we should recognize that it does have some advantages, namely that the leaders have lots of political experience, they can make political judgments based on experience and based on scientific knowledge, not just worrying about the next election, so they could also take a more long-term outlook. And two, they could carry out experiments at lower levels of government that sometimes take years, if not decades, to bear fruit, and you can be pretty much sure that at the top there will be some stability. You can’t carry out experiments if the political system is going to change or the government is going to change very quickly every few years. So the question is, and I don’t think this is a crazy point, how to preserve these advantages of political meritocracy, which I think would be undermined by one person, one vote at the very top, while allowing for much more democratic values and practices, all the things that we care about in the political system. Do we really disagree about this? That’s really what it comes down to.

Orville Schell: So Daniel, if I can throw a question out to all of you: do we really disagree about this? Well, does the Chinese Communist Party agree about this? That justice has a role, that openness is more than just a utilitarian function? So, I would like to ask all of you: is there a model? China certainly has been very successful, it’s done a lot of stuff, something is working. I think that’s what Daniel is groping towards. Is there a model, and if there is, is it acceptable without these other things that liberals are always worried about like liberty, justice, freedom? Do these things matter in our world, or do we just want to get the damn high speed rail done? So who’d like to take that one on?

Taisu Zhang: I think that’s exactly the right question to ask. Because fundamentally, I would say there is a China model. Or least, historically there was a China model. But fundamentally, the core distinctiveness of that model was not basically how it [was] promoted or whether there was full top-down control or whether there was balancing of interests and split governments and balanced government at the top. The core definitive aspect of the system was how it selected governments. I guess this is maybe part of the thing where I might disagree with Mark a little bit. But fundamentally, I think these are two very different modes of selecting into the bureaucracy, into the government. That is the core distinction between these two models to me. But of course, which system selects the better bureaucrats, we can ask that question, but maybe that’s not necessarily the right question to ask. Should the selection process be predetermined by the social effect of how society perceives legitimacy?

Daniel A. Bell: I agree, but there’s no separate track. That’s the thing, I’m sure you know this. Between bureaucrats and political leaders. That’s the feature of western liberal democracies, you use a kind of meritocratic process to select the bureaucrats, and then you elect the political leaders who are supposed to decide, and the bureaucrats implement. There’s no separate track in China, both in imperial Chinese history and now.

Taisu Zhang: Increasingly, there has been dispute within the historian community about whether that was actually true. So for example, if you look at the county level governments, the county magistrate is selected through the examination process. But none of his staff actually are. And you can make a very good argument that his staff run the show, way more than the actual magistrate himself. The magistrate is somebody who is an outsider, usually has no political experience, comes in as an amateur, and rules over a body of highly professionalized staff on the ground, who frankly are selected by these local connections and other mechanisms.

Daniel A. Bell: Fair enough. I was referring to the city level and above.

Orville Schell: Let’s not get too bogged down in the Qing dynasty here, because we really do want to focus. It’s relevant, but the question is today. We’re dealing with a flesh and blood country.

Daniel A. Bell: My view is a little bit on the wrong side of history. Because I’m arguing for more openness during the same time things are becoming more closed. But I do think that, and maybe here this is where I’m more optimistic than most people. Why is the system becoming more repressive and less open the last two or three years? I think it’s precisely because corruption is viewed as a stake in the heart of the system, precisely because that political meritocracy is so important for the legitimacy of leaders in China. Political surveys bear this out. Your former student, Shi Tianjian, you know. He shows how important this kind of political guardianship, you know that people ... according to political surveys, they care more about a government that serves the people rather than how to get there. And a government that serves the people should be composed of political officials with higher qualities. But corruption undermines the whole point. Why are they going after the corrupt now? First, if we use Chinese categories, it’s kind of legalist means. Harsh punishments, fear, that’s the only way to get very quick results. But in the long term, there has to be much more institution building to deal with corruption. And here I agree with the critics. There has to be more rule of law, more freedom of speech, higher salaries, more separation of economic and political power, as well as better moral education for public officials. But all this stuff takes years and years to develop. So now we’re in a very oppressive period. The only way to have really quick results is to use these kind of legalist means, meaning fazhan in a Chinese sense, meaning harsh punishments and fear. Once we get beyond this period, then I think we’ll be on to things that we care more about.

