The unintended consequence of the “China-as-meritocracy” debates

The estimable Kaiser Kuo, who needs no introduction here, put up a post on Facebook yesterday that caught my eye, and lots of other readers’ eyes as well. (It was perhaps written in a moment of pique, but that’s when all of my own best posts are written.) It discusses the unintended harm apologists like Daniel Bell and Jiang Qing (go here for background) do when their preposterous drum-beating for China’s allegedly “meritocratic system” drowns out a part of their message that may be valid, in particular their criticisms of the shortfalls of American democracy. And I don’t disagree with Kaiser. Their nonsense on a “Confucian Constitution” and the outspoken critical reaction to it as BS only serve to make readers view the differences between the systems as starkly black and white, with the American democratic system obviously being superior. In other words, the writings of the Daniel Bells and Jiang Qings of the world backfire and do the opposite of what they intend, making China’s system appear inferior to that of the US, and misrepresenting what democracy here is really like. But Kaiser makes this argument more clearly than I can. The Facebook post in full:

By now many of us who follow news about China are familiar with the op-eds penned of late by the likes of the Canadian Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell, Shanghai-based American-Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li, and Chunqiu Institute fellow Zhang Weiwei. Arguing that China’s one-party system is essentially a meritocratic form of enlightened authoritarianism that is somehow appropriate to China’s political culture and the realities of Chinese developmental stage and social conditions, these essays (appearing in the New York Times and in the Financial Times just in the last week or so) have had derision heaped on them. Many journalists and scholars have skewered them for their naïveté, citing numerous reasons why the Chinese system is far from meritocratic in practice: the disproportionate “merit” evidently to be found in scions of the CCP aristocracy and in the very wealthy, the apparent absence of this “merit” in women and so forth. I agree emphatically with all of these criticisms, and for the record, I’m convinced that these writers are badly deluded.

As an American, though, I’m troubled that these misplaced encomia for the CCP have completely obscured the few valid criticisms of failures in the American democratic system contained in their essays. As we pick apart their arguments in praise of China’s “meritocracy,” we should be careful not to dismiss out of hand–however vindicated we might feel about American democracy’s proper function after last week’s election–the shortcomings they point out. Taking their statements about the problems with American democracy out of their comparative context, I can only read them and nod in agreement. But the polemical approach they’ve chosen isn’t going to encourage any much-needed introspection. (For that, I’d highly recommend Christopher Hayes, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”)

The other thing that worries me that is in the eagerness by so many people who influence ideas about Chinese politics to repudiate this half-baked apologia, some nuance gets tossed out. I’m not ready to reject, for instance, the notion that what constitutes an appropriate form of government is culturally conditioned. Nor, to be sure, do I accept (as Eric Li and others seem to) that culture is immutable: what’s appropriate changes as culture does. My concern then is that in reading these take-downs of the largely execrable positions staked out by Bell, Li and Zhang people conclude that the alternative must be political pluralism along American lines.

These apologists, then, are doing a disservice at more than one level. While they purport to be rejecting a false dichotomy between diametrically opposed systems, they are I suspect only making it, in the minds of readers, more starkly binary.


As a reminder, let me first give an example of how Bell-Jiang describe Western-style democracy:

The political future of China is far likelier to be determined by the longstanding Confucian tradition of “humane authority” than by Western-style multiparty elections. After all, democracy is flawed as an ideal. Political legitimacy is based solely on the sovereignty of the people — more specifically, a government that grants power to democratically elected representatives. But there is no compelling reason for a government to have only one source of legitimacy.

Democracy is also flawed in practice. Political choices come down to the desires and interests of the electorate. This leads to two problems. First, the will of the majority may not be moral: it may favor racism, imperialism or fascism. Second, when there is a clash between the short-term interests of the populace and the long-term interests of mankind, as is the case with global warming, the people’s short-term interests become the political priority. As a result, democratically elected governments in America and elsewhere are finding it nearly impossible to implement policies that curb energy usage in the interests of humanity and of future generations.

