Beijing Bull: The Bogus China Model

October 22, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: ChinaDemocracyMeritocracy

Beijing Bull: The Bogus China Model

Daniel A. Bell argues that the world can learn from the undemocratic “China Model.” Yet the China he lauds is an illusion.

Daniel A. Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 336 pp., $29.95.

THE IDEOLOGICAL competition between democracy and authoritarianism was supposed to have died with the Cold War. But it has returned with a vengeance, powered above all by the rise of China. Now comes a book by a respected scholar, Daniel A. Bell, that purports to explain the secrets of the China model and to show why it works better than liberal democracy. The book will have wide influence because of Bell’s impressive academic credentials, his accessible writing style, his wide-ranging knowledge of both China and the West, as well as his energetic convening of conferences and symposia.

But Bell’s new book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, is not an account of the real China. Just as Western thinkers for centuries have constructed images of China to wield as weapons in their polemics with one another, so too Bell presents a fictional China as a rhetorical platform from which to continue a long-standing debate internal to Western political thought—the debate between liberal democracy and communitarianism. His book will badly mislead any reader who looks to it for an understanding of China.

Communitarianism—as Bell explains in his entry on that subject for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—“began in the upper reaches of Anglo-American academia in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawls’s landmark 1971 book A Theory of Justice.” Rawls’s book provided a twentieth-century update of the classic social-contract theories that laid the conceptual groundwork for liberal democracy. Communitarians, Bell writes, objected to Rawls’s theory on three grounds: its pretension to define values that are universally valid for all cultures; its emphasis on individual autonomy at the expense of the social attachments that people need for their sense of well-being; and its exclusive focus on personal fulfillment at the expense of the “concern with bolstering families, schools, neighborhoods, and national political life.” Communitarians did not oppose democracy. But they proposed that it should be legitimated and organized in such a way as to take account of certain realities: that values vary across cultures, that the individual is socially embedded rather than isolated and that the welfare of the community is as important to the good life as the welfare of the individual.

As a McGill undergraduate, Bell was influenced by the philosopher Charles Taylor, who (among other contributions to communitarianism) sought to solve the problem of an overambitious universalism by proposing “a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights” among cultures. Bell earned his PhD at Oxford, where he worked under the direction of David Miller, who argued in his 1999 book Principles of Social Justice that there is no single criterion of justice, but that different societies place different degrees of emphasis on its various aspects. Bell’s first book, based on his dissertation, was Communitarianism and Its Critics (1993). It is a defense of communitarianism in the form of a charming and sometimes humorous dialogue (a form he has used in a number of his other writings).

Bell launched his teaching career at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he encountered the theory of “Asian values,” then being promoted by Lee Kuan Yew and other Singaporean officials for the purpose, to quote Bell again from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “of challenging Western-style civil and political freedoms.” After Singapore, Bell moved sequentially to the University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and now Tsinghua University in Beijing. The latter is widely viewed as one of China’s top two institutions of higher learning and has graduated more leaders of the Chinese Communist Party than any other. At age fifty-one, he is a tireless commentator and media figure, Chair Professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program and editor of Princeton University Press’s Princeton-China Series, which aims to “publish the works of contemporary Chinese scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and related fields [and thereby] foster an understanding of China on its own terms.” He also serves as director of the Berggruen Institute of Philosophy and Culture, an organization funded by the investor and philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen, which seeks “to understand cultures and develop new thinking.” Berggruen is also coauthor, with Nathan Gardels, of Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between East and West, which argues that the West should “[take] a cue from China’s experience with meritocratic rule.”

Bell’s success is attributable to his erudition, productivity, cheerful writing style and talent for collaboration. Both his intellectual curiosity and his skill at networking are evidenced by the long lists of acknowledgments in his books, each including a mix of independent academic experts, Chinese government officials, China apologists, and human-rights activists (although not one of these activists, so far as I can see, is from inside China). Not everyone with whom he has worked necessarily agrees with everything he says. But he is positioned in the center of an extended network of academics and other thinkers who share various elements of his beliefs.

In a book he coauthored called The Spirit of Cities, Bell reported that he disliked the paternalistic atmosphere he encountered during his first teaching job in Singapore, where his syllabi were censored and his classes surveilled. (He commented later that his teaching was less fettered in China.) Soon after leaving, he published with some former NUS colleagues a book called Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia, in which he argued that the “excessively interventionist” Singapore-type regime was “actually undermin[ing] communitarian ties.” But Bell was apparently intrigued by Confucianism, which the Singapore authorities were promoting as part of their effort to instill their idea of Asian values in their own population (which, of course, was already Asian and had its own values).