Orville Schell: Let me ask you, if that is in fact the case—I’ve been following China for I hate to say how many decades—it’s always “let us do one more thing,” and it used to be “we will become more open and democratic.” And ever since Sun Yat-sen, the plan was that there were stages. Of military dictatorship to guided democracy to republic, etc. Is this still the goal of the present ruling party in China, to get to a more open, more democratic, more just society? Or is the model what you see, they’re there and you’re writing about it, and saying this is a pretty good model, we’ve arrived.

Daniel A. Bell: Well, more open, but not more democratic in the sense of using elections to select higher levels of government officials. Forget about that, that’s like a non-starter. I think there’s a good normative case also to question that. So in that sense it’s different maybe than what went on earlier.

Mark Danner: You can speak about more democratic and talk about less repression, for example. There are other uses of the term, and I think I’d go back to Orville’s question, which is really the question that is kind of flickering in the book. Which is are we there, or are we not there? I feel like you want to have it in a funny way both ways. It’s not clear to me why the meritocratic selection of leaders absolutely entails harsh repression of those conceived to be dissidents. But it seems to. And the question is whether this is a stage in a process leading to ... what? What is more openness? I mean, put elections to the side. One could conceive of a system where there’d be rights of association, rights of free speech, and so on, in which there wouldn’t necessarily be elections. Or maybe you can’t conceive of that, I don’t know.

Daniel A. Bell: We need to just bite the bullet and say free association short of the right to form political parties and vote for leaders at the highest levels of government. Anything else is compatible with political meritocracy.

Orville Schell: Let’s bring Tim in since I see he’s got something.

Timothy Garton Ash: Can I jump in from highly meritocratic Stanford? [laughter] You know, actually, I don’t think the question you pose, namely “is it acceptable?” is the first question we have to ask. It doesn’t imply there are notions of justice, freedom, and human rights. But the prime question is: is it viable? is it sustainable? Can they keep this show on the road? Political scientists distinguish between performance legitimacy and procedural legitimacy. Now clearly, the Chinese model is going to be low on procedural legitimacy, in the sense of “I’ve had my say, I’ve given my vote, even if I gave it to Donald Trump.” Therefore, it depends more than most on performance legitimacy. It has succeeded in that respect for the last 30+ years, but is increasingly finding that difficult, as the supply of cheap rural labor slows down. Pollution, corruption, massive debt overhang particularly in local governments, spectacular misallocation of capital. No longer being able to depend entirely on exports. These are extremely complex policy challenges. And I think the first question is: is the system, however we describe it, whatever label we give it, capable of managing those challenges, particularly when Xi Jinping is bringing all the responsibility back in what I call a “Leninist gamble” to single-party rule? I doubt that very much. Just one last word, I don’t think we should let unchallenged the notion that political meritocracy produces more skillful leaders. Given the choice between Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel for solving complex problems, I think that trumps Angela Merkel.

Orville Schell: Tim, you raise an interesting question, and I’d like to put it to you and the others. If in fact, the Chinese system as described by Daniel continued to work very well with ten percent growth rates and all the progress moving forward as it has in the past 20 years, would it be justifiable? Would it be morally correct? Would it be something that we in the west censoring China should accept, and should say, “well, this is an alternative. Fair enough.”?

Taisu Zhang: Can I add a question?

Orville Schell: Sure.

Taisu Zhang: Can I ask why is it necessarily true that the Chinese model, at least in an abstract theoretical sense, is necessarily going to be short on procedural legitimacy? Because that’s the whole point of ... ever since the ’90s, the wave of having public servant examination, the professionalization of the judiciary, the selection legitimacy, the procedural legitimacy is the entire point of those reforms. So why can’t they get that through those reforms?

Daniel A. Bell: Exactly. Examinations ... what’s good about elections, and there’s many good things, but one is that they’re an expression of political equality. But examinations in principle are open to anybody. It’s also an expression of political equality.

Orville Schell: There was an avenue of social mobility in traditional China.