Like Kaiser (I suspect), I see a lot of truth in this. Our democratic system is deeply flawed, and these flaws have become uglier in the past few years, with more and more wedge issues blocking out serious debate, and some in the government brazenly using the power vested in them to subvert the democratic process (think “voter fraud” legislation), often with a good deal of success. What can be messier, sleazier and more dysfunctional than democracy (aside from any other form of government)? On the other hand, what Kaiser is saying can also be interpreted as the equivalency argument we see so often in the comments; critics denounce an aspect of China and the other side argues, “Yeah, but it’s bad in America, too.” But I’m a big believer in taking the flaws of the US government into account, and the issue is a legitimate one, if the argument is made correctly, as I believe Kaiser’s is.

So do those who repudiate the apologists’ arguments really drown out the nuance of these arguments and unintentionally influence the public to view the differences between the two systems in black and white, and to conclude that the best thing that could happen to China would be the imposition somehow of Western-style democracy? I believe they might. But on the other hand, I’m even more glad they speak out; as Kaiser notes, such high-brow journals as The New York Times and Financial Times are lavishing the Meritocracy Gang with precious space on their opinion pages. They have to be counteracted. But I agree, they should be counteracted with nuance. The argument needs to be made that democracy is not one-size-fits-all, and that it comes with a great many flaws and pitfalls. I have always made the case that those advocating Western-style democracy for China are barking up the wrong tree. China will have to find its own path to a more representative government, it cannot be imposed on them. My own hope is for continuing reforms that make China more democratic which in turn leads to greater rule of law and checks and balances. We keep seeing glimmers of hope, but these are frequently dashed as the CCP appears more determined than ever to hold on to what they’ve got. I see no significant changes happening anytime soon.

You can find a spirited Peking Duck thread on the meritocracy argument here.

Finally, today in the NY Times we find an excellent response to the Meritocracy vs. Democracy debates that pretty well smashes the myth of China’s being a meritocratic system, now or in the past. Its author has impeccable credentials.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 171 Comments

@S.K. Cheung 148 and 149

If democracy did not cause China to be No. 1 in the large no. of endeavors (since China is not democratic), and the CPC did not cause it according to SKC, then it must be “people power” of the Chinese people.

Again, contrapositive – China during the Qing Dynasty was also the largest population on Earth, and yet it had none of the accomplishments.

Clearly, large population size and low labor cost do not equate with success. Success requires leadership, smart and dedicated leadership.

November 27, 2012 @ 9:43 am | Comment

Part of that one party state relied on institutions such as slavery – does that mean we should return to that too? And odd how the one party state did not survive the onslaught of multiparty states (I can’t call them full democracies as they weren’t).
One party meritocracy does work – if there is meritocracy only. Humanity being what it is, corruption and nepotism will cloud the waters. Look at the people ruling China now – how many are princelings? You really expect me to believe that the cream of China is picked to rule? Or that those in power are consolidating their rule and money?

“…and what a glorious 63 years those had been!!”
Yeah, glorious….

November 27, 2012 @ 9:55 am | Comment

@MG 152

A white horse is a horse, but it not “horse”.

“Part of that one party state relied on institutions such as slavery – does that mean we should return to that too?”

What is that supposed to mean? The Chicoms never had slavery as institution – in contrast democracies like the Brits, Canada, and of course AMERICA did. So what are you trying to say. It is confusing.

Corruption and nepotism is not confined to single party states, they exist in ALL systems and all nations. If W was not the son of an American president, could he have gotten into Harvard and later successfully lie (campaign promises being such a big oxymoron not even W believed in them) his way into the top job.

Yes, whomever rises to the top in China IS the cream of the crop, who has excelled in a long process of vetting by peers. Each and every one of the top Chinese leaders has to prove himself (sorry, no females yet) on the job over decades, on capability, ability to work with peers, dedication, devotion to the job, etc. It is not true that only princelings can get the top jobs. Neither Hu nor Wen was a princeling. It so happens that this “crop” has a number of them. With two Bushes being presidents, and Jeb Bush most likely to run in 2016, do we conclude that the American presidency is hereditary? Or maybe we should.

