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  • Missing Links in The China Model
  • Chenyang Li (bio)

Daniel A. Bell's recent book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy makes a significant contribution to political theory, political philosophy, and China studies. The book has already drawn a variety of responses (e.g., see Bai 2016, He et al. 2016, Nathan 2015, and Horesh 2016), some of which I believe are due to utter misreadings and misunderstandings. It is therefore important for us to spell out explicitly what kind of work we are dealing with here before we dive into other substantive issues. We should not take this book as an apologetics for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) even though it offers both positive and negative assessments of the Chinese communist regime, as any fair-minded work should. There is a tendency among scholars to avoid discussing certain topics in order not to be perceived as politically motivated to help governments with a less than commendable reputation. For example, when the Chinese government was [End Page 568] using harmony as a leading motif for policies, while some people would say anything in praise of harmony in order to please the government, there were also many who chose to turn their back on topics related to harmony in order to avoid being perceived as dancing to the music of the government.

So the bandwagon goes both ways. This is unfortunate because scholarship should retain its own integrity and should not be influenced by politics. Professional ethics requires academics to say what a thing is as it is, regardless of what the government says or wishes us to say or not to say. In our case here, if we shy away from speaking positively of Chinese political meritocracy just to avoid being perceived as sleeping in the same bed as the Chinese government, which after all has a questionable reputation to say the least, we fail our professional responsibilities as serious academics. In the case of the CCP and China, I think the fact that the CCP survived the catastrophic Cultural Revolution and the devastating backlash of the June 4th incident in 1989 demands that serious scholars find out what the CCP did right more than what it did wrong. I am not saying that scholars should speak positively of political meritocracy even if they do not believe in it. However, if one studies political meritocracy and believes in its positive value, he or she should speak up, regardless of whether the Chinese communist government practices it well or not, and if the Chinese communist government does well as a political meritocracy we should find out more about this. Contrary to those accusing Bell as an apologist for the Chinese communist government, I think his book is a testimony both to Bell's integrity as a serious scholar and to his personal courage.

Let me be explicit in saying that I am sympathetic to an integrated model of democracy and political meritocracy. I do not agree with a rather widespread assumption that the more democratic a society is the better it is. Besides the general and empty notion of "good," there is hardly anything of which it can be said that the more of it there is the better. Michael Sandel (1998) has argued that the appropriate amount of justice in a society depends on the circumstances of justice. Similarly, I believe the appropriate amount of democracy in a society depends on the circumstances of democracy. The circumstances of democracy should include the need for meritocracy in society. As Bell maintains, there should be a balance between democracy and meritocracy.

However, I argue that Bell's model needs to be strengthened in two major areas. First, it lacks a mechanism of checks and balances on political power. Second, as a Confucian thinker, Bell needs to integrate (more of) the Confucian idea of "governance by virtue" into his model. Confucian governance by virtue is not merely about virtuous rulers; it is also about fostering a culture of virtuous behavior in government as well as in society at large.

Let me first turn to the issue of checks and balances in government. After arguing for the need of both...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 568-576
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-13
Open Access
No
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