Andrew J. Nathan: Daniel walks on two legs always. So part of it is the ideal, and part of it is the reality. And you said it’s not that there is a truth or a reality there. But then later you said China works better, it does better on climate change, as if there is a reality. So is there a reality? Is the China model a reality? If you say it's a reality, then I’m going to say that it doesn’t actually perform better. If you say it’s an ideal, then I’m going to ask you: “it’s an ideal of what?” I know from reading your other work that what you really care most about is social harmony, collegiality, family, friendship, things like that. Those are the high communitarian values, and the trouble with liberal democracy in your view, fundamentally, is it sets interests against interests. It’s about selfishness and conflict. I think we would all agree that a society which is collegial and harmonious would be attractive. I think the question that we have as liberals is—you don’t think it’s achievable by repression, or perhaps by any method? Real life is, there is unfortunately politics. So I guess I would challenge you, whether you believe that politics can be done away with.

Daniel A. Bell: No, that’s why there’s a need for much more openness, political discussion, to set the priorities. The past 30 years, the priority has been pretty clear: reduce poverty. The main best way to do that is economic growth. And China has succeeded.

Andrew J. Nathan: But you say forming parties is off the table. So if there were more openness, would parties be off the table?

Daniel A. Bell: So in the future, because there’s more, the priorities will become less clear. There’s a need for much more open debates and much more transparency, and organizations at lower levels of society, discussion, arguments, politics. But in order to preserve the advantage of the current system, which is: the leaders have political experience, they can take a long-term horizon, they can react quickly to crisis, they could carry out experiments. Then there’s a case for limiting organization of parties at the highest levels of government.

Andrew J. Nathan: I think Orville’s question to you was since you’re doing contextual political theory, and you say there’s nothing wrong with understanding the ideals of a society, I think Orville is saying are these the ideals of the Chinese Communist Party? These are your ideals, but are they the ideals of the Party?

Daniel A. Bell: They’re the ideals that I learned from living, working in China, talking to people, reading about it. I wouldn’t have come up with this thing. The only thing—my little minor contribution is to make things more systematic than they have been thus far.

Andrew J. Nathan: So for example, you say in the book that they should elect a congress of ethical people ... I forget. And that in the meritocratic bureau, they should appoint a young person who’s good with technology, and somebody who’s good in business. Do you think this is a vision of Xi Jinping?

Daniel A. Bell: That’s just an example. It’s good to have on the one hand a fairly clear system for the selection and promotion of leaders, but because things change so fast, there’s also a need for divergent voices, including at the very highest levels of government. So I gave examples of what those sorts of voices might be. And whether it’s going to happen, I don’t know.

Orville Schell: Let me pose this question to you all: is this creature that we’ve watched evolve, very successfully in many ways? Is it durable? Are we there? I mean this is the whole topic. You wrote the book on the Chinese model. Is the Chinese model, let’s take your description of it, is it viable?

Andrew J. Nathan: Does it exist?

Orville Schell: Okay, does it exist?

Daniel A. Bell: It’s partly there. I mean come on, do you disagree?

Orville Schell: Mark, what do you think? You’ve studied many forms of functional and dysfunctional government. Do you think, as you’ve looked at China, you’ve been there, do you think they’ve come up with something new in the world that is estimable, replicable, exportable?

Mark Danner: They are exporting it to some extent. But as I said in my remarks, corruption and the necessity of high levels of growth, it seems to me, are intrinsic in the present system. That is, the production of legitimacy ... legitimacy is being produced through high levels of growth. Tim was essentially saying the same thing, that this is a bicycle that needs to go forward at a certain speed not to start wobbling and fall over. I’m not a China hand by any means, but that’s my perception of it. Which to me gives a very dark cast to what Daniel’s been saying about the prospect of opening in the near future. It seems to me, as the system becomes stressed, as growth rates decrease, there will be more dissatisfaction and less willingness to accept the idea of performance legitimacy, as Tim called it. And without performance legitimacy, I’m not sure that procedural legitimacy is going to be enough. Particularly as the system, though it’s perceived as deeply open and meritocratic in this book, Chinese I talk to don’t often perceive it the same way. And you in fact acknowledge that the cadre of officials that you’re going to have to deal with are most often from wealthy families, and are a privileged group. The book is full of interesting contradictions I think, and that’s one of them. So it seems to me if, when we say, are we there? If we say could it be replicated, do people admire it, or do countries admire it, I think they do. Deng admired Singapore, and there’s a good deal about Singapore in the book, but if we’re asking a question of whether we’re there in the sense that we’ve solidified something that has a degree of permanence, I don’t think so. I think that Tim’s implications I agree with, it’s going to be fascinating visiting China over the next 20 years, but I don’t think it’s going to evolve in the way ... you have a very optimistic view for your model, of its evolution, which I can’t see in the near future. I mean, I admire the optimism of it.