November 27, 2012 @ 10:10 am | Comment

Don’t say I didn’t warn you guys. People like Zhu live in their own shrink-wrapped margin of insanity, a fact perfectly captured by his understanding of the SARS crisis and his strangely evidence-free claim that “the jury is still out whether it was biological warfare instigated by the West”. I should think evidence would have to be submitted to at least be brought to trial, but not in his world. Further dialogue with him will just yield more of his quaint admixture of supreme confidence and disturbed paranoia.

As I said, his understanding is always superficial to the point of gross stupidity (quadrupled GDP=”the Chinese people can afford to buy 4 times as much”) and shows a complete inability to consider evidence counter to his arguments, despite the fact that such evidence is legion. China’s 20% unemployment rate, for example. Or the debacle currently underway in China with the sale of “low-rent housing equities” to alleviate capital pressure. Or the fact that the difference between the US’s GDP in 1978 and 2012 (34 years) is larger than the entire GDP of China today.

“In China, the average household debt load is 17% of average household income; that compares with 136% in the USA.”

Well, no, Zhu needs to look more closely at the stuff he is copying and pasting again.

Then he’d see that this survey was done exclusively in 15 first and second tier cities in China, which skews the data considerably.

What I find rather remarkable about this issue, apart from acknowledging how in debt Americans are today, is that most Chinese assets don’t come from accumulated income, but actually from initial government largess (real-estate based windfalls, including the “original windfall” of granting temporary property ownership to citizens). This ties into CM’s insistence on wealth as a measure of inequality rather than income, which of course is quite different than what the PRC government believes is important. This largess is essentially something the PRC has yet to pay for, but it is a debt, a government debt, and it severely distorts the property market in China in a multitude of ways.

“What were the Chicoms supposed to do? Rebroadcast American allegations that 100,000,000 Chinese were going to die, that their fate were preordained according to the laws and wishes of the foreign God, and they should overthrow the CPC?”

Oh my…

November 27, 2012 @ 10:14 am | Comment

@Handler 154

That SARS was suspected to be more than just a natural phenomenon is so well established, I had figured that everyone knows. I do not expect to have to put up evidence that 1+1=2.

Google even has multiple search words. When you type in “SARS biol”, up comes suggestions of:

SARS biological weapon
SARS biological warfare

It is so well known that there is even an Wikipedia entry for it. There are 165,000 entries under “SARS biological warfare” on Google.

The evidence is there, you just refuse to see, just as your lot refuse to see that the CPC has been and continues to be the best government for the Chinese in the last 1,000 years, and today stands as the best performing form of government on Earth.

November 27, 2012 @ 10:38 am | Comment

Looks like ZBJ needs a foil hat too…..

“The Chicoms never had slavery as institution…” So the CCP has been in charge of China for the last 5000 years? Hmmm, no wonder that phrase has become some sort of rote learnt line… Yes, they had slavery in the west – wasn’t illegal then (had to wait for Britain to abolish it in the Empire in the early 1800s.). And yes AMERICA (so great one needs to SHOUT it’s name) had slavery, though Vermont abolished it in 1777, a full 129 years before the same happened in China. But that’s a red herring…

“sorry, no females yet” Ergo not a meritocracy. I know that not only princelings get the top jobs…but they get an inordinately good chance at the top spots – and yes, just like the US presidential candidates (although I can’t think which Obama relative preceded him…or Clinton, though I dare say being married to him didn’t hurt Ma Clinton) have come from certain political families. Only thing is, though, is that they are not appointed. Yes, the elections are probably stacked in their favour, but they don’t know if they’re in until they’re in. Jeb can run all he likes but he’s not a dead cert. I hear they’re already picking the next set of Chinese leaders now… At least one of them doesn’t seem to have this pathetic need to dye his hair 🙂

November 27, 2012 @ 11:12 am | Comment


You mean evidence that someone had the idea that SARS was “not just a natural phenomenon”. Impressive. Now let’s see the evidence that obviously needs to be considered in the trial you say currently exists to determine “whether it was biological warfare instigated by the West”.

