Is There a China Model?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The most recent public event in our ChinaFile Presents series, which we held October 15 in New York, was a discussion of the philosopher Daniel A. Bell’s controversial book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, co-hosted with The New York Review of Books. The panelists were Timothy Garton Ash, Mark Danner, Zhang Taisu, and Andrew Nathan, and Orville Schell moderated. The following conversation includes excerpts of that discussion as well as responses to our question from other ChinaFile contributors. We will publish a full transcript of the event next week. —The Editors


For much of Chinese imperial history public officials were selected first by examination and then by performance evaluations at lower levels of government. The fascinating thing is that this system has been reestablished in form over the past 30 years in China—highly imperfectly, as we’ll see. When this idea hit me, I started writing Op-eds and I was severely criticized by my liberal friends and my Confucian friends who asked, ‘What’s happened to this guy? He’s become a staunch defender of the government.” But that’s not what I mean.

So, what is my method? I’m going to call it contextual political theory: 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 what are the leading political ideals of Chinese society? Well, I label it “vertical democratic meritocracy,” the ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years. But there is still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. This ideal is good, at least reasonably good, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the foreseeable future.

Andrew Wong—Getty Images
Attendants serve tea during the opening session of the National People’s Congress, 2008.

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 with Western political theorists have argued, starting with Aristotle, Montesquieu and Rousseau. If you have a small political community the issues are fairly easy to understand and you know the moral character of the leaders you’re choosing so, therefore, it’s strong case for democracy at the lower level. But, in a huge country, as you go up the political chain of command, the issues become more complex and mistakes become more costly.

There’s a need to institutionalize a system to select and promote leaders with superior qualities. It’s a good case for democracy at the lower level, and for meritocracy up top— and in between, we don’t exactly know what’s going to work, so lets allow for lots of experimentation and testing for different ways for selecting and promoting political leaders. Democracy on 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 pretty well. There was a terrible experiment with populism during the Cultural Revolution, so there’s a strong case to reestablish this kind of political meritocracy.

Let me say a little bit about the gap between the reality and the ideal. I am not defending the status quo. I am defending this ideal that I use as a standard to evaluate the status quo. How could it be improved? For one thing, democracy at the lower levels of government: elections at the village level have improved but there’s still a long way to go to make the elections more free and competitive. 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 tools are very important, as well as certain levels of democratic elections at higher levels of government. There’s a case for more democracy. There’s also a case for better scientific evaluation of the experiments. Nowadays you have experiments at middle levels of government, but who decides whether they’re successful or not? There’s a need for more expert evaluation of what counts as success.

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 Way,” 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 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 publically 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.

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 five percent. But it’s 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 want to further follow on this theoretical discussion. One theoretical concern I had 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 increasing 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.

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. When I was coming down to the city after reading this book—which is a fascinating book, which everybody should read—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.

There is an ambivalence, an ambiguity, a kind of flickering in the book between China that you [Daniel Bell] 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.

A quote 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, and I remembered, I was struck by a memory that had been buried, of my first trip to China, when 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 10-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 challenge the premise of the question. There isn’t a “China Model”. First, it’s doubtful that China is following a particular blueprint for development and governance. Rather, it is seeking solutions to the country’s problems based on existing circumstances while staying mindful of the fundamental national objective: preserving the power of the CCP while pursuing stability, prosperity and harmony. More importantly, China’s political and economic system may find eager students in developing countries (and even a few impressed developed countries), but it is not meant to be emulated.

If China does represent the rise of an alternative system of government, it is not any more specific than enlightened authoritarianism, or some form of authoritarian capitalism. This brand of government promises self-strengthening to countries that are willing to be politically agnostic in service of economic development. For this reason, China can happily collect client states and allies across Africa, Central Asia, and South America who wish to emulate the new global economic powerhouse—even better that China is willing to provide financial assistance and trade partnerships both in bilateral, and now multilateral, form.

Even countries that seemed good prospects for successful democratic transition are swayed. Kazakhstan, Kysgystan, and Uzbekistan, all part of China’s Silk Road initiative, are now solidly in the camp of authoritarian democracy, despite undergoing their own democratic uprisings. Each of these countries has strong central controls on the market to prevent instability and promote growth. At the same time they pursue their democratic ambitions, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Argentina, and many other recipients of Chinese dollars, are all leaning towards statist models of development. Ethiopia and Rwanda have already begun to contribute their stories of economic success and limited political freedom to the growing narrative about authoritarian capitalism as the fourth revolution.