Orville Schell: Tim has his hand up. Tim.

Timothy Garton Ash: Yes. Well, I’d love to hear from the great China hands on the panel. But I have spent much of my life studying communist systems and post-communist systems, and although seven years ago I would have answered your question cautiously optimistically ... Around the time of the Olympics, I thought that they were actually cracking it, they were beginning to find a way of evolving the system, a bit more separation of party and state, more room for civil society, market mechanisms, more rule of law, somewhat more freedom of speech. And with all those adaptive mechanisms, I thought they were actually evolving a China model that was sustainable. The trouble is that since then, and particularly under Xi Jinping, we’ve gone backwards, really back towards a more Leninist, control, centralized model. And I think facing the extremely complex challenges that China faces, it’s extremely unlikely they can master them. Look at the way they’ve reacted to the stock market crash. Like King Canute trying to command the tide not to come in.

Mark Danner: Also to the Arab Spring.

Timothy Garton Ash: I’m a liberal democrat, I would much rather it became a democracy. But short of that, I hope that they do crack it, because I think the consequences of a probable crisis of a system, when it doesn’t manage to master these extremely complex challenges, will actually shake the world. I think that will be extremely dangerous for us all. You only have to look at the South China Sea. Could I just ask Daniel, because I think it’d be interesting to hear from him on this, it’s a very simple question, which is: You’re very well connected in China, Daniel. You’ve been extremely gracious in China close to me. What reaction have you had from higher up in the Chinese party-state to your argument so far?

Daniel A. Bell: As you know, the Chinese party-state is a huge, complex organization with very diverse views. It’s communist in name, but in practice socialists, liberals, Confucians are all members of this organization. You mentioned legitimacy, there’s many sources of legitimacy in China. There’s not just economic reform. Nationalism, democracy to a certain extent is a source of legitimacy, but so is political meritocracy. They’re reviving that tradition, and that’s being viewed as an important source of legitimacy. That’s partly why they’re dealing with corruption, because it really undermines this source of legitimacy. And so because political meritocracy is increasingly being viewed as an important source of legitimacy, there is some support for this view expressed in the book. But no doubt, the critical aspects are not always welcome. The book is being translated in Chinese, and as in the past it’ll be a constant battle with the censors.

Orville Schell: Okay. Mark, you have one minute, and then I want to throw it open to you all.

Mark Danner: I’ll just say something brief. I just think Tim’s mention of the stock market and the reaction to it, and Orville’s written about this brilliantly I think, just exposes the basic contradiction. Which is, is Leninist capitalism a stable system? We have to be careful in asking the question, because we have our own piggish view about how things develop, how capitalism emerges in England and so on, and democratic openness, and we think of the two as joined at the hip, democracy and capitalism. That’s plainly not true. But there are absolute contradictions when it comes to the spread of information, the necessity of needing market information, what your namesake Daniel Bell used to call the cultural contradictions of capitalism is another obvious one. And you could go on about this. But that it seems to me is the kind of key underneath all the blankets, the thing that’s making everything uncomfortable and unbalanced, destabilizing the system, no question.

Daniel A. Bell: You know, my wife is in the business world. And the reason they wanted a buoyant stock market is precisely to have more liberalization in the system. And they learned that was ridiculous to prop up the stock market, because they’ll be held responsible when there is an inevitable downturn. The question is whether they’ll learn from their mistakes. I think there is this learning mechanism that’s really in the system. We’ll see, in that sense I am more optimistic. Compared to other authoritarian regimes, I do think there is this very strong tendency to learn from mistakes.

Orville Schell: They have had a tremendously strong survival instinct, which has forced them to evolve and learn.

