Rule by Merit: Is China’s political system superior to western democracy?

LRCv23n07-Sep-2015-cover-CMYK-180x252A review of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel Bell

Literary Review of Canada September 2015

It was a typical Beijing scene. I was in a private room in a restaurant having dinner with a handful of academics, the head of a Daoist temple, a rich young businessman, a senior official in the central government, plus the usual coterie of wives, protegés and assistants. The 15-year Maotai was flowing and the boisterous priest was making frequent and extravagant toasts around the table. I had just finished reading The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy and my head was buzzing not with the smooth and potent spirit but Daniel Bell’s compelling argument in favour of political meritocracy, the notion that power should be distributed according to ability and virtue rather than on the basis of democratic elections.

For a Torontonian who survived the Rob Ford years, it was not hard to be convinced that democracy may not be the best way to distribute political power. The only way the city made any progress during those dark ages was thanks to the unelected, meritocratically promoted civil servants who tried to make the best out of the circumstances. The city’s ongoing transit fiasco, not to mention Vancouver’s failed referendum, also provide compelling evidence that the democratic process inhibits rational policies that should advance the social and economic well-being of the general public. Add to that federal tax and spending policies that favour the wealthy and the elderly over the poor and the young, and the program for political meritocracy that Bell lays out should come as a welcome relief. A Canadian political philosopher who has spent many years teaching in China, Bell uses his intimate knowledge of the country to argue that political meritocracy is better than liberal democracy, not only in terms of its ability to deliver social and economic benefits, but also in terms of its underlying fairness.

In so doing, he attacks the sacred cow of western liberal democracies, namely, that democracy must intrinsically be, if not the best, then at least, in Winston Churchill’s famous terms, the least bad  system of government. Bell argues not just that the China model, which he defines as democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy at the top, is overall quite successful in terms of results. He even dares to suggest that political meritocracy is, on its own merits, a rational, fair and viable alternative to liberal democracy. Now is the time, he believes, to have a debate about the merits of liberal democracy and the merits of the broadly Confucian model that China is in the process of enacting. But Bell knows from bitter experience how difficult it is to raise the question of democracy’s flaws and at the same time praise China’s successes. In careful, clear and measured prose, he works hard to overcome prejudice, defuse emotions and discuss the pros and cons in the cool language of political philosophy. This, perhaps, is the book’s greatest contribution.

Of course, Bell readily admits that the China model has its flaws in practice, but not substantially more so than democracy in countries such as America or Canada. Democracies distribute power to those with superior wealth, looks, charisma, political cunning or rhetorical flair. Is there any really good reason why a televised leaders’ debate or the ability to perform well in a parliamentary question period should be a mark of political talent? Why should the administrative talents of unprepossessing civil servants ultimately be subject to the class of people who are able to charm and captivate the public with their catchphrases, one liners and sound bites? Is it truly democratic when the uneducated poor are bamboozled by carefully crafted messaging into voting against their own social, political and economic interests? When liberal democracy becomes a vehicle largely for the legitimation of the interests of the rich and powerful, as it arguably has become in the United States, and to a lesser extent in many other western countries, then surely it is more than flawed; it is deeply immoral. When hypocrisy is so deeply entrenched in the democratic process, surely it is no wonder that The Daily Show takes over from the New York Times as the leading form of political discourse.

Here lies the crucial point: the solution to China’s problems lies not in swapping one flawed political system for another but rather in making sure that practical, successful meritocracy is ever more deeply embedded within China’s government. It is simply unrealistic to expect that China’s Communist Party will voluntarily move to a multiparty liberal democracy. Given the often appalling outcomes of recent democratic revolutions or military impositions of democracy across the world, it would risk a disaster of epic proportions if China were to undergo a similar revolution. With the well-being of a fifth of the world’s population at stake, not to mention the impact on global finance, trade and economics, no one can afford the risk of Chinese turmoil. But it is not unrealistic to expect that China should enact administrative reforms to promote worthy cadres and improve the process of political decision making. In fact, it is already doing so. China’s cadres must now pass a whole series of exams, performance reviews, peer assessments and other mechanisms designed to reward competence and talent rather than patronage, class or privilege. At the same time, it must also be noted that China is experimenting with democratic reform on local levels and within the party, and it is not yet clear which reform process will be effective in weeding out corruption.

