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China’s Fatal Attraction

Arthur Herman

The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel A. Bell (Princeton, 336 pp., $29.95)

Brutal autocracies have a peculiar fascination for certain liberals, especially if they write for the New York Times. Walter Duranty once spun paeans of praise for Stalin’s Soviet Union, even as millions were being starved to death in Ukraine, and millions more being rounded up and shot during Stalin’s serial purges — and he won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Our latter-day Duranty is Thomas Friedman, whose admiration for Communist China has pockmarked his column in the Times for more than a decade. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” he wrote in 2009, “but when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also . . . impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward.”

There in a nutshell is the key appeal of the totalitarian system for liberals: It empowers an enlightened elite to impose policies on a people without contradiction, whether by voters or even by the rule of law. It’s obviously why it appeals to our current president, an unabashed China admirer. “Their ports, their train systems, their airports are all vastly superior to us now,” Obama announced during his first presidential campaign, “which means if you’re a corporation deciding where to do business . . . you’re starting to think, ‘Beijing looks like a pretty good option.’”

Perhaps. Certainly China’s current financial and economic mess suggests otherwise, but that doesn’t stop the latest entrant in the China-admiration sweepstakes, an American professor at Tsinghua University in China named Daniel A. Bell (no observed relation to the late sociologist Daniel Bell). Bell is the author of a previous work, Beyond Liberal Democracy, whose title neatly summarizes the theme of his newest opus, The China Model: that Beijing has discovered a superior way of governance that directly challenges — and will eventually replace — the benighted Western obsession with representative liberal democracy.

Bell’s key working assumption is that “a political system should aim to select and promote leaders with superior ability and virtue” — in other words, an elite who will guide and direct a society forward through the direct exercise of political power, in a modern-dress version of Plato’s Republic. While this ideal, which he dubs “political meritocracy,” has ground to a halt in the West thanks to “the intellectual hegemony of electoral democracy,” rule by the best and brightest has not only survived but thrived in the People’s Republic of China, where it has fueled the country’s astonishing rise as an economic and geopolitical power in the past three decades.

From Bell’s viewpoint, liberal democracies such as those in the United States, Western Europe, and India (a favorite Bell target) inevitably promote the popular over the best and engender social conflict and material corruption. By contrast, China’s leaders are selected on their merits and skills, through a series of rigorous examinations imposed when they are fresh out of the university. The men in Beijing, in short, form a modern mandarinate highly reminiscent of, but more adept and relevant than, the one that once governed imperial China.

This modern meritocracy has, Bell argues, a firm foundation in the social fabric of China. In addition to the installation of trained and enlightened meritocrats at the top, there is a rigorous testing of new, innovative policies at the middle, provincial level before the policies are adopted nationally, as well as a “democracy at the bottom,” involving voter participation in elections at the village level in every province in China, with, Bell notes, an amazingly high level of participation (90 percent in some places).

Who knows, Bell concludes — “in 20 years’ time, perhaps we will be debating Chinese-style political meritocracy as an alternative model — and a challenge — to Western-style democracy,” including democracy in the West itself. Tom Friedman would probably be the first to agree.

Now, of course all this is a fantasy, along with Bell’s claim that “few would deny that the [Chinese] system has performed relatively well compared to democratic regimes of comparable size and level of economic development.” Any real analyst knows that a huge proportion of China’s growth in the past two decades has come from systematic cyber-theft from the West — “the largest transfer of wealth in history,” according to former NSA chief General Keith Alexander — –as well as from predatory trade practices, up to and including prison slave labor, that would make Al Capone blush. Far from being immune to corruption, China’s ruling class is mired in it, as even President Xi and the state-run China Daily have had to admit. And, far from being immune to “tribal politics” and social conflict, as Bell claims, China’s fissiparous decaying empire is being held together only by the iron clamp of the People’s Liberation Army.

Bell concedes that “the Chinese government spends lavishly on the security apparatus to preserve social stability” and engages in “harsh measures to put down perceived threats to one-party rule,” but he nonetheless insists that today’s China is not a vicious, authoritarian dictatorship like North Korea. Try telling that to the thousands of Falun Gong prisoners who are being kept alive only until it’s time to harvest their organs — or to the tens of thousands of Uighurs who have to endure the same fate.

One must ask: Why did Bell write this book? On this question, he drops important clues that other, equally damning reviews have missed, but that reveal much about the current mood inside China.

The first clue is that Bell is a self-declared Confucian; indeed, his original model for the political meritocracy isn’t Plato’s Republic but Confucius’s Analects. The second is that, although Bell wrote the book in English with an American publisher, his fondest hope is that it will be picked up and translated into Chinese — but not for self-serving reasons. “I hope that it will have an impact in China,” he writes in the introduction. Why? Because the real object of his critique isn’t the West, but China itself. He concludes:

At the end of the day . . . political meritocracy will work as a form of “soft power” only if China sets a good model for others: that is, it must practice political meritocracy at home. As China closes the gap between the ideal and the reality of political meritocracy, the true nature of the system will become more apparent to outsiders.

As Bell is forced to admit throughout the book, the reality in China deviates a great deal from the ideal, and the Chinese know it. They see the moral and the material corruption of their rulers up close, as well as the stupidity and inertia of China’s state-run enterprises, the intellectual bankruptcy of Communist-party doctrine, and the brutality directed at anyone who dares to deviate from the rules.

Bell knows that there is, in his words, “a large gap between the ideal and the reality” in China; but he has no clear solution for this problem, beyond a more rigorous selection process for Chinese leaders (one that “pay[s] greater attention to merit rather than just rewarding personal friends”), more peer-review panels, and more career promotions for women.

The admission is striking. In the end, The China Model is less a put-down of the West than a plea for China’s ruling class to heal itself before it’s too late. Like some French courtier praising, from his bedroom, the enlightened rule of Louis XVI, he can see the Bastille in the distance, and he can sense the forces gathering for its destruction.

It’s a plea for help. Might I suggest a reading of the U.S. Constitution?

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