Facts and Values: On China’s Political System

"Political meritocracy" really is the best description of how China functions today.

I’d like to thank Andrew Nathan for his thoughtful critique of my book. At first glance, his argument may seem far-fetched: although I’ve been living and working in Beijing for over twelve years, engaging with a wide range of intellectuals and public officials, and teaching at a university that has produced many of top China’s leaders, he claims I’ve written a fictitious account of China’s political system. Nonetheless, Nathan puts forward a strong case, and let me respond here. Given the word limit, I apologize if my response cannot do full justice to Nathan’s lengthy critique.

Neither Communitarianism nor Confucianism

Nathan claims that my book is “a continuation of [my] long-term polemic against liberal democracy dressed up as a book about China.” He traces the source of my alleged polemic to my 1980s work on communitarianism. In fact, Western thinkers (including myself) inspired by communitarian debates were committed to the basics of liberal democracy, including civil and political liberties. Electoral democracy as a means of selecting leaders was taken for granted, and the problem was too little democracy, not too much: communitarians aimed to supplement electoral democracy by means of various participatory and deliberative mechanisms meant to narrow the gap between democratic ideals and the reality. In this sense, the opening argument of my new book—that we should be open to the idea that electoral democracy is not the only morally legitimate way of selecting political leaders—is best viewed as a change of mind, not an extension of my earlier views.

Nor do I think “Confucianism is a complete political philosophy for the modern world.” My book is an effort to spell out the leading ideals of China’s political culture and to use them as a standard for evaluating political progress and regress. Those ideals are partly, but not wholly, inspired by Confucian political values and I try to defend the “China model” without explicit resort to Confucian values. I have the contemporary Chinese political context in mind, and I reject unrealistic proposals inspired by Confucianism no matter how desirable they seem to committed Confucians: for example, I no longer defend the idea of a “Confucian” parliament. Here too, I’ve had a change of mind.

So what did motivate my new book? It comes from extended exposure to the leading political debates in contemporary China. Academics and political reformers argue about which qualities matter for political leaders and how best to select leaders with those qualities. They also argue about how to limit the power of meritocratically-selected leaders and how to reconcile democracy and meritocracy. These questions are not typically asked in Western political debates, but they are hugely important in China. My book is an effort to think about those questions in a systematic way. To the extent I have political aims, it is to put forward culturally-sensitive proposals for political reform in China and to persuade Western readers that political reform can and should take place on the basis of leading political ideals in China.

A Range of Reasonable Interpretations

Nathan claims that my book “is not an account of the real China.” He objects mainly to the claim that the selection and promotion of political leaders in China becomes progressively more meritocratic at higher levels of government; rather, he asserts that vertical democratic meritocracy “does not exist.”

How can we tell whether political meritocracy (PM) exists? Admittedly, it’s a complicated question. PM is the idea that the political system should aim to select and promote leaders with superior qualities, but what counts as merit varies from context to context. In my book, I focus on the question of what constitutes political merit for officials at the city level and above in a large, modernizing and relatively peaceful country that aspires to be a political meritocracy, and then apply my findings to the case of China. I argue that the political system should aim to select and promote political leaders with superior intelligence, social skills and virtue, and I suggest mechanisms most likely to increase the likelihood that leaders are selected and promoted on the basis of those qualities. However, I recognize that it's difficult to implement a political meritocracy. Unlike "one-off" democratic elections, it takes decades, if not longer, to establish a fair and reliable system that selects and promotes leaders with superior qualities.

So, has China made meritocratic progress over the past three decades? Of course there is large gap between the ideal and reality: patronage and social networks, not to mention power struggles hidden from public view, help to explain who gets where. The workings of the department of organization, which sets the standards for the selection and promotion of officials, are opaque to outsiders.

But it is hard to deny that China’s political system is more meritocratic compared to Mao’s day. Education and examinations have played an increasingly important role in the selection and promotion of political leaders. My book draws on empirical evidence to show that officials were often promoted on the basis of good performance at lower levels of government, and good performance was typically measured by economic growth, which was seen as key to reducing poverty.