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  • Bell's Model of Meritocracy for China:Two Confucian Amendments
  • Yong Huang (bio)

Daniel Bell's The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy is a significant contribution to contemporary political theory. I am very much in sympathy with his ideal of political meritocracy, although I would disagree with him on the degree to which it is realized or practiced in China today; for me, the reality is as distant from Bell's ideal of political meritocracy, if I understand it correctly, as it is from democracy. However, in the present comment, I will not exploit this disagreement. Instead, I will try to make two friendly amendments to his political meritocracy as an ideal, with which I have a lot of agreements. In the Introduction to the book, Bell discloses that "I developed an interest in political meritocracy as a result of engagement with the Confucian tradition, and my earlier writings on political meritocracy tended to be inspired more by Confucian philosophy than by actual politics" (Bell 2015, p. 12; references to this book hereafter will be indicated by page number only). Although in the book itself he does not make too explicit this source of his inspiration, since he believes the ideal of political meritocracy developed in the book may also be supported by other schools of thought, he still makes extensive references to Confucians and Confucian classics. Moreover, in the second appendix, he and his conversation partner explicitly and directly draw on the Confucian tradition in developing this ideal of political meritocracy. So the two friendly amendments to this ideal that I am about to offer are also explicitly and directly Confucian.

I. The Role of Virtues in Meritocracy

Meritocracy in the Confucian tradition is called governance by people with virtues and abilities (xian neng zhengzhi 賢能政治). This raises at least three questions: (1) What is the relative weight of virtues (xian 賢) in relation to abilities (neng 能)? (2) What degree of virtues and abilities are required for political leaders? And (3) what kinds of virtues (and abilities) are needed for political leaders?

Bell has answers, explicit or implicit, to all three questions. After discussing in detail the virtues, intellectual abilities, and social skills required [End Page 559] of political leaders and the respective ways of selecting people with such virtues, abilities, and skills, Bell states that "political leaders need not be at the top of the scale on any one dimension. Theoretical physicists are likely to have greater intellectual ability, top business leaders may have stronger social skills, and religious leaders may be more self-sacrificing and virtuous. What makes political leaders distinctive, however, is that they should be above average in all three dimensions" (p. 108). In this passage, Bell provides a clear answer to our second question about the degree of virtues and abilities, intellectual and social, required of political leaders: above average. Since he does not make any distinction between virtues and abilities in this regard, he apparently does not think that virtue is any more important than ability for political leaders, which is related to our first question. Bell does say that "not all qualities matter equally," and then he lists virtues first, social skills next, and intellectual abilities last, seemingly implying that virtues are most important. However, in explaining this list, he only says that "a degree of virtue is indispensable," which is indistinguishable, in terms of the emphasis, from what he says about intellectual ability, which comes last in the order: "a certain degree of intelligence is necessary to process information and recognize what counts as a good argument" (p. 108). Moreover, Bell states that "[t]he relative importance of each quality will also depend on the political priorities of the time," meaning that in some situations virtues are more important than intellectual and social abilities, while in some other situations, one or another of these abilities is more important than virtues. So, overall, virtues are not more important than non-moral abilities, and political leaders do not need a higher degree of virtues than of abilities.

I think Confucianism will give different answers to both questions. About the first question, it will give significantly more weight to virtues than to...


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pp. 559-568
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