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  • Meritocracy as a Political System:A Commentary on Bell's The China Model
  • Binfan Wang (bio)

It is my great pleasure to discuss Bell's latest book on political meritocracy. The China Model has received responses in both political theory and China studies, but unfortunately many of them still misunderstand his work. Therefore, before I articulate my critical comment, it would be helpful to clarify my own understanding of this book. As Bell points out in the preface to the paperback edition and in many responses to his critics, his aim is neither to denigrate democracy in Western countries nor to defend the exact status quo of China. What he tries to do is to introduce political meritocracy as a legitimate political system for selecting leaders. Since China is typical of the kind of country in which political meritocracy is achievable, it is fair to name Bell's approach "the China model." Justifying political meritocracy does not aim at replacing democracy in Western countries, given Bell's emphasis on the balance between democracy and meritocracy in any political system. However, Bell's work does indeed strongly challenge the positioning of democracy as the only justifiable political system, and reveals the possibility of "one world, two systems":

Here is my hope for the political world. Democracies use elections to select rulers at all levels of government, and meritocracies select rulers at higher levels of government by means of examinations and decades-long training. Both political systems recognize that they are flawed and compete with each other to do the things governments are supposed to do: serve the people, including all those affected by the policies of government. Democracies aim to improve their democratic system while learning from the best of meritocratic practices, and meritocracies aim to improve their meritocratic system while learning from the best of democratic practices. There is no more talk about which system is superior: both political systems recognize each other as morally legitimate even though they are built on different foundations.1

For those who are concerned about the problems of democracy and welcome the possibility of alternatives, such a picture is quite attractive. But Bell seems to worry more about the long-term fate of democratic systems, because they appear closed-minded and always insist that every country, despite its culture, history, and condition, will choose democracy in the end. Therefore, his work could also be read as a reminder of such a potential danger.

I am also moved by the picture Bell paints, but unlike him I worry more about the long-term fate of meritocratic systems if political meritocracy in [End Page 577] practice is as limited as its description in the book. That leads to my criticism of two aspects of Bell's argument. First, political meritocracy is more than ruler-selection at the top, so Bell's understanding of meritocracy is too narrow. In fact, in both ancient and contemporary China meritocracy has existed and exists throughout the political system, from top to bottom, and it is possible to maintain the balance between democracy and meritocracy at all levels. What is more, the advantages of political meritocracy at the bottom level go beyond ruler-selection. Second, Bell's proposal to strengthen the legitimacy of political meritocracy—that the problem of legitimacy can only be addressed by means of democratic reforms (even a referendum)—is problematic. This is not to say that no democratic reform would be helpful, but if we want a better solution for the long term, meritocracy should find an independent route to legitimacy (and for China Confucianism could achieve this). These two aspects interconnect with each other, because if meritocracy is to legitimize itself, the first step is to make sure it is a political system that works at all levels, not just at the top.

My first concern relates to Bell's argument that political meritocracy is mainly a system of ruler-selection at the top. For Bell, the best practice of political meritocracy is democratic meritocracy (or "the China Model"), which means "democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top."2 I agree with Bell that a pure system of political meritocracy...


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pp. 577-585
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