Daniel A. Bell is a political theorist and Chair Professor of the Schwarzman Scholar Program and Tsinghua University, Beijing. His recent book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy is published by Princeton University Press.
We interviewed him following his talk at LSE’s 2017 China Development Forum – to see what he had to say on meritocracy, democracy, and Confucianism in China and the world today. As the impact of the Trump administration, the Brexit vote and upcoming European elections, and China’s continued rise are increasingly felt, no doubt these questions will become more and more relevant, not just to China, but to the world.
Using the ideal – but not necessarily the reality - of China’s political system as a basis, he argues that meritocracy offers significant advantages over one person, one vote democracy at higher levels of government. Even though reality might fall short of the meritocratic ideal, he argues that China’s political system is better equipped to deal with long-term challenges like climate change and the rise of artificial intelligence, whilst avoiding problems caused by irrational voting behaviour. This is because China’s top leaders are selected based on their political experience and ability, meaning that it takes time for them to reach the top – unlike in countries such as the USA, where Presidents can be elected with no government experience. Bell is not arguing that all countries should adopt the ‘China Model’, but there may be aspects of it which would benefit Western democracies, and vice-versa.
CM: Do you think the China Model will gain credibility outside China, especially in light of Brexit and Trump?
DB: It’s a bit of a mistake to view it as a competition between countries that use electoral democracy as a way of selecting leaders versus ones that have more meritocratic mechanisms, and that it’s not meant to be a zero-sum game. I think that different countries need to build on their own foundations and the systems they already have in place… I don’t think that the fact that Trump cast doubt on electoral democracy as a way of selecting good leaders necessarily means that it’s a triumph for Chinese-style meritocracy. For me the ideal is that both systems would improve based on their own foundations – democracies do better based on democratic conditions, meritocracies do better based on meritocratic conditions, and they compete to do good things. Let’s see which system does better dealing with issues like climate change, preventing war, dealing with artificial intelligence, economic relations, and so on.
But if electoral democracies really do select terrible leaders – Hitler’s the infamous case – then maybe at that point. And there is some evidence that in the West there’s growing disenchantment with democracy. There are studies that monitor people’s attitudes and it turns out that there is greater doubt, especially among the younger generation – which is, I think, a bit of a scary phenomenon – they could turn to fascism or something. But to be frank, electoral democracies have to do much worse and Chinese-style meritocracy has to do much better for there to be a really serious influence. And to learn from Chinese-style meritocracy, it’s not like electoral democracy, which is quite easy to export – you want to have elections in Afghanistan or Iraq, you just implement elections, whether that’s a good thing or not. I don’t think often it’s a good thing, but it’s not hard to export. But meritocracy’s hard because you need to have a long history of bureaucracy for those ideas and institutions to be in place. When China wanted to re-establish meritocracy after the Cultural Revolution, you had the memories of imperial China, so it’s not like they had to create something from scratch. But in countries that don’t have that long history of bureaucracy and some sort of meritocratic mechanism then it’s much harder to implement. Also as a matter of size, in the model where you have democracy at the bottom, experimentation in between, and meritocracy at the top, only in a big country do you have that, so it’s harder to export to smaller countries. How can you carry out experimentation, for example? [Editor’s note: as Bell pointed out in his talk, the scale of China allows for considerable experimentation in governance strategies, such as promotion based on successful implementation of environmental protection policies in Hangzhou.]
That said, one thing that surprised me a little bit is that I was teaching at the Schwarzman College, a new programme at Tsinghua University meant to train future leaders from around the world, and I was surprised at how many of the students wrote essays saying that we need to learn from meritocracy. There were two Americans who wrote that there should be examinations as a way of deselecting leaders. No one argues that examinations should be the one and only mechanism to select leaders but at least we can use exams to deselect truly incompetent leaders, like maybe Donald Trump or something. So those were two students from the US, two future leaders who were arguing that, and maybe in twenty or thirty years’ time we’ll see something like that. Maybe even voluntary examinations – if political leaders don’t want to pass voluntary examinations then they shouldn’t be chosen… And this is not so much from the Schwarzman but there are already many countries…Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda – they send many public officials to China to learn about how to deal with issues like poverty reduction, building infrastructure – they want to learn how to build up those mechanisms and they go to China to be trained, not just at universities but at the Chinese Academy of Governance. So I don’t think you could export the model as a whole, but nonetheless parts of it are being increasingly accepted and desired by the rest of the world if only because electoral democracy seems to be a pretty bad model now in many ways.
CM: One of the big advantages of meritocratic systems that you mentioned in your talk is the long view, particularly on issues such as climate change and artificial intelligence, and you also pointed to the fact that good governance for China matters because of its size. Something you shied away from though was that there does seem to be a clear moral implication for other big countries which are maybe not meritocratic, such as the United States and India. So I’m interested in whether you think there is a moral imperative on big democracies to adopt meritocratic systems in dealing with those issues.