In China, the government has recently promoted a Confucian revival, stressing the values of social harmony and deference to authority. It has restored and museumized Confucius’s ancient home in Qufu, Shandong Province; inserted its version of Confucian values into school textbooks and state propaganda; and promoted Chinese values abroad through its Confucius Institutes. There are also some independent Confucian thinkers, among them Jiang Qing and Yan Xuetong, whose books—A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future (2012) and Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (2011), respectively—are included in Bell’s Princeton University Press series. Both Jiang and Yan advocate a concept called Humane Authority, or rule by moral exemplars in the general interest. Jiang explains how Humane Authority can be used to govern China, while Yan explains how it can be used to govern the world.

Bell has taken the Confucian revival international by arranging for the translation and publication of these and other books; by organizing “a multiyear project on ‘Confucian Democracy’” that has produced three edited volumes in English; and by writing numerous books and essays on the topic himself, most notably East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (2000) and Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (2006). As a whole, these works present a Confucianism that might be described as Communitarianism Plus. Having at first found in Confucianism support for his “preexisting ethical commitments,” Bell eventually found in it as well some “new and better ideas.” What were they? “I’ve learned,” he said in China’s New Confucianism (2012), “to appreciate the moral value of hierarchical rituals . . . I’ve learned that there should be limits to critical thinking . . . And . . . I’m no longer of the view that democracy in the form of one person, one vote is the best way of organizing political relations.”

Hierarchy, deference and elitism are ideas well rooted in the tradition of Western conservative thought, and they derive their relevance for Bell’s work from debates internal to the history of Western political thought. So why travel to the East to discover them? Why take the trouble to label them as Confucian? To do so, one must enter into laborious debates over the meaning of ancient texts, written by authors from a different society and a different time concerned with different issues. Bell frequently makes the appropriate assertion that in studying Confucianism one must avoid essentialism. Nonetheless, to characterize a set of values as Confucian (rather than as, say, communitarian or Burkean), one must locate these values within that tradition. This has involved an enormous amount of digging for Bell and his collaborators.

One answer may be that those whom Bell is concerned to criticize—Western liberals—are constrained by their own belief system to listen respectfully to criticisms derived from a major foreign belief system; in other words, communitarians can borrow the prestige of Confucianism to motivate liberals to pay more respectful attention to their criticisms. A second answer might be that Confucianism contains elements that strengthen those features of communitarianism that Bell wishes to emphasize, making the philosophy more elitist and authoritarian than its earlier proponents intended. Third, while communitarianism is chiefly a critique of liberal democracy, Bell and his colleagues’ version of Confucianism is a complete political philosophy for the modern world, summed up in the concept of Humane Authority.

In The China Model, he goes so far as to suggest “officially replacing communism with Confucianism” as China’s government-sponsored orthodoxy. Although Bell proposes this as a solution to the “problem” that “Marxism is basically dead as a motivating ideology in contemporary China,” he overlooks the fact that Marxism is not dead because it lacks conceptual elegance or moral commitment, but precisely because it came to be used as an official “motivating ideology.”

Bell’s latest book is something of a summa of the themes he has developed over the years. The title of the book plays on the ambiguity of the word “model”: is a model something real, or something possible? But in fact the model he describes is neither real nor possible. The book has little to do with either a real or a possible China. It is instead a continuation of his long-term polemic against liberal democracy dressed up as a book about China.


BELL’S CHINA model has three features: “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top.” At the bottom, a regime can generate legitimacy by allowing citizens to vote for local leaders. (By this he means the village level, which is so close to the ground in China that it is not formally considered a level of government. Elections somewhat above the village level are desirable but, he believes, not possible for the time being, and they are not desirable at the national level.) In the middle, the system can encourage the creation of smart policies by allowing different jurisdictions some flexibility to find policies that work. And at the top, the system can promote public-minded decision makers who are the most qualified in the terms of what he calls “ability and virtue.” Most important to the China model, in his view, is this last feature, meritocracy: “My book,” he says, “is a defense of political meritocracy.”

