Daniel A. Bell, Global Viewpoint
Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is, political meritocracy has two key components: (1) The political leaders have above-average ability and virtue; and (2) the selection mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.
Political meritocracy has been largely eclipsed from political theorizing in the modern world, but there are three important reasons for reviving and reinterpreting this political ideal, particularly in a Chinese context. First, political meritocracy has been, and continues to be, central to Chinese political culture. Second, democracy is a flawed political system and meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Third, the
Political meritocracy and Chinese political culture
Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinese political culture. The idea of "elevating the worthy" emerged in the wake of the disintegration of the pedigree-based aristocratic order of the Spring and Autumn period. This idea was shared by the vast majority of known thinkers in the Warring States period, and political thinkers debated how to define merit and how to develop political practices and institutions based on merit. For Confucius, political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody should be educated. However, not everybody will emerge from this process with an equal ability to make morally informed political judgments. Hence, an important task of the political system is to select leaders with an above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments, as well as to encourage as many people of talent as possible to participate in politics. Such rulers, in Confucius's view, would gain the trust of the people.
Today, political surveys show that there is widespread support for the ideal of political meritocracy in East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage. In
The idea of political meritocracy is also central to Western political theory and practice. Plato famously defended a meritocratic political ideal in "The Republic": The best political regime is composed of political leaders selected on the basis of their superior ability to make morally informed political judgments and granted power to rule over the community. Meritocracy was influential throughout subsequent history, though subsequent thinkers rarely defended a pure form of political meritocracy. U.S. founding fathers and 19th century "liberal elitists" such as
Democracy and meritocracy
The dearth of debates about political meritocracy would not be problematic if it were widely agreed that liberal democracy is the best political system (or the least bad political system, as
Political theorists have raised questions about the voting system itself. Part of the problem is that voters are often selfishly concerned with their narrow material interest, and ignore the interest of future generations and people living outside national boundaries.
Of course, such proposals are non-starters in liberal democracies. The principle of political equality expressed in the form of one person, one vote has assumed quasi-sacred status today. In the 19th century,
Fortunately, political theorists are not so dogmatic in the Chinese context.
These models may be utopian, but they provide us with a new and, arguably, better standard for evaluating political progress in
Meritocracy and the
In its early days, Communist China under Mao explicitly rejected Confucian-inspired ideas of political meritocracy. Understandably, perhaps, the main task was rewarding revolution energy and securing military strength for the state to put an end to abuse and bullying by foreign powers. But now, the establishment of a relatively secure and strong Chinese state under the leadership of the CCP means that
In the 1980s, talented students at leading Chinese universities often did not seek to join the CCP. Today, it's a different story. College campuses have become the main location for recruitment efforts today (Gang Guo, "Party Recruitment of College Students in
The promotion system for cadres is even more explicitly meritocratic. At a recent dialogue session with several foreign and Chinese academics, Li Yuanchao, Minister of the
Cadres are also expected to set a model of corruption-free rule. To illustrate the rigorous (meritocratic) nature of selection at higher levels of government, Minister Li described the procedure used to select the secretary general of the
To ensure transparency and fairness, ordinary cadres who work for the general secretary were in the room, which allowed them to supervise the whole process. Three candidates with the highest score were selected for the next stage. Then, the department of personnel led an inspection team to look into the performance and virtue of the candidates, with more emphasis placed on virtue. Two people were recommended for the next stage. The final decision was made by a committee of 12 ministers, who each had a vote, and the candidate had to have at least eight votes to succeed. If the required number of votes was not secured the first time, the ministers discussed further until two-thirds could agree on a candidate.
The advantages of "actually existing" meritocracy in the CCP are clear. Cadres are put through a grueling process of talent selection, and only those with an excellent record of past performance are likely to make it to the highest levels of government. The training process includes the cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged by such means as limited periods of work in poor rural areas.