DB: That’s a good question and, if you knew nothing about the history and the culture and you had to pick a political system I would say of course. But once you already implement electoral democracy it’s very hard to change except through the use of force, like in Thailand or Egypt. For some strange reason once you give a person the right to vote the only kind of pressure is to go downwards, like reduce the age, so I think you need to build on that foundation. That said there is a way to build on that foundation while having more meritocratic mechanisms. Just having more institutions that build greater distance from the power of elected politicians on issues like climate change. The only problem is that the populist pressures now seem to be all going the other way. I think in an ideal system like the EU would be a pretty good idea on many of these issues… and with the EU the fact that it’s not so subject to electoral pressure I think is a good thing on some of these issues [like climate change], not all, obviously. But it’s hard to move towards that even though there’s a good case to make in the abstract. But people would think well, I should have the right to decide those things.
CM: But with the China Model obviously it’s not just meritocracy, it’s got a Confucian value system, so to an extent some aspects can’t be exported because it has those inherent values.
DB: So I think meritocracy is not only Confucian. For example, you’ve probably read Plato’s Republic, that’s a really strong defence of a meritocratic system, but it’s true that Chinese-style meritocracy has strong Confucian characteristics, including this valuation of the ideal of harmony [和he, a crucial concept in classical Chinese philosophy, and especially Confucianism, which also plays an important role in contemporary government policy]. But that said, if you look at the way that other political systems are in place where there are other dominant values, harmony is much more widely shared than people think. Most East Asian countries strongly value harmony. And also in other contexts, in Latin America and so on. Even though they’re not necessarily called ‘Confucian’, some of the dominant Confucian values that inform Chinese-style meritocracy, including harmony and political meritocracy, are shared outside of China.
CM: Also in your book, when you talk about the disadvantages of electoral systems, one of the things you talk about is cognitive biases... Do you think that a meritocratic system is better able to cope with the reality of human psychology, and its impact on governance and the social order?
DB: I think in principle it should be the case, because in electoral democracy we see it; in the US the way to get elected is by appealing to people’s worst emotions, exacerbating biases, including cognitive ones, rather than trying to reduce their impact. But in a properly designed meritocratic system ideally there should be a way to take into account those cognitive biases when selecting and promoting leaders. In a way it’s possible to do that, whereas it’s much harder to do that in an electoral democracy where anything goes, you know? But is it happening? Well, maybe but arguably not as much it should be. It’s pretty new research, but now there’s lots of research on how cognitive biases influence what we do, and in principle that research should be used when it comes to selecting and promoting leaders.
CM: I wanted to ask you more about Confucianism. It seems from your books and what you’ve said today that your own ethical position is significantly informed by Confucianism. Are there any particular strands of Confucianism that you would prefer to see as the basis of a meritocratic system, and also that you do see, and do you think there would be a difference between a system which leans to a Mencian ideal of positive or benevolent Confucianism and one which leans towards a more Xunzi-inspired, pessimistic view? [After Confucius himself, Mencius (Mengzi and Xunzi) are the two best-known classical Confucian thinkers. Mencius is known for his view of humans as intrinsically benevolent, and Xunzi for a pessimistic view of human nature requiring restraint through ritual.]
DB: I think those differences can be overplayed. It’s true that Xunzi begins with the assumption that humans are born恶e – bad – you know, but they can be improved through moral education and through ritual, and at the end of the day the differences might not be that significant compared to Mengzi’s view. I’m not sure I’d want to have a strong view about human nature. That said, there’s a lot of evidence now that babies are born with this capacity for empathy, which really supports Mencius’ view much more than people used to think. But I’m not sure how much we want to play that. I guess my own view that we shouldn’t have any moral framework, leaving Confucianism as the only framework to decide on all issues. Like on issues like gender equality, many of my Confucian friends in China have pretty, to my mind, dubious views. And if that’s really the Confucian view then on that issue I’m not a Confucian. That said, I think there’s a way of re-interpreting Confucianism so that it’s more friendly to gender equality. But if that doesn’t work then forget it, let’s move on to something else, let’s not be Confucians on gender equality. But on issues like the value of harmony, interpreting it as ‘peaceful order but with respect for diversity’, 和而不同he er bu tong, that I think is a good value both for everyday life and for being promoted in the political system. And of course the value of political meritocracy itself is strongly Confucian, but not exclusively so. I think it would depend on, in issues like how to promote leaders, what are the key values, and I think that’s a bit more context-sensitive. In Qufu, the home ground of Confucianism, they use 孝xiao, filial piety, as a way of promoting leaders; they interview the parents of public officials and if the mother says ‘my kid is really problematic’ then it would doom his or her prospects. That would seem crazy in Canada or the UK, but in Qufu people think yeah, of course. There’s this assumption that if you can’t be kind to your parents, how could you extend that kindness to the rest of society? It makes perfect sense in a Confucian framework, which is actually deepest I think in Shandong, and deepest of all in Qufu. But whether you could extend that to other parts of China or the world…
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity)