An Attack on Democracy

The political dysfunctions caused by the dominance of rich campaign donors in the American political system have provided an opportunity for opponents of political equality to attack democracy itself. A sophisticated version of this attack is Daniel A. Bell's recent book, The China Model. 1.

Bell describes a cartoon video in which Chinese politics is compared to American. In the video, democracy is a system in which Barack Obama experienced a meteoric rise "aided by hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign financing." That democracy is unfavorably compared to Xi Jinping's "decades-long assent to the pinnacle of Chinese power," at each stage of which he was required to pass "rigorous and ultra-competitive evaluations" designed "to test his political leadership abilities." (1) Depicted in this way, Bell questions why anyone would "favor a system [electoral democracy] that does not require experience (and expertise) for leadership" as the Chinese does (16).

According to Bell, there are three levels in the Chinese system. The first is what he calls "democracy at the bottom" (180). He writes that voting for village committees has "become more free and fair," and that turnouts for those elections have been high (181). The second component is policy "experimentation between local and central levels of government" (182). The third plank is a "meritocracy at the top." As he describes it, well-educated political leaders judge the experiments and decide which should be implemented as national policy. This decision-making role falls to the Chinese Communist Party. To fill that function, the Party "selects students with high academic achievement and leadership qualities, preferably from elite universities." (185) In short, Bell defends a Chinese system where an elite possesses the power both to choose its own members and to dictate policies for the entire society.

At least until very recently, this system succeeded in generating phenomenally high economic growth rates. But in the future, economic growth will no longer be able to function as the country's sole policy objective. Bell acknowledges the problem. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, he writes, "things [have] become more complicated." He continues, in the future "people will need to argue about what works and to have a greater say."

As a country becomes richer, the choices that confront it become more complex. Simply increasing its gross national product, a goal about which it is relatively easy to build a consensus, fades as the central focus of policy-making. There inevitably will be differences of opinion concerning how the new-found wealth should be used. Resolving these differences requires debate and respect for the legitimacy of opposing points of view. In short, a democracy.

Another problem is sure to arise as China becomes wealthier -- the self-appointed ruling elite will engage in self-aggrandizement. Party members will use their power to enrich themselves. With that, the claim that the country possesses a meritocratic system is without substance.

That precisely is what is occurring in China today. The corruption that is endemic in the country represents one dimension of that process. A second is the presence among the elite of numerous "princelings" -- people whose family members are or were important leaders of the ruling party. There would be little room for such individuals if the system were truly meritocratic.

As the ruling elite succumbs to temptation, that claim of meritocracy loses credibility. In a democracy, this would be the occasion for a change in government. But since the rule of the Communist Party is not challengeable, no mechanism is available to achieve that end. What the country needs, but what Bell rejects, is democracy. He opposes a one-person one-vote system, believing that decision-making should remain in the hands of the ruling party.

What Bell is really worried about is that a system of one person one vote "could bring China back to its chaotic days of civil war and weakness vis-à-vis outside powers." 1. But it is impossible to assign credence to these concerns. The success of democracy at the local level that Bell himself attests to demonstrates democracy's viability in China. Similarly the fear that a democratic China -- a rising global power -- would succumb to a new imperialism cannot be taken seriously. However, China does face a real threat. It stems from the conflicts that will occur inside of the nation as the ruling party becomes increasingly unresponsive to popular political preferences.

It should be added of course that China is not the only country facing the problem of elite rule. The United States does as well. Here, a self-perpetuating elite uses campaign funding to maintain its dominance and enriches itself at the expense of the society. To the extent that both countries share the same problem, the solution is the same. People must be empowered to employ their numbers to oust those who use their privileged status in society to enhance their hegemony.

1. Page numbers in parentheses are from Daniel A. Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015).