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Political Meritocracy Is a Good Thing (Part 1): The Case of China

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Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system
is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above
average ability to make morally informed political judgments. That is,
political meritocracy has two key components: (1) the political leaders
have above average ability and virtue; and (2) the selection
mechanism is designed to choose such leaders.

Political meritocracy has been largely eclipsed from political theorizing in the modern world,
but there are three important reasons for reviving and reinterpreting
this political ideal, particularly in a Chinese context. First,
political meritocracy has been, and continues to be, central to Chinese
political culture. Second, democracy is a flawed political system and
meritocracy can help to remedy some of its flaws. Third, the Chinese
Communist Party itself has become a more meritocratic organization over
the last three decades or so. I will discuss each of these factors in turn.

Political meritocracy is a key theme in the history of Chinese
political culture. The idea of "elevating the worthy" emerged in the
wake of the disintegration of the pedigree-based aristocratic order of
the Spring and Autumn period. This idea was shared by the vast majority
of known thinkers in the Warring States period, and political thinkers
debated about how to define merit and how to develop political
practices and institutions based on merit. For Confucius,
political meritocracy starts from the assumption that everybody should
be educated. However, not everybody will emerge from this
process with an equal ability to make morally informed political
judgments. Hence, an important task of the political system is
to select leaders with an above average ability to make morally
informed political judgments, as well as to encourage as many people of
talent as possible to participate in politics. Such rulers, in
Confucius' view, would gain the trust of the people.

In Imperial China, political meritocracy was institutionalized by means
of the imperial examination system that put successful candidates on
the road to fame and power. Whatever the flaws of the system, it did
provide a minimal standard of talent selection and allowed for a modest
level of social circulation. The examination system spread to Korea and
Vietnam and also influenced the development of civil service
examinations in Western countries. In the post World War II era, East
Asian societies developed rapidly at least partly due to the sound
decision-making of meritocratically-selected political rulers.

Today, political surveys show that there is widespread support for the ideal
of political meritocracy in East Asian societies with a Confucian
heritage. In China, Shi Tianjian and Lu Jie show that the majority
of people endorse "guardianship discourse," defined as the need to
identify "high quality politicians who care about the people's demands,
take people's interests into consideration when making decisions, and
choose good policies on behalf of their people and society" over
liberal democratic discourse that privileges procedural arrangements
ensuring people's rights to participate in politics and choose their

The idea of political meritocracy is also central to Western political
theory and practice. Plato famously defended a meritocratic political
ideal in The Republic: the best political regime is composed of
political leaders selected on the basis of their superior ability to
make morally informed political judgments and granted power to rule
over the community. Meritocracy was influential throughout subsequent
history, though subsequent thinkers rarely defended a pure form
of political meritocracy. U.S. founding fathers and 19th century
"liberal elitists" such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville
put forward political ideas that tried to combine meritocracy and
democracy. Yet theorizing about meritocracy has all but faded from
modern Western political discourse. There are hundreds if not thousands
of books on the theory and practice of democracy, but it is hard
to think of a single recent (and decent) English-language book on the
idea of political meritocracy.

The dearth of debates about political meritocracy would not be
problematic if it were widely agreed that liberal democracy is the best
political system (or the least bad political system, as Winston
Churchill famously put it). But there are growing doubts. The "crisis
of governability" in Western democracies caused by the unprecedented
globalized flow of goods, services, and capital has been
well documented by political scientists. Capitalist
interests have disproportionate power in the political process,
especially in the American political system which has been described,
perhaps not unfairly, as one-dollar one-vote rather than one-person

Political theorists have raised questions about the voting
system itself. Part of the problem is that voters are often selfishly
concerned with their narrow material interest, and ignore the interests
of future generations and people living outside national boundaries who are
affected by the policies of the government. Jason Brennan has argued that
voters should stay away from the voting booth if they cannot make
morally informed political judgments. Certainly there are some issues where the
pursuit of narrow economic self-interest at the voting booth could lead to
disastrous consequences for non-voters who lack representation (consider
global warming). Just as worrisome, perhaps, voters often misunderstand
their own interests. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan
shows that voters are often irrational and he suggests tests of voter competence
as a remedy. Of course, such proposals are non-starters in liberal democracies. The
principle of political equality expressed in the form of one person,
one vote has assumed quasi-sacred status today. In the
nineteenth-century, John Stuart Mill could propose extra votes for
educated people, but today proponents of such proposals are considered
(in Western countries) to have lost their moral compass.

