IN DEFENCE OF HOW CHINA PICKS ITS LEADERS
By Daniel Bell and Eric Li
The coverage in the western media of leadership changes at the Chinese Communist party’s 18th congress has been almost uniformly negative. Critics say corruption pervades the upper echelons of the party, policy issues are not publicly discussed and the Chinese people are completely left out of the process.
There is some truth to such criticisms but they miss the big picture. The Chinese political system has undergone a significant change over the past three decades and it comes close to the best formula for governing a large country: meritocracy at the top, democracy at the bottom, with room for experimentation in between.
There is a good case for popular participation at local levels. People usually know what’s needed in their communities and they have a good sense of the competence and character of the leaders they choose. In fact, most Chinese participate in local-level elections.
In a big country, however, one person, one vote is problematic. From a moral point of view, citizens should vote for the common good because their votes affect not just themselves but other people. Yet voters tend to vote with their pocketbooks. Many can’t even do that well, since they lack economic competence. One group of voters – the rich – has a better understanding of economics and finds it easy to skew the system in their favor.
To remedy the problem the economist Bryan Caplan proposes tests of voter competence, but that’s a non-starter in democracies because nobody wants to give up the vote once they have it. Hence, it really is the end of history, but in the bad sense that no improvements are possible once the system of one person, one vote is in place.
There is a deeper problem with democracy. It confers voting rights only to adults within national borders. But it’s not just voters who are affected by the policies of the government: non-voters such as future generations and people living outside the country are also affected. In Europe and the US, the public repeatedly votes for lower taxes and higher benefits, recklessly mortgaging the future of their countries. And let’s not mention global warming.
So how should leaders be chosen at the central level? Ideally, the process should be meritocratic: the mechanism should be explicitly designed to choose leaders with superior competence and virtue. Over the past three decades or so, the CPC has gradually transformed itself from a revolutionary party to a meritocratic organization.
Today, universities are the main recruitment grounds for new members. Students need to score in the top percentile of national examinations to be admitted to an elite university that grooms future leaders. Then they compete fiercely to be admitted into the party. Only high-performing students who have undergone thorough character checks are admitted.
Those who want to serve in government then usually need to pass government examinations, with thousands of applicants competing for a single spot. Once they are part of the political system, further evaluations are required to move up the chain of command. They must perform well at lower levels of government and pass character tests. Then there are more position-specific exams that test for specialised skills.
The advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy are clear. Cadres are put through a gruelling process of talent selection and only those with an excellent performance record make it to the highest levels. Instead of wasting time and money campaigning for votes, leaders can seek to improve their knowledge and performance. China often sends its leaders to learn from best practices abroad.
Yes, meritocracy can only work in the context of a one-party state. In a multi-party state, there is no assurance that performance at lower levels of government will be rewarded at higher levels, and there is no strong incentive to train cadres so that they have experience at higher levels because the key personnel can change with a government led by a different party. Hence, less talent goes to the bureaucracy, because the real power-holders are supposed to be chosen by the people.
In practice, Chinese-style meritocracy is flawed. Most obviously, there is widespread corruption in the political system. Term and age limits help to “guard the guardians”, but more is needed to curb abuses of power, such as a more open and credible media, more transparency and an effective legal system, higher salaries for officials, and more independent anti-corruption agencies.
When it comes to political systems, western opinion leaders are still stuck in a narrative of dichotomy: democracy versus authoritarianism. But the competition in the 21st century, as the scholar Zhang Weiwei writes, is between good and bad governance. The Chinese regime has developed the right formula for choosing political rulers that is consistent with China’s culture and history and suitable to modern circumstances. It should be improved on the basis of this formula, not western-style democracy.
The writers are a professor of political theory at Tsinghua University and a Shanghai-based venture capitalist