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.