Fortunately, political theorists are not so dogmatic in the Chinese
context. Jiang Qing has argued that democratic forms of legitimacy --
which in the West is grounded in notions of popular sovereignty --
should be balanced by two other sources of legitimacy that come from
Heaven and Earth. In a modern context, he argues that this
political ideal should be institutionalized by means of a tri-cameral
legislature, with authority divided between a House of the People, a House of Confucian Scholars,
and a House of Cultural Continuity that correspond to the three forms of legitimacy.
Similarly,Bai Tongdong and Joseph Chan have argued for models for a hybrid
political regime that combines elements of democracy and meritocracy,
with meritocratic houses of government composed of political leaders
chosen by such means as examination and performance at lower levels of
government (I have also argued for a hybrid regime, with a meritocratic
house of government termed the House of Exemplary Persons).

These models may be utopian, but they provide us with a new, and,
arguably, better standard for evaluating political progress in China
and elsewhere. Instead of judging political progress simply by asking
whether China is becoming more democratic, the new standard provides a
more comprehensive way of judging political progress (and regress). The
question is also whether the Chinese political system is becoming more
meritocratic. And here there may be grounds for optimism.

In its early days, Communist China under Mao explicitly rejected
Confucian-inspired ideas of political meritocracy. Understandably,
perhaps, the main task was rewarding revolutionary energy and securing
military strength for the state to put an end to abuse and bullying by
foreign powers. But now, the establishment of a relatively secure and
strong Chinese state under the leadership of the CCP means that
China has less to worry about survival qua political community. Hence,
the emphasis has shifted to the task of good governance led by able and
virtuous political leaders, and the selection and promotion mechanisms
of the CCP have become more meritocratic.

In the 1980s, talented students at leading Chinese universities often
did not seek to join the CCP. Today, it's a different story. College
campuses have become the main location for recruitment efforts.
At elite schools like Tsinghua
University, 28 percent of all undergrads, 43 percent of
Graduating seniors and up to 55 percent of grad students were CCP
members in 2010 (I've been
teaching at Tsinghua for nearly eight years, and many of my
high-performing students are party members). The CCP is also targeting the "new
social stratum" of young professionals in urban areas, including
business people and managers in private firms, lawyers, and accountants.

The promotion system for cadres is even more explicitly meritocratic.
At a recent dialogue session with several foreign and Chinese
academics, Mr. Li Yuanchao, Minister of the Organization Department of
the CPC Central Committee, provided some fascinating and illuminating
details. Minister Li noted that different criteria are used to judge
abilities and virtues at different levels of government. At lower
levels, close connection with the people is particular important
(put differently, perhaps, democracy is more important at the lower
levels). At the higher levels, more emphasis is placed on rationality
since cadres need to take into account of multiple factors and
decision-making involves a much broader area of governance, but virtues
such as concern for the people and a practical attitude also matter.
Cadres are also expected to set a model of corruption-free rule.

To illustrate the rigorous (meritocratic) nature of selection at
higher levels of government, Minister Li described the procedure used
to select the secretary general of the Organization Department of the
CPC Central Committee. First, there was a nomination process, including
retired cadres. Those who received many nominations could move to the
next stage. Next, there was an examination, including such questions as
how to be a good Secretary General. Over 10 people took the exam, and
the list was narrowed to five people. To ensure that the process was
fair, the examination papers were put in the corridor for all to judge
the results. Then, there was an oral examination with an interview
panel composed of ministers, vice-ministers, and university professors.
To ensure transparency and fairness, ordinary cadres who work for the
General Secretary were in the room, which allowed them to supervise
the whole process. Three candidates with the highest score were
selected for the next stage. Then, the department of personnel led an
inspection team to look into the performance and virtue of the
candidates, with more emphasis placed on virtue. Two people were
recommended for the next stage. The final decision was made by a
committee of 12 ministers who each had a vote, and the
candidate had to have at least eight votes to succeed. If the required
number of votes was not secured the first time, the ministers discussed
further until two-thirds could agree on a candidate.

It is hard not be impressed by the rigorous selection process for
the secretary general of the Organization Department of the CPC
Central Committee (and it is even harder not to be impressed by the successful
candidate). Such transparency in the talent selection process is likely
to contribute to the government's legitimacy. If people are not aware of
the selection process, they may suspect that promotion is based primarily
on loyalty, connections (guanxi), or corruption. Hence, shedding light on
the actual mechanisms is likely to dispel such suspicions. There is still
a long way to go -- for example, it would be useful to have more information
about the criteria that influence selection of members on
the Central Committee and the Politburo -- but the fact that Minister Li told us
about the process in his organization is a good sign of a high-level decision
to increase transparency.

No system is perfect, of course, and my next post will suggest some ways of
improving political meritocracy in China.

A version of this post first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.