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  • The East Asian Challenges for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective ed. by Daniel A. Bell, Chenyang Li
  • Michael Masterson (bio)
The East Asian Challenges for Democracy: Political Meritocracy in Comparative Perspective. Edited by Daniel A. Bell and Chenyang Li. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xv + 400. Hardcover $81.00, isbn 978-1-10-762377-4.

The East Asian Challenges for Democracy, edited by Daniel A. Bell and Chenyang Li, is an anthology of articles that discuss the possibility and desirability of combining meritocratic elements with democracy from both Confucian and Western perspectives. Its main contribution is a different take on the Asian values debate. Instead of asking whether Western values are universal, this book asks what Western democracy might learn from Asian views of meritocracy (p. 7). The wide range of perspectives presented ensure that the work has something to offer anyone interested in democracy, Confucianism, meritocracy, or East Asian government.

The book begins with an introduction by Daniel Bell, who introduces some problems facing democracy, such as long-term planning and money in politics, as well as some challenges facing meritocracy, including how to define merit and prevent corruption (pp. 5–6, 22). He explains that contributors to the book were “asked to think about how meritocracy can and should be reconciled with democracy” (p. 7). The three sections of the book discuss the theory of political meritocracy, the history of meritocracy, and how to realize meritocracy today. In the first section, the first chapter by Joseph Chan defines political meritocracy for the purposes of the book as “the idea that a political system should aim to select and promote leaders with superior ability and virtue” and gives an overview of both ancient and modern Confucian writings on meritocracy (p. 31). In the second chapter, Tongdong Bai criticizes Western democracy by arguing that it does not account for the interests of nonvoters, that it leads to the triumph of the interests of the powerful, and that the people often do not know their own interests (p. 56). He offers an alternative that he calls “Confu-China,” which would respect rule of law and human rights while making reforms to “one person one vote,” such as adding a meritocratic house in the legislature and “institutional arrangements that help prevent the incompetent citizens from having too much a voice in . . . political matters” (pp. 65–67).

In chapter 3, Ruiping Fan presents the most extreme vision of a Confucian society, arguing that in addition to meritocratic institutions, authentic Confucian society would have leaders who hold Confucian values (pp. 88–89). He argues that Confucian values and metaphysics would have to be established in a state’s constitution, but they would be promoted with incentives not prohibitions (pp. 99–100). It is important to note that Fan does not argue that this system is superior but only that an authentic version of Confucian meritocratic government must first be articulated before it can be evaluated (p. 109). [End Page 973]

The rest of the first section looks at meritocracy from a Western standpoint. In chapter 4, John Skorupski uses liberalism to criticize democracy as practiced in the West, arguing that the founding thinkers of liberalism, particularly John Stuart Mill, envisioned meritocratic institutions that limited democracy such as weighing the votes of qualified individuals more highly (p. 118). Skorupski’s most serious concern is that democracy may lead to a “moral and spiritual leveling down” through conformist pressures and the ability of capitalism to satisfy people’s desires (pp. 132–133). In the final chapter of this section, Philip Pettit makes the case that “meritocratic selection is consistent with representative standing” because meritocratic authorities can garner legitimacy through “indicative representation” if they are bound by strict guidelines that most people support (pp. 139, 146–148).

The second section focuses on the history of political meritocracy. First, Yuri Pines traces the concept of “elevating the worthy” in ancient China and finds that what constituted merit was hotly contested and that, while some empires allowed more social mobility than others, the system of meritocratic officialdom in China was never fair, failed to promote morality, and that its impressive achievements came at high...


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