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.