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  • The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell
  • Bogdan Góralczyk
The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel A. Bell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 318pp. US$19.95 (Paperback). ISBN 9780691166452.

From ancient times onward, many great philosophers, from Aristotle and Plato in the West to Confucius and Mencius in the East, were trying to design a proper model of government. However, the ideal systems found, created, or at least described by various political ideologies did not always go hand in hand with a realistic system. A “perfect” model always proves to be imperfect.

Daniel A. Bell, a Western scholar with rich knowledge of and experience in the East, strives to find a proper model of governance for contemporary China. He hopes to get a more open and modern Confucian-oriented meritocratic political system. Once again, we can see his effort as a clash of an ideal model, this time with political realities of today’s People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The author’s concept is clear-cut. This volume is a defense of political meritocracy, an ideology initially created in Singapore, where Bell lived before moving to China. He himself recognizes the fact that the meritocratic system he advocates clashes with current China’s political reality. Bell states in his book, “Chinese-style meritocracy is plagued with imperfections” (p. 4). He frankly specifies at least some of the main problems, dilemmas, and challenges facing the current leaders in Beijing: “corruption, the gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent, overly powerful state-run enterprises that distort the economic system, repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang, discrimination against women” (p. 173).

On the other hand, Bell claims that China’s political system has improved enormously and become meritocratic during the period when China adopted the “reform and open-door policy.” Furthermore, he believes that democracy, with all its imperfections and flaws, probably is not the best solution for China because of some Chinese cultural and civilizational features. He claims that more and more meritocracy is desirable, and fortunately has been returning to the PRC recently. Thus his concept, understood here as the model of rule and governance, and [End Page 197] not the model of development as some scholars understand it (e.g., Bruce J. Dickson or recently Francis Fukuyama), is repeatedly defined as follows: democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top. These three features of Bell’s model are proof that the author tries to combine and to mix the West and the East, or to blend and connect the best of both worlds, constituting a “fusion system” as far as political practice is concerned.

The author is probably the most suitable person for such a research project because of his personal experience and rich knowledge about the East and his unique academic background. All his previous efforts, studies, and work were focused on the same topic—the governance model in East Asia and especially the Chinese world. This volume is a coronation of this research, which brought about, according to himself, not necessarily a comprehensive defense of political meritocracy as an alternative to electoral democracy, but an effort “simply to cast doubt on the idea that one person, one vote is the least bad way of choosing leaders to enact good policies” (p. 19). He wants to implement his model in China, regardless of greasy politics, sharp corruption, or factional in-fighting on the daily agenda in the PRC, known as one of the most conflict-ridden societies in the world.

Bell is following East Asian scholars who understand democracy in substantive rather than procedural terms. He recognizes that his own “ethical commitments are largely inspired by Confucian values” (p. 10), and that the political meritocracy is the system in which everybody should have an equal opportunity both to be educated and to contribute to politics. He also recognizes that cognitive skills, such as open-mindedness, strategic thinking, and long-term vision, are much more important for a political leader than IQ, intelligence...


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pp. 197-200
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