Bell gives a good description of formal recruitment procedures in the Chinese civil service (tough written examinations and oral interviews) and at the political level (secretive inner-party processes that evaluate cadres on numerous criteria throughout their careers). But his conflation of the Chinese political system with meritocracy is misleading in several ways. First, as Bell acknowledges, many other factors enter into success on the greasy pole of Chinese politics, including personal relationships, corruption and factional infighting. His analysis of the rise of China’s current leader Xi Jinping as a triumph of meritocracy will read to most China specialists as naïve.

Second, although top Chinese leaders are often impressive, it is questionable whether they are superior to leaders in democratic systems. Former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson, who has had intimate contact with the Chinese system over the years, described the flaws of Chinese leaders in his recent book, Dealing with China (2015). Paulson observes, “when it comes to individual companies, the Party’s system of cadre selection and promotion, heavily based on political considerations and personal ties, can, with some notable exceptions, produce unfortunate results.”

Third, to identify Chinese politics with meritocracy is to focus solely on recruitment, whereas the key feature of the Chinese system is not how leaders are selected but how they rule—that is, through the unconstrained exercise of power. Bell seems to acknowledge this but not to understand it. According to Bell, “The most obvious problem facing any system of political meritocracy is that meritocratically selected rulers are likely to abuse their power.” This is wrong. The abuse of power does not arise from the way power holders are selected. It arises from the way in which their power is or is not checked and balanced by independent forces in a society.

The biggest problem with Bell’s theory of meritocracy is that the idea of getting quality leaders to make high-performance decisions is based on the notion that there are right and wrong decisions. His criticism of liberal democracy relies partly on the idea that the democratic majority is usually ill informed and makes bad choices. “Unfortunately . . . checks on voter irrationality are not sufficient to prevent (or minimize) bad policies.” But this implies that technocrats have better answers, something that the history of reform-era China (the period to which Bell limits his discussion) does not show to be the case. China’s post-Mao leaders have made some good decisions—especially in freeing up the economy—and some bad ones, such as in environmental policy, ethnic relations, human rights and foreign affairs. Indeed, the various social-psychological and behavioral-economics theories that Bell cites to show that voters can be irrational apply also to leaders, and perhaps even more so to those who are undemocratically chosen, because they lack the corrective benefit of public criticism. Nor is there any reason to believe that those who climb the greasy pole of politics are morally superior to ordinary citizens—better able, as Bell claims, to “make morally informed political judgments.” Plato claimed that only a self-perpetuating, all-powerful elite could rule in the interest of the community. Bell cites him with approval.


BELL’S CRITIQUE of liberal democracy is as flawed as his praise of meritocracy. His criticisms of democratic elections are well grounded in the social science literature and are just. Even so, elections are a probably better way to pick leaders than Bell thinks; after all, no recruitment system always produces the best leaders, and democracy sometimes produces good ones. The real problem with his argument, however, is that democracy is more than a way to pick leaders. It is also a way to subject those leaders to supervision, permit public debate over policy and protect citizens’ rights to speak, publish, associate and organize. These not only create the necessary conditions for meaningful elections, but also are inherently valuable in themselves.

Bell treats the flaws of electoral democracy as intrinsic to the system’s design, without hope of improvement. He treats the Chinese system, by contrast, as perfectible—as he says, “both . . . a reality and . . . an ideal.” Bell is disarmingly frank about the flaws of the Chinese system “in practice.” They include “corruption, the gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent, overly powerful state-run enterprises that distort the economic system, repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang, [and] discrimination against women.” This is quite a list.

But to say that the system is imperfect in practice means that the flaws are not in the bones of the system, in its very conception, but rather in the implementation. It implies that this type of system, if put properly into practice, would be a good one. Hence his odd straddle throughout the book of bashing the current Chinese system while also praising it. But he does not offer liberal democracy the same courtesy of being both real and ideal. His account of democracy is limited to the flaws it exhibits in real life.

Bell offers suggestions about ways in which the beneficial potentials of the Chinese system can be realized. But when he proposes that the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Political Bureau—the apex of power in China—should include not only Communist Party members but “a younger person with excellent understanding of modern technology . . . an expert in foreign cultures . . . [and] a capitalist who has proved good at money-making,” one wonders what he thinks the Politburo Standing Committee actually does. And when he proposes a “meritocratic house” of a future parliament, he conveniently supposes that its members will act unselfishly and that the rest of the political system will yield to their decisions. The trick to imagining such a system actually working is to posit that the meritocratic elite is not a political elite in any sense seen in real life, but a “moral” elite, which will rule in the public interest and command unstinting obedience in return. Indeed, Bell’s imaginary moral elite is also liberal-progressive on the Western spectrum, adopting good environmental policies, fighting climate change and preserving the rights of noncitizens like domestic workers. But Bell proposes no mechanism by which the Chinese system can plausibly be pushed to adopt the reforms that he proposes.


