Since the collapse of several authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s—most notably the Soviet Union—conventional wisdom in political science has held that dictatorships inevitably democratize or stagnate. This wisdom has even been applied to China, where the Communist Party (CCP) has presided over 26 years of economic growth since violently suppressing protests at Tiananmen Square. In 2012, the political theorist and Tsinghua University philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell aroused controversy among many China-watchers for challenging this idea. In several op-eds published in prominent Western publications, Bell argued that China’s government, far from being an opaque tyranny, actually presented a “meritocratic” alternative to liberal, multiparty democracy. In a new book titled The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Bell expands on that idea.
“I disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting leaders: one person, one vote,” Bell said at a recent debate hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York.
Bell is under no illusion that China has already perfected its political recipe, admitting that the ideal “China model” is still very theoretical. This involves a “vertical democratic meritocracy,” as he puts it, with open democratic elections at the local level, meritocratic assessment (like China’s civil-service exam) to choose top national leaders, and experimentation in the middle. In this system, local leaders—who handle relatively basic issues—are still accountable to voters. But national leaders, who must handle more complex issues and make tough decisions that may not be popular (like enacting serious climate-change measures), can be chosen based on experience and knowledge without American-style political gridlock or susceptibility to populist approval.