08/22/2012 04:09 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

Political Meritocracy Is a Good Thing (Part 2): Improving Meritocracy in China

The advantages of "actually-existing" meritocracy in the Chinese Communist Party are clear. Cadres are put through a grueling process of talent selection, and only
those with an excellent record of past performance are likely to make
it to the highest levels of government. The training process includes
the cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged by
such means as limited periods of work in poor rural areas.

Moreover, this kind of meritocratic selection process is only likely to
work in the context of a one-party state. In a multi-party state, there
is no assurance that performance at lower levels of government will be
rewarded at higher levels, and there is no strong incentive to train
cadres so that they have experience at higher levels, because the key
personnel can change with a government led by different party. So even
talented leaders, like President Obama, can make many "beginner's
mistakes" once they assume rule because they haven't been properly
trained to assume command at the highest levels of government.
Leaders in China are not likely to make such mistakes because of their
experience and training. The fact that decision-making at the highest-levels is
by committee -- the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo -- also
ensures that no one person with outlandish and uninformed views can decide
upon wrong-headed policies (such as Lee Kuan Yew's policies in Singapore
favoring births by educated women that were based on eugenics theories
rejected by most scientists).

Once Chinese leaders reach positions of political power, they can make
decisions that consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders,
including future generations and people living outside the state. In
multi-party democracies with leaders chosen on the basis of competitive
elections, by contrast, leaders need to worry about the next election
and they are more likely to make decisions influenced by short-term
political considerations that bear on their chances of getting
reelected. The interests of non-voters affected by policies, such
as future generations, are not likely to be taken seriously if they
conflict with the interests of voters.

Moreover, the fact that the real power holders in Western-style
democracies are supposed to be those chosen by the people in elections
often means that "bureaucrats" are not considered to be as important;
hence, less talent goes to the bureaucracy. This flaw may be
particularly clear in the American political system. A
recent conversation with a young recipient of a Rhodes scholarship
is revealing. She is interested in international affairs, and I suggested that perhaps she
can join the U.S. State Department, but she said that she had been warned
that it's hard for people of ambition and talent to succeed in that setting. In contrast, the
Chinese political system does not clearly distinguish between
"bureaucrats" and "power-holders" and thus ambitious people of talent
are not discouraged from joining the political system at the lower
levels, with the hope of moving upwards.

This is not to imply that the U.S. and other countries should strive to
emulate Chinese-style meritocracy. For one thing, political meritocracy is more likely
to be workable and stable in a certain type of political culture: as noted above, political surveys
show that people in East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage tend to value
political meritocracy, but the same may not be true in other cultures.
For example, the American political culture has developed a strong
"anti-elitist" ethos, so it is hard to imagine support for meritocratic
one party rule. This is not to deny that there are elitist elements in
the American political system (for example, recent U.S. presidents are
graduates of Harvard and Yale), but political leaders tend not to be
too open about such elitist characteristics. Moreover, it is
difficult to imagine major constitutional reform of the US political
system that would encourage more meritocracy (it is possible to foresee
constitutional change for the worse, e.g., in the event of another
major terrorist attack on American soil -- but not change for better).
In contrast, the Chinese constitutional system seems more amenable to
substantial political change if circumstances require.

Nor do I mean to imply that "actually-existing meritocracy"
in China cannot be improved. The success of meritocracy in China is obvious: China's rulers have presided over the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history, with several hundred million people being lifted out of poverty. Equally obvious, however, some problems in China -- corruption, gap between rich and poor, environmental degradation, abuses of power by political officials, overly powerful state-run enterprises that skew the economic system in their favor, harsh measures for dealing with political dissent, repression of religious expression in Tibet and Xinjiang -- seem to have worsened during the same period the political system has become meritocratic. Part of the problem is that China lacks democracy
at various levels of government that could help to check abuses of power and provide
more opportunities for political expression by marginalized groups. But part of the
problem is also that political meritocracy has been insufficiently developed in China.
The system has become meritocratic over the last three decades or so, but it can and
should become more meritocratic in the future.

Political meritocracy involves the selection and promotion of political officials with both
ability and virtue, and let me discuss each in turn. Perhaps the most significant improvement
within the Chinese Communist Party over the last three of decades has been more emphasis
on the selection and promotion of officials with above average intellectual ability, especially at the higher levels of government. However, the system is not as meritocratic as it could be, even in this respect. Consider the "anti-meritocratic" effects of constraints on freedom of political speech. The best political decisions, of course, need to be based on complete
information, but fear of negative consequences may inhibit stakeholders
from expressing their viewpoints. I realize that the CCP carries out
internal polling to get as much information as possible, and that
cadres are encouraged to constantly learn and improve, but fewer
barriers to the freedom of speech may improve the quality of decision making.

Another area of concern is that the rigorous, multi-year talent selection process
may discourage risk-taking. In other words, relatively
creative and original minds may be weeded out early because they have
offended people or challenged the "normal way of doing things." In
times of crisis, perhaps the Chinese political system allows for
substantial change, but in ordinary times, there may be
unnecessary attachment to the status quo long after it has extended its
practical utility. Perhaps this problem can be remedied by allowing for some positions in important government posts (including the Politburo) to be reserved for talented people from other walks of life,
such as business or academia.

