Is Chinese autocracy outperforming western democracy?

The author suggests that China’s regime could put itself to a referendum – a democratic referendum against electoral democracy. He expects it would win that referendum. Book review.

Stein Ringen
12 June 2015
President Xi Jinping, 2014.

President Xi Jinping, 2014. Demotix/Gregor Fischer. All rights reserved.In a new and important book, an eminent political scientist argues the case that the Chinese system is not only unique but also a morally justifiable alternative to democracy. He calls it a ‘political meritocracy’ and suggests that recent experience shows meritocracy to have so much promise and democracy so much difficulty that the balance is shifting in favour of meritocracy.

The experience in question is ‘the crisis of governance in Western democracy’ and ‘the success of meritocracy in China.’

The book is The China Model (Princeton University Press). Its author is Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian political scientist who for about ten years has been teaching at one of China’s élite universities, Tsinghua in Beijing, and who has become known as an original thinker about today’s China.

This is a challenge to be taken seriously. The author has a unique theoretical competence and is uniquely positioned to observe Chinese affairs. His book offers the most sophisticated defence to date of the Chinese system, wrapped into a trenchant criticism of democracy.


The argument is taken forward in four main chapters. The first is about democracy, understood as the use of one-person-one-vote as the way to select political leaders. Various weaknesses and problems are identified in the use of this method that are so severe that it is a mystery why we are so wedded to it. These are summarised in a list of ‘tyrannies’: of the majority, of the minority, of the voting community, of the voting community and of competitive individualists. Because of these built-in problems, democracy is given a low mark for its ability to provide for good and effective governance.

The second chapter is about meritocracy as an alternative way of selecting leaders. In a meritocracy leaders are selected by being tested for their qualifications to hold (high) office according to specified criteria. Governments wield great power over citizens and it is therefore important that we are governed by competent leaders. Potential leaders should be tested prior to ascending to high office, principally by public service examinations. The criteria by which they should be vetted are intellectual ability, social skills and virtue.

The third chapter deals with the problems of meritocratic selection. These are that a system of unchecked leadership may produce corruption and ossification of hierarchies and be without adequate legitimacy. There are solutions to the two first problems that are in principle fairly simple. The problem of legitimacy is more difficult. Overcoming it is possible, but requires not only better procedures but also innovations in the very system of meritocracy by infusing it with elements of democracy.

The fourth chapter considers three models of ‘democratic meritocracy.’ The first might be to introduce voting procedures that are arranged so as to make it more likely that wise leaders will be selected, for example by giving more voting power to the best educated citizens. The second model is to combine meritocracy and democracy in central political institutions, for example by having assemblies of experts side by side with assemblies of elected representatives. The third model is ‘vertical’: democracy at the local level and meritocracy at the central.

The author believes the Chinese regime has taken bold steps towards central meritocracy and some steps towards local democracy, but also that it is only a matter of time before it will need to give itself more solid legitimacy by way of some kind of popular consent. That can be done, in part, by improving local democracy. But he also thinks more will be needed. He suggests that the regime could put itself to a referendum – a democratic referendum against electoral democracy. He expects it would win that referendum.


This book offers a defence of the Chinese system that is unique in the strength of theoretical grounding. It is authoritative, written by an acknowledged expert and published by a first-rate academic press. It is ambitious, aiming to shift the ground in our understanding of good government. It wants to persuade those of us who are defenders of democracy that we are wrong. It is aggressive, determined to correct both political theory and ‘western’ misconceptions about China.

So we must ask, is it right? Much is at play in that question.

Two arguments run side by side, one about meritocracy as an alternative to democracy and one about China and the emergence there of a model of democratic meritocracy that is ‘morally desirable and politically stable.’

