The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel Bell

An argument for a ruling elite based on exams leaves Jonathan Mirsky feeling puzzled

July 30, 2015
Review: The China Model, by Daniel Bell

Until I received this book for review, I hadn’t heard of Daniel Bell. Since then I have learned that he is one of the most divisive figures in the field of Chinese studies. For some China-watchers he is a running dog of the Communist Party. For others he is an open-minded political scientist who writes that the present system, for which he has high hopes, is crippled by corruption, violent suppression (he mentions Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Xinjiang) and the imprisonment of dissidents such as Nobel Peace prizewinner Liu Xiaobo.

A Canadian who has lived in China for 10 years and teaches at Tsinghua University, Bell says that he has written this book because “there is a much better understanding of Western-style democracy in China than of Chinese-style meritocracy in the West”.

He is an admirer of traditional Confucian rule, which, he contends, ensured that the best candidates for ruling China in imperial times rose to the top via success in examinations that demonstrated their knowledge of a wide range of topics, including poetry and philosophy. However, this idealised picture of pre-modern China ignores endemic official corruption and, over the course of two millennia, the frequent collapse of dynasties and long periods of non-Confucian, non-Chinese rule.

Bell provides a comprehensive list of what he sees as deep-seated faults in China’s post-Mao regime, but what he really dislikes – despises really – is US-style “liberal democracy”. This, he claims, relies for its sole justification on “one-man, one-vote”, and he pours contempt on US voters (Scandinavian ones are not mentioned) for their prejudices and stupidity, and their delusion that they control how things work. Actual US policies, he suggests, are made between elections, usually in the interests of the rich, and one cannot tell from one administration to the next which policies are lasting; with being for and against climate-change controls a key example.

The Chinese Communist Party’s major faults, according to the author, include a worsening status for women in leadership positions despite their superiority in many ways, and the accession to supreme rule of “princelings”, the sons of past leaders, some of whom allow their families to acquire millions. But abandoning such disastrous failings could become possible, he says, by instituting a Confucian-style examination system that elevates the best men – and women – into a meritocratic ruling elite. Bell even urges the Party that is no longer Communist to change its name to the Union of Democratic Meritocrats, although not until “the generation of revolutionary heroes”, such as Bell’s own Party-member father-in-law, “departs from this world”. (Confusingly, he refers to this admirable revolutionary as his father-in-law in a final footnote, but as his father in the book’s dedication.)

What Bell imagines for China is a three-tier system. At the bottom there should be village elections, where even the most ignorant know what their local needs are. He admits that these elections, which already exist, are frequently manipulated by corrupt local officials. The second tier of governance should be experimental, with mid-level officials chosen by a variety of methods, and the top tier should be run by the very best meritocrats drawn from the two lower tiers.

Although he refers only favourably to President Xi Jinping, an admirer of Maoism, Bell argues that meritocrats do not yet rule China because of “corruption, the gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power, harsh measures for dealing with dissent...repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang, discrimination against women”.

Bell has settled in China for the long haul. Here is a puzzle: he must know that any Chinese in China who published the previous paragraph would promptly join Liu Xiaobo behind bars.

Jonathan Mirsky was formerly associate professor of Chinese, history and comparative literature at Dartmouth College in the US, and former Far East editor of The Times.


The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy
By Daniel A. Bell
Princeton University Press, 336pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691166452 and 9781400865505 (e-book)
Published 24 June 2015

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Print headline: Confucian in the ranks

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