“It is so well known that there is even an Wikipedia entry for it. There are 165,000 entries under “SARS biological warfare” on Google”

Yes, I note that the article “SARS Conspiracy Theory” moves from two Russian scientists to Chinese netizens, and from that to the fact that Chinese scientists confirm the transmission from civet cats and further speculation that it might have been a PRC’S bio weapon. But of course the prize is Tong Zeng, who bases his paranoid speculation on blood samples taken in medical programs and, of course, finds a way to blame it on the Japanese. That’s quite a lot of substance to base your trial on.

“The evidence is there, you just refuse to see”

Did I miss something? Kindly point it out to me. What evidence is there that “The West” had anything to do with creating SARS? If you do not take the responsibility of backing up your own words, I’m afraid you come off as nothing more than an overseas Chinese with a persecution complex thoroughly ingratiating yourself to a foreign government (a criminal act if you receive payment for the services you provide across a range of websites) based on a nebulous feeling of elevated stature and a belief in ethnic loyalty and superiority.

You don’t want to be that person, do you? That’s Jing.

November 27, 2012 @ 11:21 am | Comment

Attacking my persona is simply silly, as the pigheaded (moi) is very thick-skinned.

The facts are the facts. You argue that the goods things (there are A LOT of them that happened under the CPC) did not happen because of the CPC. But the Chinese people clearly do not agree with you – Pew Research over an entire decade found that the vast majority (over 85% consistently) of the Chinese people are most enthusiastic about the direction the nation is going. Can’t say the same for DEMOCRATIC America, where half of the nation hates Obama, and the other half detests the Republicans. When a nation is not even united on what needs to be done and on how to do it, what can you expect? Gridlock, lack of improvements, lost of hope, decline – all of these you can observe on a daily basis.

There is adrenaline high (artificially induced by tens of billions of dollars in attack ads), but the exhilaration for half of the country does not last, while the extreme dissatisfaction by the other half does. That’s the part where it gets confusing – WHAT is this superiority alleged for the use of liars’ contests (national voting) to choose leaders, when it is proven again and again that you choose clowns (much scarier than any of the malevolent ones that Stephen King can sketch) using this system, and cannot get rid of the chosen once they are in (because of the incumbent advantage).

Yet you insist that China, which has a demonstrably better performing system, should, no, MUST, adopt this same silliness, at the pain of being nuked if Beijing does not comply.

WHO is the scary rogue in this picture?

November 27, 2012 @ 12:47 pm | Comment

There is no attack on your persona. You have consistently called yourself “an American” on other websites, and your obsession with Japan and the dangers of “the West” is clearly indicative of a type. You also claimed to have been living in China for the last 10 years. These are your testimonies.

Pause the apologist’s loop and answer my question, please.

What evidence is there that “The West” had anything to do with creating SARS? Think of this question as a simple ecological logic “tag” to see if you are prone to mental excursions you cannot explain.

November 27, 2012 @ 1:53 pm | Comment

To the zoo-lander #151:
” China during the Qing Dynasty was also the largest population on Earth, and yet it had none of the accomplishments.”
—huh? Ok, I haven’t quite ascertained the absolute extent of your stupidity. Are you asking why Chinese in the 1700s and 1800s didn’t have big HSR networks or the fastest supercomputers? (“the accomplishments”, as you say). If you are (and I can’t completely dismiss the possibility that you are actually that stupid), then you belong in a psychiatric facility.

If you are asking why Chinese people in the 1700s and 1800s weren’t vying for world-leading positions at the time, then at least it isn’t a retarded question. But you selectively forget about the free-market economy aspect that converted China from merely the largest population in the world (the “people power”) to one capable of tremendous economic growth. All those other “accomplishments” are predicated on, and made possible by, said economic growth. So no, it’s not just the population; it’s also the economic system. And Chinese people have Deng to thank, obviously not for inventing capitalism, but at least for recognizing its importance, and for allowing it into China, after all those years of nonsense with Mao.

And yes, success does benefit from leadership. But your deluded contention is that such leadership can only come from the CCP, which is simply baseless and logically unfounded.

