Thursday, 15 November 2012

Meritocracy vs democracy

by Zhang Weiwei, Published TODAY, 12 Nov 2012

The world's two largest economies are both revealing their next leaders this month, and this coincidence has been depicted in the Western media as a sharp contrast between an opaque Communist state and a transparent populous democracy.

But beneath this superficial contrast is a competition between two political models, one based more on meritocratic leadership and the other on popular election. And the Chinese model may win.

While China's dramatic economic rise has attracted global attention, its political and institutional changes have been little noticed or deliberately ignored for ideological reasons.

In fact, without much fanfare, Beijing has introduced significant reforms into its way of governance and established an elaborate system of what can be called "selection plus election". 

Briefly, competent leaders are selected based on merit and popular support through a vigorous process of screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and various small-scale elections. The Communist Party of China may arguably be one of the world's most meritocratic institutions.


Meritocratic governance is deeply rooted in China's Confucian political tradition, which among other things allowed the country to develop and sustain for well over a millennium the Keju system, the world's first public exam process for selecting officials.

Consistent with this tradition, Beijing practises - not always successfully - meritocracy across the whole political stratum. Criteria such as performance in poverty eradication, job creation, local economic and social development and, increasingly, cleaner environment are key factors in the promotion of local officials. China's dramatic rise over the past three decades is inseparable from this meritocratic system.

Sensational scandals of official corruption and other social woes aside, China's governance, like the Chinese economy, remains resilient and robust.

On the institutional front, the party has introduced a strict mandatory retirement age and term limits at all levels. The General Secretary, President and Prime Minister now serve a maximum of two terms of office, or 10 years. Collective leadership is practised within the Politburo in part to prevent the type of the personality cult we witnessed during the Cultural Revolution.

These carefully designed changes have eliminated any possibility of permanent entrenchment of power in the hands of any individual leader (which was a major cause of the Arab Spring).


Nothing can better illustrate this meritocratic governance than the line-up of the next generation of Chinese leaders to be unveiled at the 18th Party Congress now in session.

Virtually all the candidates for the Standing Committee of the party, China's highest decision-making body, have served at least twice as a party secretary of a Chinese province or at similar managerial positions. It takes extraordinary talent and skills to govern a typical Chinese province, which is on average the size of four to five European states.

Indeed, with the Chinese system of meritocracy in place, it is inconceivable that people as weak and incompetent as Mr George W Bush or Mr Yoshihiko Noda of Japan could ever get to the top leadership position.

Take the incoming leader, Mr Xi Jinping, as an example. He served as the Governor of Fujian Province, a region known for its dynamic economy, and as Party Secretary of Zhejiang province, which is renowned for its thriving private sector, and Shanghai, China's financial and business hub with a powerful state sector.

In other words, prior to taking his current position as the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, Mr Xi had in fact managed areas with total population of over 120 million and an economy larger than India's. 

He was then given another five years to serve as Vice-President to get familiar with running the state and military affairs at the national level.


China's meritocracy challenges the stereotypical dichotomy of democracy vs autocracy. From Beijing's point of view, the nature of a state, including its legitimacy, has to be defined by its substance: Good governance, competent leadership and success in satisfying the citizenry.

Notwithstanding its many deficiencies, the Chinese government has ensured the world's fastest-growing economy and vastly improved living standards for most people. 

According to the Pew Research Center, 82 per cent of Chinese surveyed this year feel optimistic about their future, topping all other countries surveyed.

Indeed, Abraham Lincoln's ideal of "government of the people, by the people, for the people", is by no means easy to achieve, and American democracy is far from meeting this objective. Otherwise the Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz would not have decried, in perhaps too critical a tone, that the US system is now "of the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent, and for the 1 per cent".

China has become the world's largest laboratory for economic, social and political change, and China's model of "selection plus election", is in a position now to compete with the US model of electoral democracy.

Winston Churchill's famous dictum - "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried" - may be true in the Western cultural context. 

Many Chinese even paraphrase Churchill's remark into what China's great strategist Sun Tzu called "xiaxiace", or "the least bad option", which allows for the exit of bad leaders.

However, in China's Confucian tradition of meritocracy, a state should always strive for what's called "shangshangce", or "the best of the best" option by choosing leaders of the highest calibre. It is not easy, but efforts in this direction should never cease.

China's political and institutional innovations so far have produced a system that has, in many ways, combined the best option of selecting well-tested leaders and the least bad option of ensuring the exit of bad leaders. 

Zhang Weiwei is a professor of international relations at Fudan University and senior fellow at Chunqiu Institute. He is the author of "The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State".

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