This is a guest contribution to our debate: Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China's rise?

AT THE Munich Security Conference in February, the outgoing German foreign minister argued that “China is developing a comprehensive system alternative to the Western one, which, unlike, our model, is not based on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.” Should liberals in the West who stand for “freedom, democracy and individual human rights” be worried?

There are good reasons to worry if (1) China opposes liberal ideology, (2) China seeks to export its illiberal model abroad, and (3) China can successfully do so. Each of these assumptions can be questioned.

(1)  Does China oppose liberal ideology? 

In imperial China, there was official support for the idea that a group of elites, such as successful exam takers, should be given special exemptions from criminal punishment simply by virtue of their social status. 

But today—partly due to the influence of liberal values—China endorses basic human rights and the idea that all citizens should be equal before the law in criminal cases. Nobody officially questions prohibitions against slavery, genocide, murder, torture, prolonged arbitrary discrimination and systematic racial discrimination. There is also widespread agreement that Chinese citizens should have the freedoms to marry, find a job and travel abroad.  

Of course, there is a large gap between the ideal and the reality. But the same is true in Western countries. The task, in both China and the West, is to reduce the gap between the ideal of basic human rights and the reality.

What the Chinese government does oppose is the system of electoral democracy as a way of selecting political leaders at higher levels of government. Instead, it affirms what we can call “political meritocracy”: the idea that the political system should aim to select and promote public officials with above average ability and virtue by such means as examinations and performance evaluations at lower levels of government. Here too, there is a large gap between the ideal and reality—corruption and lack of checks against abuses of power are obvious threats to political meritocracy. The task is to reduce the gap.

Unlike fascism or totalitarianism, political meritocracy is compatible with most democratic values and practices. Forms of political participation such as sortition (using a lottery system to select leaders from a pool of candidates), consultation and deliberation, as well as elections at lower levels of government, are compatible with political meritocracy. 

But electoral democracy at the top would wreck the advantages of political meritocracy. An elected leader without any political experience could appeal to people’s worst emotions and rise to the top (and may make beginner’s mistakes). Such a leader would also be more constrained by short-term electoral considerations at the cost of long-term planning for the good of the political community and the rest of the world.

Unlike fascism or totalitarianism, political meritocracy is compatible with most democratic values and practices

So the task in China is to bolster the meritocratic elements in the country’s political system while selectively adopting democratic ideas and practices short of electoral democracy at the top. But we should recognise that liberals will still be uncomfortable with the ideal of political meritocracy because it requires constraints on the right to form political parties that contest for political power at the top. In short, the ideological challenge to liberalism centres mainly on the value of political meritocracy versus electoral democracy as a method for selecting top political leaders.  

(2)  Does China seek to export political meritocracy abroad? 

Not really. Unlike Western-style democrats who often argue (or assume) that electoral democracy should serve as the standard for selecting and promoting leaders regardless of the level of government and the history and culture of a country, Chinese meritocrats emphasise that political meritocracy is particular to the Chinese context.

First, size matters: the ideal only applies in a large country. It is much more difficult to rule and manage huge and incredibly diverse countries and it is not helpful to compare China with small, relatively homogenous countries endowed with plentiful natural resources. Moreover, at higher levels of government of large countries, problems are complex and often impact many sectors of society, the rest of the world and future generations. In large countries, political success is more likely with leaders that have political experience at lower levels of government and a good record of performance.

Second, the ideal of political meritocracy has a long history in China. More than 2,500 years ago Confucius defended the view that exemplary persons (junzi) have superior ability and virtue (as opposed to the earlier view that junzi have aristocratic family backgrounds). Since then Chinese intellectuals have argued over which abilities and virtues matter for government, how to assess those abilities and virtues, and how to institutionalise a political system that aims to select and promote public officials with superior abilities and virtues. 

China’s 2,000-year history with a complex bureaucratic system can be viewed as a constant effort to institutionalise the ideal of political meritocracy. But the ideal would be difficult to implement in political contexts where it was not so central, and without a long history of bureaucracy inspired by meritocratic ideals. 

Chinese meritocrats emphasise that political meritocracy is particular to the Chinese context

Third, the ideal has inspired political reform in China over the last four decades or so. A typical trope in the Western media is that there has been substantial economic reform in China, but no political reform. But that’s because electoral democracy at the top is viewed as the only standard for what counts as political reform. If we set aside this dogma, it’s obvious that the Chinese political system has undergone substantial political reform over the last few decades. 

The main difference is that there has been a serious effort to (re-)establish political meritocracy at higher levels of government by putting more emphasis on education, examinations and political experience at lower levels of government. There remains a large gap between the ideal and the practice, but the standard often used to evaluate progress is the degree to which a meritocratic system has been established.

Fourth, survey results consistently show widespread support for the ideal of political meritocracy in China, especially at higher levels of government. The ideal of political meritocracy may not be an appropriate standard for evaluating political progress (and regress) in societies where the ideal is not widely shared.

That said, China welcomes public officials from other countries who seek to learn from positive aspects of the Chinese political system. It trains around 10,000 African officials every year. But the government will not use moralising political rhetoric, not to mention force, to promote its political system abroad.

(3)  But what if China were to decide to export political meritocracy abroad? 

Could it successfully do so in Western-style electoral democracies? Not likely. Once people get the vote, they don’t want to give it up, no matter what the case against it. Supporters of political alternatives need to rely on force to change the system (think of Thailand or Egypt). 

So it is possible to overstate the “crisis” of Western democracies. No politically significant force can get far by campaigning for the abolition of electoral democracy and for the establishment of political meritocracy.

In short, liberals in the West do not need to worry about the ideological threat posed by China’s rise. At the level of ideology, China shares a commitment to freedom, democracy and individual human rights. What it doesn’t share is a commitment to electoral democracy. But the alternative ideal—political meritocracy—is particular to China’s political context. 

The Chinese government does not seek to export it abroad, and it could not successfully do so even if it tried. The main threat to liberal ideology in the West is internal. There is a risk that people will select illiberal leaders who seek to undermine commitment to freedom and individual human rights.

_______________

Daniel Bell is the Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and a professor at Tsinghua University. He is the author of numerous books, including The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton, 2015).

Dig deeper
Debate: Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China's rise? (June 2018)
What to do about China’s sharp power? (December 2017)
How China’s “sharp power” is muting criticism abroad (December 2017)