Why is it that you CCP apologists are so devoid of even the capacity for logic? Just mindless toeing of the party line, all the time. But I guess you people have to do whatever it is that you people have to do.

Then to take it to the next level, we go from one CCP apologist brain-fart (logic) to another (Pew surveys). Please, can even one CCP apologist please read the methodology section of even one Pew survey, then spend some time learning about survey methodology, then try to explain to his fellow group of CCP apologist numb-skulls just what the problem is with these surveys? That way, we don’t get apologist after apologist frothing at the mouth trotting out these surveys which are scientifically useless. Here’s the bullet: a survey roughly 4000 folks that only samples roughly 40% of CHina’s population is NOT RANDOM, NOT generalizable, and basically fairly useless, except for inducing the truly uneducated to constantly refer to its top line results. You people really need to get yourselves edu-ma-cated.

November 27, 2012 @ 2:18 pm | Comment

I must say though, that being pig-headed and thick-skinned is a job prerequisite for a CCP apologist. I mean, look at the position you’re trying to defend. And look at the arguments you’re reduced to making in defense of it. Certainly not a task for the faint-of-heart.

November 27, 2012 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

@S.K. Cheung:

My positions are well documented and well reasoned. I do not call you an apologist or a numb skull. Your posts speak for themselves.

As we speak, China rises, all thanks to the CPC’s leadership. To suggest that adopting the useless deadlock of democracy can improve upon China’s successes, is:

1. Not supported by evidence;
2. Done with illwill against the Chinese people.

Yes, I fully understand that the West is totally paranoid that there is a BETTER system than democracy when what you want is economic prosperity and peace. But don’t be desperate, pulling is always better than pushing. If you think or assert that democracy is so hot, DEMONSTRATE its superiority by delivering the goods – by improving the lives and living standards of your own citizens, by creating the millions of new jobs, by making wealth distribution more fair so that your Gini’s index is not so embarrassing, and show the world that there is actually substance behind all that bragging. Y’see China is doing exactly that – demonstrating the superiority of the system and reforms, and never being so self-satisfied that Beijing would deem it necessary to push others to adopt the one party meritocracy system (even though it is objectively the best performing in the world today).

November 27, 2012 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

@Handler 159

Why are you dwelling on such triviality that is irrelevant to the argument here: whether democracy or one-party meritocracy is better for China?

My prior statement was that “the jury is still out whether it (SARS) was biological warfare instigated by the West”. You said there is no evidence. I pointed out that there are 165,000 links in response to a Google Search of the term “SARS Biological Warfare”. That is all the evidence I need (or anyone would need) for the assertion that “the jury is still out” on the issue – meaning that there is dispute over whether the assertion is true or can be proved.

I can respect fellow debaters who comes back with facts and figures and alternative interpretations of data. I do not appreciate the need to waste time with nitpickers.

November 27, 2012 @ 2:44 pm | Comment

“I pointed out that there are 165,000 links in response to a Google Search of the term “SARS Biological Warfare”. That is all the evidence I need (or anyone would need) for the assertion that “the jury is still out” on the issue – meaning that there is dispute over whether the assertion is true or can be proved.”

Well, at least the tag works. You clearly do need more and are too deranged to reign yourself in. Your final argument is that we cannot be sure “The West” didn’t do it because you can find links on google pertaining to any number of crackpot theories. Spare us your idiocy. The fact is there is no jury, not even a metaphorical one, because there are not even suffcient scraps of evidence for a metaphorical trial. There are only a small number of quacks whispering among themselves.

What would be made of your argument in China in light of the CCP’s war on rumors?

November 27, 2012 @ 4:56 pm | Comment

Rein, obviously. Crackpot authoritarianism appears to taint all things.

November 27, 2012 @ 5:01 pm | Comment


I’ve been reading a few of your comments until I got entirely too bored to follow any more.

But let me ask you just one question: If the CCP is so great, surely they can allow opposition political parties at any time, and everyone will still love them, right? Surely they can end censorship of the media at any time, because they are so great, and the truth will just shine through and everyone will still love them, right? And while they’re at it, since the ‘Chicoms’, as you like to call them, are the world’s greatest, they could also have multi-party elections, since they are so perfect, that hardly anyone at all would ever vote for anyone else, isn’t it? Liu Xiaobo has no need to be in jail because no one would ever listen to him anyway.