However, only at the highest level of generality, where countries are categorized more by their geopolitical alliances than their national characteristics, can we say that a “China Model” is gaining ground. Looking at a more local level, we see a fragmented pattern of development. Central Asian countries have nominal democratic elections and boast completely different models of economic development from China. African democracies are making the case for a “third way” between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Finally, much of South American statism and anti-neoliberalism is driven by grass-roots populism. The result is the rise of alternative government at the community level. In Argentina, for example, it provides basic public goods and services and organizes the interests of labor. Colombia and Bolivia have similarly carved out a formal place for social organizations in their governance mechanisms. Brazil continues its experiment, begun in 1982 after the near collapse of the economy, to more effectively provide public goods through increasing the efficiency and capacity of the central bureaucracy.

Western neoliberalism, as a standard form of government, does not yet have a true competitor. Based on its interactions with other countries thus far, China does not seem to have an interest in creating one.

Daniel Bell refers to his approach as “contextual political theory,” but there is a related term that is perhaps even more fitting: “normative reconstruction.” Briefly, this is a method of theoretical critique that seeks to understand how philosophical “ideals” (or abstract norms) underlie and are transformed within actual social institutions. If we seek to understand the “free market,” for example, we need to ask how “freedom” manifests in concrete circumstances—when does an employer’s “freedom of contract,” say, start to impair a worker’s “freedom” to obtain decent conditions and a living wage?

By asking such questions, appeal to normative ideals can clarify real-life situations, precisely because those realities often fail to live up to their own ideal claims. Moreover, even if a system as a whole lacks a single “blueprint” of political practice, inquiries like Bell’s can help us to understand the justifications and self-understandings of individual or collective actors within such systems. In turn, this can help us to understand how systems can change and at least potentially improve themselves—shared norms are, above all, resources for projects of reform.

In the specific context of Chinese politics, he identifies norms of democracy at the local level, experimentation at the middle level, and meritocracy at the top. Much of the conversation thus far has focused on the last of these normative ideals; in the first place, this is because the question of top-level governance seems to many of us to be of the most importance—this is where the greatest power lies with the fewest individuals. Secondly, perhaps this focus stems from the natural romantic attraction of leaders and the charismatic attachments (be they affection or repulsion) they can inspire, which in turn often provoke disagreements about overall state legitimacy.

However, I would like to displace this focus for a moment by arguing that, quite possibly, it is the middle term in Bell’s trichotomy that has the greatest significance. The top-level ideal of “meritocracy” is certainly a key form of state legitimation (both through performance and through the “selection” dynamics mentioned by Taisu Zhang). Yet what constitutes “merit” is determined by circumstances: in one situation, the most relevant value might be economic acumen, in another, foreign policy, and in yet another, capacity to communicate ideals and inspire political solidarity. “Democracy” at the local level is similarly important but also extremely overdetermined as to its actual content: sometimes “democracy” means no more than electing or voting out local leaders, other times it manifests as calls for popular referenda, or as potentially volatile NIMBY protests over pollution or other issues.

Similarly, the normative ideal of experimentation at the middle level lacks any inherent substantial content. Yet unlike merit or democratic will, experimentation as a norm openly acknowledges this need for external determination. As an idea, it consists of the claim that there must be the ability to try out new forms of political, social, and economic arrangement. If one is to attempt a “normative reconstruction” of this idea, then, its key element would be this: someone or some group must enjoy the full “freedom to experiment” at this key, middle level of governance.

The system must be sufficiently flexible, unitary, free of corruption, and feature enough state capacity for political experiments (say, the establishment of a “special zone” in Guangdong for economic liberalization) to actually go forward reliably and potentially serve as broader systemic models. Indeed, without this ability to experiment “democracy” would have little meaning (the will of the people must be the will to do something), and “merit” would have nowhere to display itself (or at least would be deprived of such key elements as creativity and boldness—thus reducing the concept to technocratic management skills of the sort that some interlocutors assume and criticize here). On the other hand, if there is a genuine capacity to experiment with new political programs and forms of socio-economic ordering, the democratic will has something to react to and individual leaders have a specific, concrete forum in which to demonstrate their claims to superior merit.

If there is a “China Model”, then, I would argue that it consists above all in the system’s demonstrated capacity for ongoing experimentation, which Bell very rightly identifies but which I think should be even more at the center of his text (as it is at both the conceptual and literal center of his theoretical schema). Does this normative ideal of experimental capacity challenge the West? We tend to forget that liberal democracy and constitutional government, too, started as experiments, not as metaphysical claims to the discovery of timeless truths. To quote John Dewey, “since conditions of action and of inquiry and of knowledge are always changing, the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered.” If nothing else, China’s successes challenge us to experiment as well, and thus to work to free our own politics from the ideological or interest-driven pettiness and gridlock that deprive us, as politically conscious citizens, of the capacity to try new things.