Beyond the Boundaries of Western Ideology: A Review of Daniel Bell’s The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

Beyond the Boundaries of Western Ideology: A Review of Daniel Bell’s The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

Western ideology loves to characterize any society that doesn’t conform to the ideals of liberal democracy as inherently wrong. Thus, it’s no surprise that at the core of the extreme politicization of the China-US relationship in the 21st century lies a deeper ideological conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. In many ways, this conflict is manufactured: one can make the argument that China’s system of governance isn’t authoritarian to begin with. Nevertheless, this conflict has been perpetuated by both media outlets and political leaders. While every 21st-century president has voiced the importance of collaborating with China, all of them have distinguished the desire for collaboration from the support of its [China is singular]  government system. Every one of them has, at one point or another, denounced China’s political system as morally reprehensible and suggested the need to expand Western democracy. In the words of President Bush, “[Chinese] leaders are in a position to make the right choices and to open up the political system. In the long run, the greatest source of stability in China… is freedom.” citation? Today, the George W. Bush Presidential Center asserts that “China’s authoritarian leadership also threatens American society, freedoms, and values.” citation?

But the last two decades have complicated the picture. Politics aside, China is unequivocally one of the economic miracles of the modern world. In 1978, before Deng Xiaoping’s transformative economic reforms, the isolated nation had a GDP of approximately 150 billion dollars. Four decades later, the country has developed into the world’s second-largest economy, lifting 800 million people out of poverty, accumulating a GDP of over 14 trillion dollars, and accounting for 20% of the world’s manufacturing. If politics and economics are inextricably linked, and China is capable of achieving such incredible national success, surely there’s something to be said about the efficacy of its political system. Some political thinkers have used China’s success as a launch pad for initiating this debate, which opposes the supremacy of Western thinking by deviating from one of the most foundational Western values: democratic universalism. 

In his book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Daniel Bell entertains the notion that China’s government system— which he characterizes as a political meritocracy—is a legitimate alternative to Western democracy. According to  Bell,  democratic societies contain flaws that elements of political meritocracy can help resolve. Bell explains what he believes to be one of democracy’s greatest flaws: it allows for irrationality to enter decision-making. Bell argues that voters in a liberal democracy don’t possess the time— or motivation, for that matter— to accumulate political knowledge. Instead, voters act emotionally, driven by a need for instant gratification instead of finding the best possible solution to an issue. Thus, instead of a government led by rational and experienced leaders, we elect leaders who benefit from catering to the irrationality of their constituents. Effectively, democracy places decision-making power in the hands of individuals without political experience. According to Bell, political meritocracy can solve this problem in several ways. First, the state institutes mechanisms to ensure that political leaders are qualified. Bell uses the example of an examination system, which tests prospective leaders’ intelligence and political merits. The process works in such a way that, by the time it produces top government officials, it would have filtered out approximately 99% of candidates. Second, a political meritocracy removes the dependency of political leaders on voters, shifting the focus from winning reelection (as it seems to be in the US) to simply doing one’s job better. While Bell acknowledges that the examination system isn’t as effective at testing for other essential qualities of political leaders— namely “emotional intelligence and virtue” — he agrees that— in a world where political leaders need to draw on knowledge in different disciplines— it improves on the Western selection process by ensuring political leaders are politically competent (in terms of strategic thinking, policy analysis, critical thinking skills, etc.) Ultimately, Bell proposes an ideal form of government that draws on both democratic and meritocratic ideals: A “Vertical Model of Government.” Bell argues that voters are more familiar with political leaders at a local level and thus are more capable of judging their competency and virtue. Additionally, the decisions at local levels of government are less consequential, allowing room for political leaders to develop their skills. Thus, this vertical model would operate under democratic principles at local levels of government and meritocracy at the higher levels. However, at top levels of government, where political experience and virtuous intentions are most vital, the model would operate under a meritocratic ideal. In theory, this structure does seem ideal: the democratic components sustain a sense of legitimacy and faith in government, while the meritocrats at the top ensure operations are running effectively and smoothly.    

But Bell’s proposals have some severe flaws, the largest of which he passively concedes himself: throughout his defense of political meritocracy, he considers the “ideal, not political reality.” In other words, his illustration of an effective political meritocracy doesn’t exist; instead, he presents his version of what political meritocracy could and should be. This problem manifests in his analysis itself: most of the examples he gives of political meritocracy working well don’t even come from China itself. Instead, he uses places like Singapore or Chile as examples of places where political meritocratic methods—like the examination system—succeeded. New paragraph? In his book China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay, Mei Xin Pei provides insight into the dynamics of Chinese society that raise concerns about the stability and effectiveness of politically meritocratic governments. Pei explains how the decentralization of authority that accompanied the economic reforms during the 1990s made it so that government officials, particularly at the local level, operated with almost no oversight. This, coupled with the modification of property rights that blurred ownership rights, incentivized politicians and business people to collude with one another and assert control over state-owned assets. Using a collection of 260 cases in the last 25 years, Pei provides a solid argument for the pervasiveness of corruption throughout China, most of which involves the same political leaders that, in the ideal world put forth by Bell, should have the political motivation and virtue to resist. While Bell’s “Vertical Model” of government, in theory, may make sense, Pei’s work raises the question: Is it possible to attain the benefits of integrating political meritocracy — the “China Model” — into a system of governance without inheriting its flaws? In this case, those consequences aren’t minuscule: the extreme vertical separation between local officials and members of the central government leads to a complete lack of accountability of government officials and, inevitably, corruption. 

The 21st-century world is one that is divided by ideology. In accordance with our innate desire to feel safe and secure, we associate with one and then feel obligated to support it while denouncing everything that threatens it. The ideological clash between Western political culture—electoral democracy— and societies that don’t conform to that ideal, like China, is no different. Ideological battles become a competition between two absolutes that can’t envision coexisting with each other. Daniel Bell resists the limitations of ideology; he suggests that by liberating ourselves from the confines of “Western thinking,” we can create a form of government better than what’s already been created. This fundamental notion makes sense and is one that I’m inclined to believe. Unfortunately, the specific proposal Bell gives in this case doesn’t seem to be realistic. While his Vertical Model of Government seems like a harmonious mutualism between democracy and meritocracy, it doesn’t seem to provide a solution for a problem that no political system—including democracy— has succeeded in eradicating corruption. Bell has set us on the right track: solving modern political dilemmas demands that we escape the limitations of the ideologies we submit to. Nevertheless, finding those solutions seems to require that we keep looking.