So I suggest you march on over to the Party HQ and tell them about how great they are, and that there’s no need to censor, suppress, arrest! I suspect they will wholeheartedly agree.

November 28, 2012 @ 1:05 am | Comment


The Chicoms are so great, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. They can handle all of these things. People will still be kissing their feet. No one would ever want anything else!

November 28, 2012 @ 1:08 am | Comment

To zoo-meister,
I call them as I see them. And I had you pegged from the get-go. If the shoe fits, buddy, wear them proud and sing it loud. What, are you an apologist in denial or something? I also love it when you people feel the need to proclaim your posts as “reasoned” and such. Why do you guys grovel so much? And it’s genetic, cuz all of you people do it. It’s like all apologists are related by stupidity or something.

Yes, China is rising. In spite of the CCP, perhaps, but certainly not because of it. Rules of logic dictate that if you make the argument asserting the CCP as the causal element of China’s rise, then the burden is on you to prove it. And you can’t. You are either too stupid to recognize that basic logic progression, or are too indoctrinated to be able to accept it. Either way, not my problem. You could groan on all day, and it won’t change that logic hole in which you find yourself. Wise men say that when you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging. We shall see how much wisdom you have, but I’m not hopeful.

Since you can’t offer proof of your position, all you’ve got is regurgitation of what you’ve been told. We’ve already established earlier that free-will and independent thought were also beyond your grasp. So what we get is a visual of all the kool-aid you’ve been drinking…in reverse. Not a pretty sight, but you do what you gotta do.

You seem forever focused solely on the US. Yes, the US version of democracy is currently in deadlock. But there are many other iterations of democracy that are not…as we speak. And there is no stipulation that Chinese people utilize the US system. It’s not as though democracy is attained IFF (logic terminology, do you know it?) you have the US system. Yet that is constantly the straw-man you guys fixate upon. My position is that Chinese people should determine their political future for themselves. Not sure how that bodes ill-will for Chinese people. Your position is CCP forever, which is just juvenile ass-kissing writ large.

November 28, 2012 @ 2:40 am | Comment

Wow, Zhuzhu really is bad news. This totally takes the cake:

My prior statement was that “the jury is still out whether it (SARS) was biological warfare instigated by the West”. You said there is no evidence. I pointed out that there are 165,000 links in response to a Google Search of the term “SARS Biological Warfare”. That is all the evidence I need (or anyone would need) for the assertion that “the jury is still out” on the issue – meaning that there is dispute over whether the assertion is true or can be proved.

Darling, there are nearly nine MILLION google searches for whether there really are unicorns. Does that mean “the jury is still out on whether unicorns exist”? Come on, 9 million searches — people still haven’t made up their minds, so the jury is still out? Shitheaded google searches meet the criteria for “evidence”? Brilliant. A very scientific way to measure whether something is true or not, or whether people are whacky.

Guys, is there really any point arguing with an idiot who would charge SARS was some Western-concocted biological weapon or whatever? Really, zhuzhu has shown us quite clearly what he is all about. How many neurons do we want to burn arguing with someone who is irrational, deluded, brainwashed and clearly out to take over the threads, drive everyone crazy and scare away legitimate traffic?

November 28, 2012 @ 2:44 am | Comment

To Richard,
he’s deranged, no doubt. But to his credit, with comments in the 160s, he’s still on topic trying in vain to prop up the dead horse that is meritocracy. So he hasn’t tried to jack it the way some of your other trolls do. Small brownie point for him.

I was going to leave it to Handler to deal with the Google search bit, since that was his discussion. But yeah, resorting to google hits as “proof” is pretty low-rent and intellectually-challenged. Next he’ll tell us that wikipedia is the world authority on …well…everything.

November 28, 2012 @ 3:02 am | Comment

I am ending this thread and putting up an open thread. You can continue there.

November 28, 2012 @ 3:17 am | Comment

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