Has China Discovered a Better Political System Than Democracy?

Since the collapse of several authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s—most notably the Soviet Union—conventional wisdom in political science has held that dictatorships inevitably democratize or stagnate. This wisdom has even been applied to China, where the Communist Party (CCP) has presided over 26 years of economic growth since violently suppressing protests at Tiananmen Square. In 2012, the political theorist and Tsinghua University philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell aroused controversy among many China-watchers for challenging this idea. In several op-eds published in prominent Western publications, Bell argued that China’s government, far from being an opaque tyranny, actually presented a “meritocratic” alternative to liberal, multiparty democracy. In a new book titled The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Bell expands on that idea.

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“I disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting leaders: one person, one vote,” Bell said at a recent debate hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York.

Bell is under no illusion that China has already perfected its political recipe, admitting that the ideal “China model” is still very theoretical. This involves a “vertical democratic meritocracy,” as he puts it, with open democratic elections at the local level, meritocratic assessment (like China’s civil-service exam) to choose top national leaders, and experimentation in the middle. In this system, local leaders—who handle relatively basic issues—are still accountable to voters. But national leaders, who must handle more complex issues and make tough decisions that may not be popular (like enacting serious climate-change measures), can be chosen based on experience and knowledge without American-style political gridlock or susceptibility to populist approval.

“This is the political ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years,” Bell said. “But there’s still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. This ideal is reasonably good though, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the future.”

Bell dismissed views that he’s an apologist for the CCP, saying that the ideal he writes about requires far more transparency, freedoms, and genuine local democracy than exist in China currently: “There’s a problem in China: There are constraints on free speech, people have visa problems, and that’s terrible. In this sense I’m a card-carrying liberal. I look forward to the day when China has much more political speech than it has.”

The Democracy Report

The breakneck economic growth that reigned for three decades in China has slowed. GDP, once guaranteed to exceed 8 percent each year, fell to 7.4 percent in 2014 and is expected to continue dropping. Meanwhile, China’s supply of cheap rural labor—essential to the country’s export-led growth model—is drying up and the overall population is rapidly aging. Social circumstances are also shifting, with young Chinese becoming more educated and nurturing aspirations that go beyond mere prosperity. Given these issues, Ash said, the CCP is facing major challenges in maintaining the “performance legitimacy” that’s kept it afloat for decades, and it faces an uphill battle in establishing a political model that bestows “procedural legitimacy.”

anti-corruption campaign is having an effective influence on reining in official graft and abuse of power. He suggested that the aggressive suppression of perceived threats to the CCP coincides with Xi’s turbulent and risky fight against corruption.

“I think once this corruption is dealt with, then I would expect the switch to a gradual openness,” Bell said. “And it’s a testable hypothesis. If in 20 years time China becomes more repressive, we see another Tiananmen Square, then I’m lost and I’ll change my views.”


This post appears courtesy of Asia Society.