Political Meritocracy Is a Good Thing (Part 2): Improving Meritocracy in China

China can learn much from the political virtues typically associated with democratic regimes: political participation, freedom, transparency, and toleration. But the country can and should build upon the actual and potential advantages of its political meritocracy.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The advantages of "actually-existing" meritocracy in the Chinese Communist Party are clear. Cadres are put through a grueling process of talent selection, and onlythose with an excellent record of past performance are likely to makeit to the highest levels of government. The training process includesthe cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged bysuch means as limited periods of work in poor rural areas.

Moreover, this kind of meritocratic selection process is only likely towork in the context of a one-party state. In a multi-party state, thereis no assurance that performance at lower levels of government will berewarded at higher levels, and there is no strong incentive to traincadres so that they have experience at higher levels, because the keypersonnel can change with a government led by different party. So eventalented leaders, like President Obama, can make many "beginner'smistakes" once they assume rule because they haven't been properlytrained to assume command at the highest levels of government.Leaders in China are not likely to make such mistakes because of theirexperience and training. The fact that decision-making at the highest-levels isby committee -- the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo -- alsoensures that no one person with outlandish and uninformed views can decideupon wrong-headed policies (such as Lee Kuan Yew's policies in Singaporefavoring births by educated women that were based on eugenics theoriesrejected by most scientists).

Once Chinese leaders reach positions of political power, they can makedecisions that consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders,including future generations and people living outside the state. Inmulti-party democracies with leaders chosen on the basis of competitiveelections, by contrast, leaders need to worry about the next electionand they are more likely to make decisions influenced by short-termpolitical considerations that bear on their chances of gettingreelected. The interests of non-voters affected by policies, suchas future generations, are not likely to be taken seriously if theyconflict with the interests of voters.

Moreover, the fact that the real power holders in Western-styledemocracies are supposed to be those chosen by the people in electionsoften means that "bureaucrats" are not considered to be as important;hence, less talent goes to the bureaucracy. This flaw may beparticularly clear in the American political system. Arecent conversation with a young recipient of a Rhodes scholarshipis revealing. She is interested in international affairs, and I suggested that perhaps shecan join the U.S. State Department, but she said that she had been warnedthat it's hard for people of ambition and talent to succeed in that setting. In contrast, theChinese political system does not clearly distinguish between"bureaucrats" and "power-holders" and thus ambitious people of talentare not discouraged from joining the political system at the lowerlevels, with the hope of moving upwards.

This is not to imply that the U.S. and other countries should strive toemulate Chinese-style meritocracy. For one thing, political meritocracy is more likely to be workable and stable in a certain type of political culture: as noted above, political surveysshow that people in East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage tend to valuepolitical 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 meritocraticone party rule. This is not to deny that there are elitist elements inthe American political system (for example, recent U.S. presidents aregraduates of Harvard and Yale), but political leaders tend not to betoo open about such elitist characteristics. Moreover, it isdifficult to imagine major constitutional reform of the US politicalsystem that would encourage more meritocracy (it is possible to foreseeconstitutional change for the worse, e.g., in the event of anothermajor terrorist attack on American soil -- but not change for better).In contrast, the Chinese constitutional system seems more amenable tosubstantial political change if circumstances require.

Nor do I mean to imply that "actually-existing meritocracy"in China cannot be improved. The success of meritocracy in China is obvious: China's rulers have presided over the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history, with several hundred million people being lifted out of poverty. Equally obvious, however, some problems in China -- corruption, gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, overly powerful state-run enterprises that skew the economic system in their favor, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent, repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang -- seem to have worsened during the same period the political system has become meritocratic. Part of the problem is that China lacks democracyat various levels of government that could help to check abuses of power and providemore opportunities for political expression by marginalized groups. But part of theproblem is also that political meritocracy has been insufficiently developed in China.The system has become meritocratic over the last three decades or so, but it can andshould become more meritocratic in the future.

Political meritocracy involves the selection and promotion of political officials with bothability and virtue, and let me discuss each in turn. Perhaps the most significant improvementwithin the Chinese Communist Party over the last three of decades has been more emphasison the selection and promotion of officials with above average intellectual ability, especially at the higher levels of government. However, the system is not as meritocratic as it could be, even in this respect. Consider the "anti-meritocratic" effects of constraints on freedom of political speech. The best political decisions, of course, need to be based on completeinformation, but fear of negative consequences may inhibit stakeholdersfrom expressing their viewpoints. I realize that the CCP carries outinternal polling to get as much information as possible, and thatcadres are encouraged to constantly learn and improve, but fewerbarriers to the freedom of speech may improve the quality of decision making.

Another area of concern is that the rigorous, multi-year talent selection processmay discourage risk-taking. In other words, relativelycreative and original minds may be weeded out early because they haveoffended people or challenged the "normal way of doing things." Intimes of crisis, perhaps the Chinese political system allows forsubstantial change, but in ordinary times, there may beunnecessary attachment to the status quo long after it has extended itspractical utility. Perhaps this problem can be remedied by allowing for some positions in important government posts (including the Politburo) to be reserved for talented people from other walks of life,such as business or academia.