Taisu Zhang: One really quick point: I think it’s easy to forget given our long history that the C.C.P.’s embracement of meritocracy is a very, very recent development. It’s basically the past two or three years when they’ve really amped up the rhetoric on this. So at this point, we’ve only had the open examinations for public servants about 20 years now. We’ve only had the rhetoric for professionalization of judges for 10-15 years. And we’ve only really had the overarching rhetoric of meritocracy as one of the bases of legitimacy and meritocracy defining kind of a selection procedural justice way ... it’s only been there for two or three years. So maybe it’s a little bit too early to actually figure out whether the public is going to actually eat that up and actually embrace it. Sure, for the past 30 years, all we’ve been used to is legitimacy based on performance and based on economic results. The Party is searching for new sources of legitimacy. Whether it’s succeeding or not, or whether it’s going to succeed, it’s going to take more than two or three years to actually figure that out.

Orville Schell: Ok, so we really do want to have some questions from you all. Let's see, there’s a hand right here, and I think we have some microphones. And please keep your questions short and tell us who you are.

Audience Member: Hi, I’m Jason, I’m a Ph.D. student of politics at NYU. I have a question for Daniel. You mentioned that there’s some advantage, in the current Chinese political system, officials can be more farsighted because they do not have to face electoral pressure, right? But the fact is that on average, in China, the mayors only can keep their office for no more than five years. And for Party secretaries it’s also the same case. So how could you imagine that in this situation, the mayor or the Party secretary could only keep their office for so short a period of time, how could they be farsighted in this system? While if you compare that to the United States, as far as I can remember, the re-election rate for New York state legislation is over 90 percent. So for the past ten years, 96 percent, and for the past thirty years it’s 92 percent. That means most representatives get to keep their seats. So it seems like a contrast. How would you respond to that?

Daniel A. Bell: That’s actually a very good point. I think that at the city level, democracies often do work well, much better than at central levels of government. One reason as you say is that sometimes mayors can be there for a long time. But I was referring more to the highest levels of government, where as you know, they’re there for two terms, meaning ten years. And after that, they’re supposed to retire. And they know that more or less, the same organization will be in power years from now. So there’s this interest in continuity, which isn’t there in more democratic systems where there might be more rapid changes at the top, and there’s not necessarily the expectation that the same party will be in power. Just take an issue. Climate change, okay? President Xi says, “by 2030 we’ll deal with this.” U.S. has a similar idea. If the Republicans win, what’s going to happen? I think in China we can expect more or less that they’re going to stick to what they say, unless the whole system collapses which is highly unlikely.

Orville Schell: Let’s see, we had a question right here.

Audience Member: Thank you, what a great panel. I hope I don’t bore people by asking a methodological question.

Orville Schell: If it’s a brief methodological question, we could probably count it. [laughter]

Audience Member: You describe what you’re doing as “contextual political theory,” and you mentioned that it was started from a communitarian background. My experience with a lot of western political theories is that although there’s a context in which they arose—in the case of Marx it was to critique the then current system and question everything, in the case of Rawls it was to try to perfect the optimism of the ’60s into a more perfect liberal order, and even communitarianism is a critique of that liberal establishment. I guess the question is: if you were to do political theory based on the experience of being in China in these recent decades, are you privileging this ... my hope is this relatively temporary phase of Chinese political order, because had you picked a decade or two earlier, you would’ve had to do a contextual political theory of the cultural revolution, and god knows what kind of theory that would have been. So I’m querying whether or not a political theory…

Orville Schell: Let's have a question, because we really have very little time here.

Audience Member: ...tries to maintain its conformity to the system, whether that has any legs because the system is going to change. Thank you.

Daniel A. Bell: It tries to make coherent and rationally defensible the experience of political reform over the last three decades. What are widely considered to be the dominant political ideals in China as systematically shown by political surveys, as well as the long span of Chinese history, where there have been all these debates over how to select and promote leaders with superior qualities. You have some of that in the west, but it’s so much deeper and richer in Chinese history, so those are the three things that I try to draw on for the purposes of this theory.

Orville Schell: Let’s see, we had somebody ... let’s try right here. Does somebody already have a mic? Go ahead.

