David Brooks at the New York Times wrote a column more than a year ago, “The Dictatorship of Talent”. He characterized the Chinese political system as a form of “meritocratic paternalism”.
“……today’s China is a society obsessed with talent, and that the Chinese ruling elite recruits talent the way the N.B.A. does — rigorously, ruthless, in a completely elitist manner…..”
“It’s got a different system: meritocratic paternalism. You joke: Imagine the Ivy League taking over the shell of the Communist Party and deciding not to change the name. Imagine the Harvard Alumni Association with an army.”
“This is a government of talents, you tell your American friends. It rules society the way a wise father rules the family. There is some consultation with citizens, but mostly members of the guardian class decide for themselves what will serve the greater good.
The meritocratic corpocracy absorbs rival power bases. Once it seemed that economic growth would create an independent middle class, but now it is clear that the affluent parts of society have been assimilated into the state/enterprise establishment. Once there were students lobbying for democracy, but now they are content with economic freedom and opportunity.”
He acknowledged the system’s current success but questioned its long-term sustainability.
“You feel pride in what the corpocracy has achieved and now expect it to lead China’s next stage of modernization — the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. But in the back of your mind you wonder: Perhaps it’s simply impossible for a top-down memorization-based elite to organize a flexible, innovative information economy, no matter how brilliant its members are.
That’s a thought you don’t like to dwell on in the middle of the night.”
Here are my thoughts:
Is meritocracy incompatible with innovation in a knowledge-based economy? Is meritocracy necessarily imposed top-down, as a method of coercive control of the population? Does a meritocracy have to be paternalistic, as Dave suggested? Can meritocracy as a political system be made liberal and participatory? History has already answered these questions. A meritocracy can be imposed in a top-down fashion, like in Singapore. It can also be implemented in a bottom-up fashion, like in Japan, where the citizens elect their leaders but the Liberal Democratic Party has rule with small-group consensus among the political elite since the end of World War II.
The vitality of meritocracy per se in the new economy is not a question. A more troubling question is whether China has the right conditions for implementing a true meritocracy. So far meritocracy has succeeded in bringing stability and prosperity only in East Asia, and more importantly, only in those East Asian societies with monolithic populations. Singapore’s immigration policy stressing the maintenance of the current proportion of ethnic groups in the population may be vital in sustaining its political system. China is much more diverse and fragmented in its population than Korea, Japan and Singapore. Linguistic barriers from the north to the south are tractable with the promotion of Mandarin via primary and secondary education. The most problematic is the existence of what Samuel Huntington calls “civilizational fault lines” within its border. Ethnic groups (particularly Tibetans and Muslims) with religious beliefs incompatible with the mainstream secular-humanistic world view of China proper leave China a “torn country”, according to Huntington. Acceptance and support of the Chinese government hit a wall at the fault lines of civilizations. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiaobao may be judged by the Han as having merits in their management of the economic development, as the Pew Opinion Survey has shown. However, the Tibetans and Uyghur have completely different standards for merits, ones that come from directly Buddha and Allah. How can mortals compete with supernaturals for merits? Ethnic problems infused with religiosity may be the Achilles’ heel for Chinese meritocracy. On the other hand, ethnic groups that share the naturalistic approach to spirituality of China proper have no problem in participating in the Chinese system. These include the country’s largest minority group, the Zhuan of Guangxi, the Mongolians and Manchurians, and the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast.
I have written a longer piece in my blog related to this issue. It is too long to post here. Here is a summary.
Three Models of World History and Three Views on China: the Ideological, the Civilizational, and the Functional, Part I
Over the last year I have posted writings on various blog sites, mainly on my blog, but also on the Fool’s Mountain and the comment section in the blog of Richard Spencer, the Beijing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Most of those words were not worth revisiting. For the fraction that has contributed to my intellectual growth, I have been trying to build a structure to hold its pieces together. Two books have offered useful insights in this process, (1) the End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama (1992) and (2) Clashes of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington (1996).
Both authors took a genetic approach to changes in societies, one that regards a phenotype as manifestation of a unique genotype. In individuals, the phenotype consists of the observed traits in an animal at a particular developmental stage. For example, we can measure a person’s height and intelligence at age 12. Morphological and behavioral traits are determined by genes housed in the cell nucleus, inherited from the parents. Similarly, the observed features of a human society are determined by genetic factors.
According to Fukuyama, the basic genetic ingredients of a society lie in individual psychology. These include rationality, emotionality, and a striving for respect by dominating the other person. It is deeply rooted in human nature that people fight for the purpose of affirming their personal worth, by overcoming the other person, rendering the other person the inferior one, the slave. Democracy is a solution to problems created by this mutually destructive human need; it allows people to give each other mutual respect, obviating the need to dominate. Fukuyama believes that all societies are endowed with the same genetic materials, i.e., the need to solve the dominance problem. His ideological approach predicts a world-wide struggle between liberal democracy on the one hand and the leftist and rightist dictatorships on the other, with the former destined to a final victory. Democracy’s victory is certain because it is a more functional and productive solution to the universal problem of group living.
Huntington presents a civilizational approach that describes a fragmented world consisting groups of nations bond together by common identities. According to Huntington, civilization is the most abstract level of individual identity. One’s civilization provides one with the basic belief and value systems for making sense of one’s experiences. The model predicts conflicts along fault lines of civilization, where people fight each other to promote their values and affirm their identity. This civilizational approach predicts a Chinese threat, a rising Sinic power challenging the dominance of a declining Western civilization.
The Chinese government and citizens over the last 30 years have adopted a functional approach to the evolution of their society. Political ideology and cultural identities are byproducts of a society’s effort in solving the concrete problems of group living. This functional approach predicts a “Chinese solution”, a political system that evolves with the changing situation and possesses a built-in mechanism for self-correction. What will this solution look like? What will be its scope of influence in 20 or 30 years? Will it be a solution restricted to within the Chinese borders, or will it benefit others as a model of development or spill-over affluence? Will this solution for the Chinese bring conflict with the other powers in the world? What will be the nature of these conflicts? Will these be ideological struggles, or fights over resources?