I have been in a discussion, over at Parlio, with Daniel Bell about his book, The China Model. It's getting a bit long and I thought I would post some of my comments, as a single piece, here, and then move on, in another post, to some other issues. Here is some of what I have posted at Parlio:
Daniel Bell's book, The China Model, has already attracted pointed criticism by political scientists. Andrew Nathan finds that the book “…is not an account of the real China.” Stein Ringen writes that Bell’s analysis “…falls into empirical descriptions that are just bizarre.”
I will state at the outset that I am sympathetic to these critiques . Empirically, Bell’s assertion that China is characterized by “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top” is deeply flawed, and interpretive weaknesses ultimately undercut his normative argument in favor of meritocracy. With that in mind, I will try not to simply repeat the previous criticisms but add two points.
First, somewhat less critical attention has been paid to the initial element of the “China Model,” Bell’s general characterization of village-level elections that have emerged in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1987. Although he recognizes that “…there is a substantial gap between reality and the ideal” (189), his condensed tag line – “democracy at the bottom” – leaves the impression that some sort of genuine democracy is to be found at the lowest levels of political administration in China. As is well documented by electoral practices in many authoritarian regimes around the world, however, voting does not equal democracy. Far from it. Bell’s thin evidentiary basis does make a wan nod toward the obvious restrictions on democratic politics in Chinese villages, but stricter scrutiny of local politics in the PRC leads inexorably to the conclusion that the jaunty phrase “democracy at the bottom” obscures more than it reveals about political realities in the PRC.
Bell quotes research by Kevin O’Brien and Rongbin Han: “electoral procedures have improved greatly in the past two decades and a good number of competitive and reasonably fair elections have been held.” (Bell, 189) And he goes further to recognize O’Brien and Han’s key point that elections move toward effective democracy only to the extent that they yield meaningful change in how citizens, or their representatives, are able to exercise political power. But his brief recognition of the limits of village “democracy” misses the broader significance of O’Brien and Han’s work. Quite simply, they reject a procedural definition of democracy because “…democracy does not simply denote majority rule, but instead is usually seen to be a congeries of institutions that guarantees rule of law, separation of powers, protection of minorities, and protection of civil liberties” (O'Brien and Han, 361). Without such fundamental elements as rule of law, unhampered by Party power, and the protection of civil liberties, which are increasingly under threat in the PRC today, there is no real “democracy at the bottom” in China.
The case of Wukan in Guangdong province, where it seemed like meaningful political change might come through local election but was later thwarted by higher authorities, is instructive in this regard.
It could be true that village elections are creating a potential for democracy in China. To say, however, that at some unspecified point in the future, and after significant political-institutional change, democracy might be possible, is a very different kind of statement than the implicit description of China now having “democracy at the bottom.” At present, it would be more accurate to characterize local politics in the PRC as authoritarianism plus elections.
A second, more general problem involves the role that meritocracy can play in political legitimacy. Quite simply, meritocracy, in and of itself, does not provide political legitimacy for any type of regime, authoritarian, democratic, or hybrid. Indeed, meritocracy itself must be justified by other means of legitimization, most prominently democracy. Bell recognizes this trouble: “The problem of legitimacy, however, can only be addressed by means of democratic reforms, including some form of explicit consent by the people” (150). But the obstacle is greater than he acknowledges.
The problem is epistemological: how can we know that leaders who claim to be meritocratic truly are and will continue to be meritocratic? Passing an examination does not really answer this question. It only provides the briefest snapshot of a person’s knowledge, or the perception of his character, at a particular time. If meritocracy is a matter of selecting and promoting “leaders of superior ability and virtue” (2) then it is performative, not existential. A meritocrat is meritocratic only as long as he acts meritocratically.
This is a very Confucian idea. Analects 15.18 reads: “The Master said, ‘The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man.’” The moral person performs goodness through focused and conscientious action, “ritual”: 禮以行之. If you do not perform virtue, you are not virtuous.
And how do we know if a leader is performing virtuously? We assess the effects of his or her actions, we look at whether or not politics and policies produce morally good outcomes. In terms of legitimacy, what appears to be meritocratic legitimacy is, in actuality, a proxy for performance legitimacy, how well a regime “delivers the goods” to the people. Although Bell wants to distinguish meritocratic legitimacy from performance legitimacy, in fact such a distinction is impossible. We can only know whether a leader is living up to a claim of virtue through his or her performance.
Bell further argues that PRC citizens tend to value patriarchal meritocracy: “…the majority of Chinese people endorse ‘guardianship discourse,’ defined as the need to ‘identify high-quality politicians who care about people’s demands, take people’s interests in consideration when making decisions, and choose good policies on behalf of their people and society’…” (147)
But, again, how do they know that their leaders are living up to this ideal? They must base their judgment on the outcomes leaders create. Mao Zedong believed that the Great Leap Forward was a good thing; he, and a large portion of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, believed it was in line with what “the people” wanted. It was, however, a horrible disaster which, though still muffled in Chinese media and academia, gives the lie to the wisdom of an elite who claimed a kind of “virtuocracy.”
Of course, precisely because of the failure of Maoist revolutionary meritocracy, PRC leaders now lean on economic growth as the basis of performance legitimacy for the authoritarian regime. The expectation is that as long as a sufficient portion of the population believe that their material lives are improving, they will accept the political limitations of single party dictatorship. So far it seems to be working. Since the nation-wide protests of 1989, a serious challenge to the regime legitimacy, the Party has worked hard to maintain high growth rates. It has been helped in this project, first, by relatively inexpensive labor for manufacturing exports, and, second, by cheap money, as debt-driven expenditures boosted real estate development and other infrastructural projects. Under those conditions, after the government had stopped the economically irrational policies of the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of millions of hard-working Chinese individuals have built better lives for themselves. Although localized protests and demonstrations abound, the overall strategy still seems to be effective: the Party-state is strong.
The problem the PRC faces now, however, is the problem any sort of performance-based legitimization faces: what have you done for me lately? Economic growth is starting to decline. Chinese capital is seeking better investment conditions overseas and Chinese students are flocking to colleges and universities in the US and Europe. The best opportunities may no longer be found within the borders of the PRC for those people with the means to look elsewhere. If more and more PRC citizens come to believe that the regime is not delivering the goods, will they continue to see their leaders as “high-quality politicians who care about people’s demands”?
In the end, neither democracy nor meritocracy exist in the PRC, and even if meritocracy did exist, it would not provide legitimacy for the authoritarian regime. This is not to say that current political institutions are weak. They are not. The Communist Party has, since the passing of Mao, attended assiduously to maintaining its hegemony, and more than twenty five years of robust economic growth and development have provided it a certain performance legitimacy. What happens if economic growth falters further is anybody’s guess, but if that happens the invocation of “meritocracy” in China will likely elicit sharply sarcastic laughter from most Chinese citizens.