THE IDEA of a “China model” is not original, as Bell acknowledges. It has emerged from a debate within China over the country’s future development. (There is also a separate debate in the West using the same term, focusing more on China’s recipe for rapid economic growth without political disruption.) Few Chinese—even in the ruling party itself—claim that the system as it works in China today is perfect. The debate is over how it should develop. Advocates of liberal—or as they tend to call it, constitutional—democracy are mostly in jail (like Nobel Peace Prize–winner Liu Xiaobo) or in exile. The debate inside the country includes those who call for more “inner-party democracy,” those who view authoritarianism as a developmental stage that will lead to democracy and those who, like Bell, think that the current system is well-suited to Chinese culture and needs only to make itself better. In this final category are Peking University professor Pan Wei, Shanghai-based venture capitalist and polemicist Eric X. Li and the former Deng Xiaoping translator and regime booster Zhang Weiwei, all of whom Bell thanks in his acknowledgments and cites in footnotes.

Bell argues that although political meritocracy as practiced in China today is not perfect, its superiority can already be judged from its delivered performance: “Few would deny that the system has performed relatively well compared to democratic regimes of comparable size and level of economic development.” (This carefully phrased sentence draws our attention to India as the case for comparison, but, raising the stakes, Bell states that he will “draw most of my examples from the United States.”) The claim that authoritarian systems perform better than democracies of course depends on the criteria for performance. Eschewing the easy debating point that the Chinese economy in the post-Mao period has grown faster than the Indian or American economies and has lifted millions out of poverty—and setting aside his own long list of the flaws in Chinese governance—Bell draws attention to four criteria of performance:

voters should do their best to elect wise leaders, the government should try to structure the economy so that the benefits do not accrue only (or mainly) to a small group of rich people, leaders should not enact policies that wreck the environment for future generations, and the political system should not poison social relations and unduly penalize those who seek harmonious ways of resolving conflict.

It would seem difficult to argue that the Chinese system performs these four functions better than the American—or even the Indian—system. But Bell does so in two ways. First, as already noted, he compares apples and oranges—the actual performance of liberal democracies with the potential performance of a meritocratic system. Thus, for example, he says that “[on the environment] the Chinese government . . . seems to be taking steps in the right direction,” but he says nothing about similar policy steps in the United States. “Electoral campaigns can be so poisonous” in America, he writes, “that reasonable accommodation of differences becomes almost impossible”—but nothing is said about the fact that in China, Liu Xiaobo is serving year six of an eleven-year jail term for “inciting subversion of state power,” while Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who used his writing and teaching to warn the regime about the risks of its repressive policy toward ethnic minorities, is serving a life sentence for “inciting ethnic hatred.”

The second way in which Bell evaluates performance is to identify it with a value he labels “harmony.” To spell this out, he directs the reader to two appendices to the book that are published on the Princeton University Press website. One of them appears in the form of a dialogue between Bell and an impressively articulate propaganda official named Zhao Bing Bing. She states, “I personally think, in the context of China, that communism basically is the same as [Confucian ideal of] ‘the world of great unity,’” and adds, “The essence of our values should be: in harmony with the sky, with the land, with the people . . . it should be the harmony that one may easily stay calm, that people do not argue with one another, that humankind and nature coexist well, and that the world is peaceful.” Knowing how power is used in China, one reads these words with a shudder.

Why not read Bell’s latest effort as a work of political theory, a conceptual “defense of political meritocracy” whose validity does not depend on an endorsement of the Chinese regime? It is because, living in China, knowing a lot about China, claiming to compare China to other systems and describing the China model as “both a reality and an ideal,” Bell is encouraging readers to read him as if he were writing about China. Yet the China model touted by Bell—“a vertical model with political meritocracy at the level of the central government and democracy at the local level”—does not exist, and it has no prospect of coming into existence under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party. Bell should stop looking for a new model. The old one serves us quite well. If there is a system that can correct its own errors and move toward greater perfection, it is not authoritarian elitism, but liberal democracy.

Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, with Andrew Scobell, of China’s Search for Security (Columbia University Press, 2012).

Image: Flickr/Freddy Fam