Audience Member: Hi, this is Skyler, I just graduated from NYU as an undergraduate. I think the whole debate has been focused on which selection process is more superior than the other, but before that I think the fundamental question to ask is: do we have enough young talents in China with merits that are willing to participate in this selection process? If the selection process cannot even provoke enough enthusiasm and motivations from people who have the merits to compete for the top positions, how can this selection process even be viable in the long run?

Daniel A. Bell: I mean, part of what motivated the book too is that in the 1980s, many of the high performing students in China didn’t want to join the Party. It was viewed as kind of negative. I’ve noticed change over the past 12 years where many, not all of course, but many of the high performing students want to join the Party. There’s increased competition and desire to join this organization. So I don’t think there’s a shortage at all of young talents who want to join the Party. But I think the problem is how to make the system legitimate to young talents that don’t want to join the Party. I think that’s a bigger problem.

Orville Schell: Any other comments from the panel?

Taisu Zhang: I would say given the vast number of people who take the public servant examinations year after year after year, they outpace the number of available slots by 1 to 500. I would say that’s likely not a serious problem.

Orville Schell: Ok, let’s see, right here. Alright. Who had their hand up? You, go ahead.

Audience Member: Thanks. I just wondered what, if we’re talking about people and their qualities, it’s well known I think although I don’t know the figures, that a lot of engineers work within the system. Apparatchiks, bureaucrats, but a lot of engineers, and some of the bureaucrats are engineers. In our congress, we have lawyers, I think. Lots of lawyers. But there’s a distinct difference between a system that’s run by engineers, and one that’s run by lawyers, I think. What I’d like to know is, what is the effect of a system that is so heavy with engineers?

Orville Schell: Andy, this may be something for you. A question for you. Do you feel qualified to answer this?

Andrew J. Nathan: [laughter] How can I say "no, I’m not qualified?" [laughter] I will take the opportunity of your question to disagree with Daniel on something. Which is that although the central leadership may make a decision about climate change that will do something by 2030, interests, as Mark mentioned, won’t go away. There will be a political struggle over realizing that. Whereas in our system, there is a political struggle going on in the open, which is conducted by lawyers, and which leads to a decision, a rolling series of decisions, some of which are reversible, many are not. At the end of the day, the democratic system does reach a decision. So I’m not sure which one will succeed in doing more about climate change in the end, but I think if you look at the performance of the Chinese leadership since 1949 or since 1979, they’ve done a few things right, they’ve done a great many things wrong.

Orville Schell: Ok, another question.

Audience Member: Hi, I have a very brief two-part question. The first part is conceptual. Just from the topic, can the China model succeed, I haven’t heard a lot of debate as to the terms in which we’re defining success. It seems as though we’re establishing success as stability, or just the absence of the collapse of the system. I don’t know many of us that would define that as success. That being said, if you could just clarify what you would mean by success. And the second part is taking that into a specific aspect, we brought up division of powers. Specifically, the issue of the judicial system in China. As we know from an economic point of view, the country is moving from an export dominated economy to a consumption dominated economy. How do you see in this process in which power is, no matter whether it’s gained through meritocracy or whatever other system there is, how exactly does a meritocrat get to go to court with a farmer in China, and how can merit determine whether justice comes to an equal footing in that situation?

Orville Schell: Well that question kind of circled back, it seems to me, to the question of justice. Is justice something that is on the agenda of the present model? Anyone.

Daniel A. Bell: It depends what you mean by justice, right? I mean, if it’s a kind of Rawlsian notion that the inequality of economic resources is justified if it benefits the least well off, or let’s put it more straightforwardly, that there’s strong emphasis on poverty reduction, and I think Confucians will also agree with that, and socialists, then there is this strong emphasis on justice. But if by justice you mean that there should be a right to organize against the political system, then obviously there’s not justice in that sense in China.

Taisu Zhang: I do believe each society has kind of a fundamental to define on its own terms what justice means for itself. Which is why I would urge maybe Daniel, maybe the rest of us, to begin with the question of how does Chinese society actually understand justice? It’s not quite as simple as just democracy, performance, meritocratic selection. Arguably, especially given the current state of Chinese society, it’s very likely going to be much more nuanced and complex than that. So that will be a very good place to start, I would think.