Moreover, this kind of meritocratic selection process is only likely to work in the context of a one-party state. In a multi-party state, there is no assurance that performance at lower levels of government will be rewarded at higher levels, and there is no strong incentive to train cadres so that they have experience at higher levels, because the key personnel can change with a government led by different party. So even talented leaders, like U.S. President Barack Obama, can make many "beginner's mistakes" once they assume rule because they haven't been properly trained to assume command at the highest levels of government (see, e.g., http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2012/03/obama-explained/8874/). Leaders in
Once Chinese leaders reach positions of political power, they can make decisions that consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders, including future generations and people living outside the state. In multi-party democracies with leaders chosen on the basis of competitive elections, by contrast, leaders need to worry about the next election, and they are more likely to make decisions influenced by short-term political considerations that bear on their chances of getting re-elected. The interests of non-voters affected by policies, such as future generations, are not likely to be taken seriously if they conflict with the interests of voters.
Moreover, the fact that the real power holders in Western-style democracies are supposed to be those chosen by the people in elections often means that "bureaucrats" are not considered to be as important; hence, less talent goes to the bureaucracy. This flaw may be particularly clear in the American political system. A recent conversation with a young recipient of a Rhodes scholarship is revealing. She is interested in international affairs, and I suggested that perhaps she can join the
However, Chinese-style meritocracy may not be universalizable. For one thing, it may only be stable in a political culture that values political meritocracy: As noted above, political surveys show that people in East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage tend to value political meritocracy, but the same may not be true in other cultures.
For example, the American political culture has developed a strong "anti-elitist" ethos, so it is hard to imagine support for meritocratic one-party rule. This is not to deny that there are elitist elements in the American political system (for example, recent U.S. presidents are graduates of
In contrast, the Chinese constitutional system seems more amenable to substantial political change if circumstances require.
That said, there may be ways to improve Chinese-style political meritocracy. Actually, I'm not sure about this, because my views are still not sufficiently well grounded in a deep understanding of the political system, so let me just ask some questions.
First, I wonder if the lack of transparency of the talent-selection process negatively affects the government's legitimacy. If people are not aware of the selection process, they may suspect that promotion is based primarily on loyalty, connections or corruption. But shedding light on the actual mechanism will help to dispel such suspicions. Once I heard from Minister Li about the rigorous selection process for the secretary general of the
Second, I wonder if constraints on freedom of speech, especially political speech, inhibit meritocratic decision-making. The best political decisions, of course, need to be based on complete information, but fear of negative consequences may inhibit stakeholders from expressing their viewpoints. I realize that the CCP carries out internal polling to get as much information as possible, and that cadres are encouraged to constantly learn and improve, but fewer barriers to the freedom of speech may improve the quality of decision-making.
Third, I wonder if the rigorous, multi-year talent selection process discourages risk-taking. In other words, it is possible that relatively creative and original minds maybe weeded out early because they have offended people or challenged the "normal way of doing things." In times of crisis, perhaps the Chinese political system allows for substantial change, but in ordinary times, there may be unnecessary attachment to the status quo long after it has extended its practical utility. Perhaps this problem (if it is a problem) can be remedied by allowing for one or two positions in important government posts to be reserved for talented people from other walks of life, such as business or academia.
Fourth, I wonder if the leadership selection process is biased against females. The process seems so time-consuming that it seems hard reconcile with ordinary family life. Since females are often the main caretakers of family members, they may not have sufficient time to compete fairly with males for top government posts. This matters if we agree that leaders should have compassion. If compassion is mainly a female trait (perhaps this statement is controversial), then we should encourage more females in government. Perhaps half of the government positions at the highest levels of government should be reserved for females.
Fifth, I wonder if the leadership selection process allows for enough time for systematic reflection on ethical and political matters. Perhaps a few weeks at the
Sixth, I wonder if there is a need for more international exposure in the selection process. The main task of the
Seventh, I wonder if the
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