There may also be a need for more international exposure inthe selection process. The main task of the Chinese Communist Party isof course to serve the Chinese people. But China is now a great globalpower, and what it does also affects the interests of people livingoutside of China, and it needs to be as humane as possible in itsdealings with other countries. It is a good sign that the children ofgovernment leaders are often educated abroad because they can serve asinformal advisers, but nothing takes the place of personal exposure toforeign ways of doing things. Perhaps the selection process ofhigh-level government leaders can also value experience abroad and evenforeign language skills. Yan Xuetong argues that the Chinese governmentshould employ more talented foreigners as officials, similar to the Tang dynasty.

Equally important, there may be a need for more representation by members of minority groups at the highest levels of government, even if they didn't rise through the political system.Only sincere adherents of a religion can really know what's best for their religion and meritocratic decision-making would involve more representation by members ofreligious communities. One possibility is to reserve spots for members of minority groups on the Politburo. Jiang Qing proposes a House of Cultural Continuity composed of leaders of diverse religions with a long historical presence in China, including Confucianism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity.

Of course, meritocratic-decision making is not just a matter of having the ability and knowledge to make political decisions. Immoral decision-makers with high-level analytical skills and local knowledge can do more damage than not-so-competent political leaders who may not be able to figure out the best means to realize immoral ends. I do not mean to imply that Chinese political leaders lack virtue. I've met many admirable political officials who are public-spirited and committed to the common good, even at substantial cost to their own interests. But virtuous leaders should not be corrupt, and just about everybody in China recognizes that political corruption is a serious problem. Term and age limits for Chinese leaders are helpful. But there is a need for other mechanisms to reduce corruption -- a relatively independent anti-corruption agency (similar to Hong Kong and Singapore), more transparency, more freedom for media to report on cases of corruption, financial audits for leaders and their family members, higher salaries for leaders, and harsh punishments for corruption.

More rigorous emphasis on ethical education for political leaders is also necessary. The current leadership selection process does not allow for enough time for systematic reflection on ethical and political matters. A few weeks at the Party School is not sufficient for leaders to read the great works in politics, history, and philosophy that deepen one's knowledge as to possibilities of morally-informed political judgments. If political leaders were encouraged, say, to take a six-month leave period with few obligations other than reading great works (especially the Confucian classics that focus more directly on political morality), the long-term effect on the ability to make morally-informed political judgments is likely to be positive. Equally if not more important, more emphasis on the Confucian classics in primary and secondary schools is likely to improve the moral education of future Chinese leaders.

Of course, a political decision maker should do more than refrain fromcorruption. He or she much also be motivated by humanity and compassionfor people, animals, and the natural world. But is it difficult to reconcilethis desideratum with the extreme under-representation of females in thepolitical decision-making bodies, especially at the highest levels. Thecurrent leadership selection process is biased againstfemales: the process is so time-consuming that it seems hardreconcile with ordinary family life. Since females are often the maincare-takers of family members, they may not have sufficient time tocompete fairly with males for top government posts (even if females arenot the main care-takers, such expectations influence the selection process: it is more difficult for females to be hired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of the expectation that such posts are difficult to reconcile with ordinary family life). If we agree that compassion is mainly a female trait, 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. I have no doubt that a government composed of morefemale leaders is more likely to rule in a compassionate and humane way.

Obviously, the process of "meritocratization" is a long term transformationthere is no clear end-point (unlike, say, "democratization," which usually meansfree and fair competitive elections for a country's top political leaders). But one clear way forward would be for the Chinese Communist Party to changeits name so that it better corresponds to the institutional reality ofthe organization, as well as to what it aspires to be.Most obviously, the organization is no longerCommunist and few Chinese, including members of the CCP, believe that the party is leading the march to higher communism. Political meritocracy was valued neither by Marx nor by Mao.Lenin's idea of the vanguard party was also different. Moreover, theparty is not a political party among others. It is a pluralisticorganization composed of different groups and classes that representsthe whole country, and to a lesser extent, the world. A more accuratename might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union (中国贤能联盟).

Let me end with one point that will be intensely controversial in countries with a democraticheritage. China can learn much from the political virtues typically associated with democratic regimes: political participation, freedom, transparency, and toleration. But the country can and should build upon the actual and potential advantages of political meritocracy: the decades long training of political officials entrusted with the top political decision making powers, the ability to make decisions that take account of the interests of future generations, the rest of the world, and the natural world, even when they conflict with the preferences of the majority of citizens, and decision-making by committee rather than vesting ultimate decision-making powers in one individual (such as the U.S. president). These advantages of meritocracy are compatible with more freedom, transparency, toleration, political participation at sub-national levels of government, and a certain degree of political competition at the top. But meritocracy is incompatible with multi-party competition at the top and one-person one vote for the selection of top decision makers. Hence, the task in China is to improve meritocracy and learn from parts of democracy, but not from what many democrats today would consider to be its core element.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community