A tug at my arm interrupted my intellectual reverie. The priest had come over to offer a toast. I stood up, and together we shouted “gan bei,” drained our glasses and displayed their emptiness for all the table to see, a time-honoured tradition of male bonding through the performance of alcoholic prowess. The women sat across from us and smiled demurely. The assistants and protegés were starting to wonder when they would be able to leave the table and steer their staggering patrons home. And then I realized that it did not matter to me whether or not people in the West should accept Bell’s arguments, or even read his book. What really mattered was whether political meritocracy could truly be embedded in China and overcome the powerful, patriarchal and homoerotic networks of political, cultural and economic interest, such as the one that was being performed around the dining table that night. Perhaps the litmus test of political systems should be which most quickly achieves equality of political power between men and women. I could be persuaded to ditch liberal democracy for Confucian political meritocracy if I could be convinced that meritocracy could truly achieve gender equality. But the practical reality of Confucian culture has been to promote patriarchy and meritocracy in equal measure for more than 2,000 years, and there are few signs that this perverse alignment is about to end.

As for Bell’s pro-meritocratic arguments, will they be influential? In the West, only those willing to contemplate the potential flaws of our own political system will pay The China Model much attention. But its distinctive perspective deserves to be injected into China’s internal debates. If it is, Bell will have achieved a rare feat—to span the chasm of misunderstanding that so often bedevils relations between China and the West.

mazu: marine ecoregion goddess

The Guandu Temple, Taipei

According to tradition, Mazu (Matsu) was a girl who lived in the late tenth century who was renowned for her assistance to seafarers. She was posthumously deified and attracted a wide cult throughout the southern China coastal area in the Ming dynasty. Over the past few centuries she has become one of the most popular local deities in China.

Following my visit to the popular Mazu temple in Guandu, Taipei, I’d like to propose that Mazu be thought of as a bioregional deity, specifically one corresponding to the Southern China Marine Ecoregion as identified by the WWF, that is, the sea area between Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Traditional scholarship on Chinese religions divides gods into local and national categories. Local gods have their specific domains and are worshipped only by people living in those particular geographic areas. National gods, such as Guan Di, the Jade Emperor, or th God of Wealth, can be found throughout the country. Local gods, conversely, are worshipped only in specific regions.

Statue of Mazu in Macau

Devotion to Mazu is widespread throughout South East China’s coastal areas because of her association with seafarers and fishermen, and because of this she should be thought of in bioregional terms. Her worship emerges from the engagement of peoples in this marine ecoregion with fish, coastlines, tides, and the sea. Out of this complex of social, economic and ecological interaction developed a religious tradition that is quite specific to this bioregion. Of course most people who live in this area are no longer connected directly with the sea, but Mazu remains as popular as ever, as a sponsor of peace and prosperity.

Typically Mazu temples are located in strategic coastal sites, and her statues watch over the marine activities of local seafarers. Indeed, residents of Macau attributed the fact that they escaped the SARS crisis that gripped Hong Kong to the prophylactic powers of the enormous Mazu statue that had been erected in Macau shortly beforehand.

Now Mazu is beginning to take on new political responsibilities as a symbol of harmonious relations between Taiwan and the mainland. A huge emeral statue of Mazu recently arrived in Taiwan from the mainland. According to today’s Taipei Times report, the reception ceremony for the Mazu statue had both religious and political significance, and was attended by both religious and political dignitaries:

Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) yesterday received the valuable statue, along with Jenn Lann Temple president Yen Ching-piao (顏清標). Hu said the religious event, which he described as an exchange of beliefs and feelings between people from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, would pull the two sides closer together.

Mazu’s bioregionalism thus opens her up to the possibility of being exploited for political ambitions, as a symbol of the unity of people on both sides of the Taiwan straits. As Taiwan approaches its presidential elections, such events take on even greater significance. Popular support is fairly evenly split between the KMT who favours closer integration with the mainland, and the DPP who take a more independent line. Intriguingly, Mazu, as a powerful symbol of the south China marine ecoregion is taking on national political functions, as a contested cultural icon caught between those who favour local Taiwanese identity and those who favour a pan-Chinese national identity. In the same way that the KMT advocated national Chinese gods to support a single Chinese nation in the 1930s, so also Beijing seems to be supporting the worship of Mazu as a symbol that can unite the cross-straits divide.

Whatever happens to Mazu from a political perspective, it seems that nothing at the moment will diminish her status as the chief goddess of the south China marine ecoregion.