(1) Is the argument theoretically persuasive as to meritocracy? The answer is, no. The reason is that it is misguided about democracy. The essence of democracy, it is suggested – ‘the one thing we agree about’ – is that political leaders are chosen by means of one-person-one-vote. But that’s wrong on two counts. The essence of democracy is an arrangement of power: that ultimate political power sits in the hands of the ruled, and not only that: in the hands of the ruled so that no single person or small group can monopolise ultimate power. One-person-one-vote is a method to assure that arrangement of power. Hence, the alternative to democracy is not meritocracy but autocracy, which is a different way of organising power.

The case for democratic government is twofold: that it, being under popular control, should protect citizens against oppression, and, that it being by consent, should be effective. That is a matter of how power is constituted. Power, however, merits no analysis in The China Model (not even as an entry in the detailed index). The danger of oppression gets no consideration. Good government is seen exclusively as a matter of effectiveness.

The question of power is no theoretical abstraction in the Chinese case. The People’s Republic has already once imploded into extremities of oppression because a supreme leader, Mao Zedong, was allowed absolute power. In 1989, the regime turned the guns on a people demanding political opening up. That was possible because of the constitution of power. Presently, the new leader, Xi Jinping, is engaged in an aggressive concentration of power, in the country to Beijing, in Beijing to the Party, and in the Party to himself, a reconstitution of power that in light of Chinese experience must be considered dangerous. The China Model stands as a warning against any attempt to understand the Chinese state without an analysis of power.

The second way it is wrong is that democracies do not choose political leaders by one-person-one-vote. They instead do it in ways that are intensely meritocratic. Lawmakers are elected by one-person-one-vote, but not other political leaders, not members of government, not judges, not regulators, not ombudsmen, not top civil servants, precisely the kinds of political leaders China is praised for selecting by meritocracy. And potential lawmakers must first get themselves nominated, which is done through mostly long and ruthlessly competitive processes which, ideally, filter out those not motivated for public service and those not competent.

The reason we at the end use elections is that citizens thereby deny their leaders uncontrolled power and retain the power to throw them out. There is no mystery at all in why we hold to one-person-one-vote.

The author underestimates the meritocratic element in democracy because he thinks political meritocracy depends on procedures of formal examinations, but that is – to use a Chinese-style put-down – formalism. There are other meritocratic ways and the real meaning of formal examinations depends on the constellation of power. In an autocratic system, it is more near at hand to think of selection mechanisms as tools of control from above than as ways of open recruitment from below. In China now, the most important criterion by which lower level officials are passed for promotion is their performance in the maintenance of stability.

(2) Is the argument empirically persuasive as to the poor performance of democracy? The answer is, no. The matter is just settled at the start (p. 3) in a blanket statement about ‘the crisis of governance in Western democracies’ with no examination. In my judgement, and I here speak from the experience of much examination of the issue, there is no such crisis. There is a crisis in some democracies, notably in China’s nemesis, America. But that is not a crisis of inept leaders because of the absence of meritocracy. It, regrettably, sticks much deeper, a crisis of power so that the constitutional institutions are not able to perform their prescribed jobs.

In fact, the whole discussion of democracy in The China Model is an unfortunate distraction. The practical problem the author is concerned with (on e.g. p. 112) is how to fix the Chinese system given that electoral democracy is not a realistic possibility. It is a pity that he has thought it necessary to denigrate democracy as such, which is not necessary in order to make the case for a different model in China. It turns the book nasty: Bell is an admirer of the Chinese system for whom it is not enough that the friend succeeds, also foes must fail. There is a difference between criticising democracies for poor performance and dismissing democracy as such. If you want to do the latter, you need to do better than to build up a straw man and tear it down again.

(3) Setting aside the irrelevant half of the book, is the argument persuasive as to the success of the Chinese system? The answer is yet again, no. The author is right that many China watchers have underestimated the force of political reform in recent decades. He is probably also right that there is more reform to come. It is a good guess that the leadership will continue to tweak their administration enough to keep the party-state in place and in control.

But the thrust of these reforms are not about meritocracy, and the meritocratic promotion of leaders, such as it is, is no more than a detail in how the state operates. China is a system with an autocratic configuration of power and ‘reform’ presently means perfecting the power of control.

