Political Meritocracy Is a Good Thing (Part 1): The Case of China

Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinese political culture. For Confucius,political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody should be educated.
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Political meritocracy is the idea that a political systemis designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with aboveaverage ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is,political meritocracy has two key components: (1) the political leadershave above average ability and virtue; and (2) the selectionmechanism 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 reinterpretingthis political ideal, particularly in a Chinese context. First,political meritocracy has been, and continues to be, central to Chinesepolitical culture. Second, democracy is a flawed political system andmeritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Third, the ChineseCommunist Party itself has become a more meritocratic organization overthe last three decades or so. I will discuss each of these factors in turn.

Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinesepolitical culture. The idea of "elevating the worthy" emerged in thewake of the disintegration of the pedigree-based aristocratic order ofthe Spring and Autumn period. This idea was shared by the vast majorityof known thinkers in the Warring States period, and political thinkersdebated about how to define merit and how to develop politicalpractices and institutions based on merit. For Confucius,political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody shouldbe educated. However, not everybody will emerge from thisprocess with an equal ability to make morally informed politicaljudgments. Hence, an important task of the political system isto select leaders with an above average ability to make morallyinformed political judgments, as well as to encourage as many people oftalent as possible to participate in politics. Such rulers, inConfucius' view, would gain the trust of the people.

In Imperial China, political meritocracy was institutionalized by meansof the imperial examination system that put successful candidates onthe road to fame and power. Whatever the flaws of the system, it didprovide a minimal standard of talent selection and allowed for a modestlevel of social circulation. The examination system spread to Korea andVietnam and also influenced the development of civil serviceexaminations in Western countries. In the post World War II era, EastAsian societies developed rapidly at least partly due to the sounddecision-making of meritocratically-selected political rulers.

Today, political surveys show that there is widespread support for the idealof political meritocracy in East Asian societies with a Confucianheritage. In China, Shi Tianjian and Lu Jie show that the majorityof people endorse "guardianship discourse," defined as the need toidentify "high quality politicians who care about the people's demands,take people's interests into consideration when making decisions, andchoose good policies on behalf of their people and society" overliberal democratic discourse that privileges procedural arrangementsensuring people's rights to participate in politics and choose theirleaders.

The idea of political meritocracy is also central to Western politicaltheory and practice. Plato famously defended a meritocratic politicalideal in The Republic: the best political regime is composed ofpolitical leaders selected on the basis of their superior ability tomake morally informed political judgments and granted power to ruleover the community. Meritocracy was influential throughout subsequenthistory, though subsequent thinkers rarely defended a pure formof political meritocracy. U.S. founding fathers and 19th century"liberal elitists" such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocquevilleput forward political ideas that tried to combine meritocracy anddemocracy. Yet theorizing about meritocracy has all but faded frommodern Western political discourse. There are hundreds if not thousandsof books on the theory and practice of democracy, but it is hardto think of a single recent (and decent) English-language book on theidea of political meritocracy.

The dearth of debates about political meritocracy would not beproblematic if it were widely agreed that liberal democracy is the bestpolitical system (or the least bad political system, as WinstonChurchill famously put it). But there are growing doubts. The "crisisof governability" in Western democracies caused by the unprecedentedglobalized flow of goods, services, and capital has beenwell documented by political scientists. Capitalistinterests have disproportionate power in the political process,especially in the American political system which has been described,perhaps not unfairly, as one-dollar one-vote rather than one-personone-vote.

Political theorists have raised questions about the votingsystem itself. Part of the problem is that voters are often selfishlyconcerned with their narrow material interest, and ignore the interestsof future generations and people living outside national boundaries who areaffected by the policies of the government. Jason Brennan has argued thatvoters should stay away from the voting booth if they cannot makemorally informed political judgments. Certainly there are some issues where thepursuit of narrow economic self-interest at the voting booth could lead todisastrous consequences for non-voters who lack representation (considerglobal warming). Just as worrisome, perhaps, voters often misunderstandtheir own interests. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplanshows that voters are often irrational and he suggests tests of voter competenceas a remedy. Of course, such proposals are non-starters in liberal democracies. Theprinciple of political equality expressed in the form of one person,one vote has assumed quasi-sacred status today. In thenineteenth-century, John Stuart Mill could propose extra votes foreducated people, but today proponents of such proposals are considered(in Western countries) to have lost their moral compass.