There may also be a need for more international exposure in
the selection process. The main task of the Chinese Communist Party is
of course to serve the Chinese people. But China is now a great global
power, and what it does also affects the interests of people living
outside of China, and it needs to be as humane as possible in its
dealings with other countries. It is a good sign that the children of
government leaders are often educated abroad because they can serve as
informal advisers, but nothing takes the place of personal exposure to
foreign ways of doing things. Perhaps the selection process of
high-level government leaders can also value experience abroad and even
foreign language skills. Yan Xuetong argues that the Chinese government
should employ more talented foreigners as officials, similar to the Tang

Equally important, there may be a need for more representation by members of minority groups at the highest levels of government, even if they didn't rise through the political system.
Only sincere adherents of a religion can really know what's best for their religion and meritocratic decision-making would involve more representation by members of
religious communities. One possibility is to reserve spots for members of minority groups on the Politburo. Jiang Qing proposes a House of Cultural Continuity composed of leaders of diverse religions with a long historical presence in China, including Confucianism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity.

Of course, meritocratic-decision making is not just a matter of having the ability and knowledge to make political decisions. Immoral decision-makers with high-level analytical skills and local knowledge can do more damage than not-so-competent political leaders who may not be able to figure out the best means to realize immoral ends. I do not mean to imply that Chinese political leaders lack virtue. I've met many admirable political officials who are public-spirited and committed to the common good, even at substantial cost to their own interests. But virtuous leaders should not be corrupt, and just about everybody in China recognizes that political corruption is a serious problem. Term and age limits for Chinese leaders are helpful. But there is a need for other mechanisms to reduce corruption -- a relatively independent anti-corruption agency (similar to Hong Kong and Singapore), more transparency, more freedom for media to report on cases of corruption, financial audits for leaders and their family members, higher salaries for leaders, and harsh punishments for corruption.

More rigorous emphasis on ethical education for political leaders is also necessary. The current leadership selection process does not allow for enough time for systematic reflection on ethical and political matters. A few weeks at the Party School is not sufficient for leaders to read the great works in politics, history, and philosophy that deepen one's knowledge as to possibilities of morally-informed political judgments. If political leaders were encouraged, say, to take a six-month leave period with few obligations other than reading great works (especially the Confucian classics that focus more directly on political morality), the long-term effect on the ability to make morally-informed political judgments is likely to be positive. Equally if not more important, more emphasis on the Confucian classics in primary and secondary schools is likely to improve the moral education of future Chinese leaders.

Of course, a political decision maker should do more than refrain from
corruption. He or she much also be motivated by humanity and compassion
for people, animals, and the natural world. But is it difficult to reconcile
this desideratum with the extreme under-representation of females in the
political decision-making bodies, especially at the highest levels. The
current leadership selection process is biased against
females: the process is so time-consuming that it seems hard
reconcile with ordinary family life. Since females are often the main
care-takers of family members, they may not have sufficient time to
compete fairly with males for top government posts (even if females are
not the main care-takers, such expectations influence the selection process: it is more difficult for females to be hired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of the
expectation that such posts are difficult to reconcile with ordinary family life).
If we agree that compassion is mainly a female trait, then we should encourage more females in government. Perhaps half of the government positions at the highest levels of government should be reserved for females. I have no doubt that a government composed of more
female leaders is more likely to rule in a compassionate and humane way.

Obviously, the process of "meritocratization" is a long term transformation
there is no clear end-point (unlike, say, "democratization," which usually means
free and fair competitive elections for a country's top political leaders). But one clear way forward would be for the Chinese Communist Party to change
its name so that it better corresponds to the institutional reality of
the organization, as well as to what it aspires to be.
Most obviously, the organization is no longer
Communist and few Chinese, including members of the CCP, believe that the party is leading the march to higher communism. Political meritocracy was valued neither by Marx nor by Mao.
Lenin's idea of the vanguard party was also different. Moreover, the
party is not a political party among others. It is a pluralistic
organization composed of different groups and classes that represents
the whole country, and to a lesser extent, the world. A more accurate
name might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union (中国贤能联盟).

Let me end with one point that will be intensely controversial in countries with a democratic
heritage. China can learn much from the political virtues typically associated with democratic regimes: political participation, freedom, transparency, and toleration. But the country can and should build upon the actual and potential advantages of political meritocracy: the decades long training of political officials entrusted with the top political decision making powers, the ability to make decisions that take account of the interests of future generations, the rest of the world, and the natural world, even when they conflict with the preferences of the majority of citizens, and decision-making by committee rather than vesting ultimate decision-making powers in one individual (such as the U.S. president). These advantages of meritocracy are compatible with more freedom, transparency, toleration, political participation at sub-national levels of government, and a certain degree of political competition at the top. But meritocracy is incompatible with multi-party competition at the top and one-person one vote for the selection of top decision makers. Hence, the task in China is to improve meritocracy and learn from parts of democracy, but not from what many democrats today would consider to be its core element.