Anyone who wants to declare the Chinese model a success must face the facts. It is a plausible argument that the success of the model, for example economically and in the maintenance of stability, is such that the authoritarian price is one worth paying. It is plausible even to argue that this is a necessary price to pay in so big and complex a country as China. But it is not a plausible argument to declare success by pretending that the system is something other than it is.


An advantage of democratic theory is that it offers a metric of successful governance. That starts with the individual and with his and her interests and rights. The purpose and responsibility of government is to give individuals protection and to improve their life chances. The only metric of success in The China Model is economic growth and the resulting reduction in poverty. That is contained in the democratic metric as freedom from poverty but is not taken to be the whole story. Democratic success depends on the protection and promotion of freedom more comprehensively.

Since democratic values are ignored, that metric is not available in The China Model, and the author loses his footing. It is daring to hold up the Chinese model as not only effective but also morally desirable, but to try to do so without moral criteria is an impossibility. Like the crisis of democracy, the success of China is just postulated and not examined.

Skirting over the fact of autocracy in the constellation of power and persuading himself that there will be good governance when there is a meritocratic selection of leaders, the author falls into empirical descriptions that are just bizarre. About the force of meritocracy (p. 107): ‘Xi Jinping was ranked highest in an internal survey of national leaders and therefore selected as president.’ But that’s nonsense. Xi was elected president because he had already been elected secretary general of the party and he was elected secretary general of the party because of power machinations. We are asked to believe (p. 123) that when Xi Jinping says in a speech that the party’s cadres ‘must serve the people heart and soul,’ that’s what he really means. But the duty of cadres is to serve the party and ‘serve the people’ is a standard political perversion of language. ‘The success of meritocracy in China is obvious: Chinese rulers have presided over the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history’ (p. 173). But that is neither obvious nor true. It is not obvious that poverty alleviation in China is a result of meritocracy (and ‘presiding over’ is more a sleight hand than a causal concept). The most impressive poverty alleviation in history is in China’s neighbours, South Korea and Taiwan, who have both (1) grown to high-income countries and (2) adopted democracy.

The author engages in a bit of linguistic perversion of his own, which is objectionable. While the tyrannical state in China is ‘democratic’ in its own way, the term ‘tyranny’ is reserved for the characterisation of democratic systems.

Censorship, corruption, repression, the absence of rule of law get their mention but count for nothing in the final assessment so that we get to this (p. 188) as a description of contemporary political reality: ‘The lower the level of government, the more democratic the political system, .. the higher the level of government, the more meritocratic the political system.’


The People’s Republic has both defenders and detractors. The China Model seeks to mobilise ‘western’ political theory, even democratic theory, for the defence of Chinese authoritarianism. That is audacious, even triumphalist. But it is to try too hard and to do too many things in one go. It is possible to defend autocracy, but this attempt to do so by way of tearing down democracy fails. What we get, once the rhetoric is peeled away, is old wine in new bottles, with no ground shifting.

There is a tradition of respect for Chinese rule as the embodiment today of an ancient tradition, articulated for example in Henry Kissinger’s idea of the Chinese ‘civilisation state.’ This book falls into that tradition: while democracy is fleeting, the People’s Republic is the continuation under modern circumstances of Chinese Confucianism.

There is a tradition of respect for authoritarian effectiveness that leads both to an exaggeration of delivery and a glossing over of the human costs, articulated for example in Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s idea in the 1930s and 40s of Soviet communism as a ‘new civilisation.’ This book falls into that tradition. It imposes on China a theoretical construct and sees through that prism an empirical panorama to fit.

There is a tradition in China of foreign observers who see it from inside and find what they want, conspicuously so during Maoism, and who are less prescient in their descriptions than some of those who have kept their distance and observed with a colder eye. This book falls into that tradition. Its attempts at empirical description are baffling, superficial and distortive.

Those who already admire the Chinese model may be reassured. Those who think China should be analysed by empirical scepticism need not reconsider. Defenders of democracy can stay the course.

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