Daniel A. Bell: The whole idea that justice should be the mother of all virtues isn’t so obvious, both in Chinese history and now. To go back to Andy’s point about social harmony, what harmony means is not consensus or uniformity, and it’s very strongly valued I think in Chinese political culture. It’s the idea that you should have respect or maybe even celebration of diversity on a foundation of peaceful order. That is viewed as a very strong normative good that the government should pursue. Of course there’s a big gap between the reality and the ideal, but that arguably should serve as a standard of good government in a society that strongly values social harmony. And as you know, I have this appendix in the book that tries to measure social harmony, evaluate countries according to that standard, which isn’t typically done from here for example, where countries are measured according to whether they protect civil and political rights.

Andrew J. Nathan: So I’ve shared my review with Daniel, and I quote from the book here where he says “Of course, this harmony relies on force to prevent the open articulation of diverse interests.”

Daniel A. Bell: That was a critique, yeah.

Andrew J. Nathan: It is a critique, but are we talking about the real China that exists, or are we talking about an ideal, which Orville’s question implies is really not in the blueprint of the leadership. It’s your ideal, and I respect that…

Daniel A. Bell: It’s partly realized, and the question is: what should be the standard to judge further political egress and regress? And in your review, you end up with liberal democracy. That’s the only standard. It doesn’t owe anything to Chinese history and culture, and philosophy, and what people care about. There we do have a fundamental disagreement.

Orville Schell: Well this is why your book is so interesting and provocative, is because it sets a very different standard, and one that we are not accustomed to either accepting or really feeling the moral power of.

Andrew J. Nathan: I think Chinese standards are also diverse. Different Chinese people want different things.

Daniel A. Bell: Of course.

Mark Danner: To go back to the first question he asked, you then say that if you had a gradual loosening and pluralism, as seems to start to be happening in Singapore for example, the answer to our title question, “can the China model succeed?” would be “no.” Is that the logical conclusion? Because it would be an adoption of liberal democratic models on a meritocractic system that does justice to Chinese history.

Orville Schell: I have an idea. Daniel, I want you to answer that question, but then I would like us to end up by saying whether we think the China model is durable and will last. So you comment, and then I’d be curious to know how each person responds to that question.

Daniel A. Bell: I guess the test of success is whether this model of vertical democratic meritocracy will become more democratic, more scientific, and more meritocratic in 15 years’ time. And now it’s going the wrong way in some ways. But it’s also going the right way in the sense that corruption undermines this whole meritocratic model, and if corruption isn’t dealt with, it’ll kill the system. I do think the anti-corruption campaign is succeeding. It’s changing the mindsets, it makes cadres think twice about misusing public funds in a way that wasn’t true before. I travel a lot within China, I get that impression. Even a few years ago in Beijing, you would see these military cars with license plates driving crazy, ignoring the rules, and that would really infuriate people. You don’t see that anymore. I think once this corruption is dealt with, then I would expect to switch to a gradual openness, and it’s a testable hypothesis. In 20 years’ time, if China becomes more repressive, we see another Tiananmen Square, then I’m lost and I’ll change my views. You know? [laughter]

Orville Schell: Ok, Tim, let’s start with you. What’s your response to the long term durability of this model?

Timothy Garton Ash: I don’t think the China model yet exists. Except between the covers of this book. [laughter] For me, the question is can they get there? Can they get to a sustainable model in a complex, modernizing society, a model which will undoubtedly be in many respects different from classic western multiparty liberal democracy? I hope they do, because I think the consequences of failure will be disastrous for us all. But I don’t think they will get there simply by the message that they have so far adopted. I think just empirically, empirically, we have learned from history that you need more freedom of speech, more pluralism, more public competition between policy alternatives, in order for such a system to succeed. So I hope one day I’ll be able to say there is a Chinese model, and it’s working.

Orville Schell: Mark.