Fortunately, political theorists are not so dogmatic in the Chinesecontext. Jiang Qing has argued that democratic forms of legitimacy --which in the West is grounded in notions of popular sovereignty --should be balanced by two other sources of legitimacy that come fromHeaven and Earth. In a modern context, he argues that thispolitical ideal should be institutionalized by means of a tri-camerallegislature, with authority divided between a House of the People, a House of Confucian Scholars, and a House of Cultural Continuity that correspond to the three forms of legitimacy. Similarly,Bai Tongdong and Joseph Chan have argued for models for a hybridpolitical regime that combines elements of democracy and meritocracy,with meritocratic houses of government composed of political leaderschosen by such means as examination and performance at lower levels ofgovernment (I have also argued for a hybrid regime, with a meritocratichouse of government termed the House of Exemplary Persons).

These models may be utopian, but they provide us with a new, and,arguably, better standard for evaluating political progress in Chinaand elsewhere. Instead of judging political progress simply by askingwhether China is becoming more democratic, the new standard provides amore comprehensive way of judging political progress (and regress). Thequestion is also whether the Chinese political system is becoming moremeritocratic. And here there may be grounds for optimism.

In its early days, Communist China under Mao explicitly rejectedConfucian-inspired ideas of political meritocracy. Understandably,perhaps, the main task was rewarding revolutionary energy and securingmilitary strength for the state to put an end to abuse and bullying byforeign powers. But now, the establishment of a relatively secure andstrong Chinese state under the leadership of the CCP means thatChina has less to worry about survival qua political community. Hence,the emphasis has shifted to the task of good governance led by able andvirtuous political leaders, and the selection and promotion mechanismsof the CCP have become more meritocratic.

In the 1980s, talented students at leading Chinese universities oftendid not seek to join the CCP. Today, it's a different story. Collegecampuses have become the main location for recruitment efforts. At elite schools like TsinghuaUniversity, 28 percent of all undergrads, 43 percent ofGraduating seniors and up to 55 percent of grad students were CCPmembers in 2010 (I've beenteaching at Tsinghua for nearly eight years, and many of myhigh-performing students are party members). The CCP is also targeting the "newsocial stratum" of young professionals in urban areas, includingbusiness people and managers in private firms, lawyers, and accountants.

The promotion system for cadres is even more explicitly meritocratic.At a recent dialogue session with several foreign and Chineseacademics, Mr. Li Yuanchao, Minister of the Organization Department ofthe CPC Central Committee, provided some fascinating and illuminatingdetails. Minister Li noted that different criteria are used to judgeabilities and virtues at different levels of government. At lowerlevels, close connection with the people is particular important(put differently, perhaps, democracy is more important at the lowerlevels). At the higher levels, more emphasis is placed on rationalitysince cadres need to take into account of multiple factors anddecision-making involves a much broader area of governance, but virtuessuch as concern for the people and a practical attitude also matter.Cadres are also expected to set a model of corruption-free rule.

To illustrate the rigorous (meritocratic) nature of selection athigher levels of government, Minister Li described the procedure usedto select the secretary general of the Organization Department of theCPC Central Committee. First, there was a nomination process, includingretired cadres. Those who received many nominations could move to thenext stage. Next, there was an examination, including such questions ashow to be a good Secretary General. Over 10 people took the exam, andthe list was narrowed to five people. To ensure that the process wasfair, the examination papers were put in the corridor for all to judgethe results. Then, there was an oral examination with an interviewpanel composed of ministers, vice-ministers, and university professors.To ensure transparency and fairness, ordinary cadres who work for theGeneral Secretary were in the room, which allowed them to supervisethe whole process. Three candidates with the highest score wereselected for the next stage. Then, the department of personnel led aninspection team to look into the performance and virtue of thecandidates, with more emphasis placed on virtue. Two people wererecommended for the next stage. The final decision was made by acommittee of 12 ministers who each had a vote, and thecandidate had to have at least eight votes to succeed. If the requirednumber of votes was not secured the first time, the ministers discussedfurther until two-thirds could agree on a candidate.

It is hard not be impressed by the rigorous selection process forthe secretary general of the Organization Department of the CPCCentral Committee (and it is even harder not to be impressed by the successfulcandidate). Such transparency in the talent selection process is likelyto contribute to the government's legitimacy. If people are not aware ofthe selection process, they may suspect that promotion is based primarilyon loyalty, connections (guanxi), or corruption. Hence, shedding light onthe actual mechanisms is likely to dispel such suspicions. There is stilla long way to go -- for example, it would be useful to have more informationabout the criteria that influence selection of members onthe Central Committee and the Politburo -- but the fact that Minister Li told usabout the process in his organization is a good sign of a high-level decisionto increase transparency.

No system is perfect, of course, and my next post will suggest some ways of improving political meritocracy in China.

A version of this post first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

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