Mark Danner: I think the China model did exist, it was in the mind of Deng Xiaoping when he looked at Singapore. I think I’d agree with Tim that it doesn’t exist except here, and I guess I agree with him too that there is an inherent gravitational pull to some kind of pluralism. Americans have this natural bias to think that political change to democratic systems automatically, in some magical fashion, brings a perfect polity. And we see it leading again and again to very miserable results. Iraq is only the most recent time, so we shouldn’t be very proud about this. But it does seem to me that one could postulate a future in which there would be a creative change to a more pluralistic system in which voices, a great many more voices, would be recognized, heard, and not be greeted as they were after the Arab Spring with increasing repression. It seems to me that is the dynamic now, and the question is whether that dynamic can somehow be surmounted, and openness can lead to greater political change. Not necessarily to a liberal democratic system, but something more, something with greater voice, greater numbers of people having a voice.

Orville Schell: Taisu.

Taisu Zhang: I would say if you define the China model in terms of what is actually currently in place in China in the system right now, then I would say yes, there’s a China model. Now, what I don’t necessarily see is whether there’s a clear definition of success in China at this moment. China is in the midst of arguably the greatest period of ideological flux since the early 1980s. And what comes out of this entire ideological discussion will largely define what we actually mean by “can the China model actually succeed?” So I would say it’s a little bit premature to actually ask that question at this point. We want to wait and see what happens after the Chinese figure themselves out ideologically, and morally, and perhaps theoretically also.

Andrew J. Nathan: Nobody knows what Xi Jinping is aiming at, but one of my Chinese friends describes it as the “red empire.” Which is the idea of an authoritarian regime that chooses its own successors from within a political elite and which is repressive in order to manage a very complex society. I think actually Daniel and I agree to a considerable extent on what China is today. It’s repressive, it’s authoritarian, it’s...

Daniel A. Bell: Can I disagree?

Orville Schell: You’ll have your chance. [laughter]

Andrew J. Nathan: I just agreed with you and you already want to disagree with me! [laughter] I think there’s a considerable, I’m not predicting that it will survive, but I think there’s a very considerable chance that that model of repressive, authoritarian, self-perpetuating elite leadership can persist for a long, long time. Because there is nobody in China that can overthrow it as long as it doesn’t run into some kind of horrible crisis or breakup internally. I don’t see it changing for a long while.

Mark Danner: What about an economic crisis?

Andrew J. Nathan: Yeah, I mean if it hits a crisis that it can’t handle, then things will be messy.

Orville Schell: Daniel?

Daniel A. Bell: Of course I agree that things are going the wrong direction. But on the other hand, I’ve been there 12 years, and I must say that the debates on social media are much more lively now than 10 or 12 years ago. I subscribe to all these groups. Some are liberal, some are Confucian, some are socialist. Really vigorous political debates. And I was just talking to this friend today, earlier at Columbia, and we’re saying, well, maybe precisely because there’s no elections ... when you have elections, it’s very politicized. After elections, everybody more or less—I'm exaggerating—goes to sleep. But in China, there are no elections, so people are constantly politicized. But they can’t organize. That’s the repression. Even in the policy making process, it’s not like Xi Jinping decides and that’s it. They have this extensive consultation already, for the new property law it was like over a decade of consultation. Diverse forces and groups, you know, and lots of deliberation. Ok, highly imperfect, tons of improvement, but I don’t want to make it too pessimistic, that it’s all about repression over the past few years, and we’re expecting this magical turn. I think the forces are already there for more pluralism and openness in the system. Now, they’re blocked because of this need to deal with corruption in a very harsh way. But I do expect things to change over the next ten or twenty years, or maybe even a hundred years. [laughter]

Orville Schell: I think that’s a good place for us to leave it. Because in fact, Daniel’s book is relatively optimistic, and what’s so interesting about China is it engenders so many utterly opposing views. It is a country of enormous contradiction. I always like to say that I don’t think you can understand China unless you can maintain things that are equal and opposite at the same time, in your head at the same time. That’s why we’re here tonight. So thank our five panelists, and Tim thank you from Stanford.

Transcribed by Gavin Cross.


  1. Nicholas Berggruen, Chairman of the Berggruen Institute, and Stephen A. Schwarzman, Founder and Chairman of the Schwartzman Scholars, are trustees of Asia Society, ChinaFile’s publisher.
  2. Joanne Bauer is married to Andrew J. Nathan.