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The China Model (Review)

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The rise of China, undoubtedly, is one of the most phenomenal happenings to take place in the history of nation-states in the 21st century. This is so because China's extraordinary and unprecedented economic rise, its growing role in the world ostensibly will have deep impact in the existing world order. Claims and counter claims made to this ends are such that, in the decades to come, Chinese influence in the world, will continue to increase. In fact, the historian Niall Ferguson has gone to the extent of saying that the bloody twentieth century witnessed ‘the descent of the West’ and ‘a reorientation of the world’ toward the East. The East, at large, will be represented by China along-with India. In fact, voluminous literatures have come up explaining the rise of the East. The Easternisation (2016) by Gideon Rachman – a Journalist from the Financial Times – is the recent one, among others.
The realist scholars, for their part, are of the view that with the ascent of China – it will also try to use its growing influence to reshape the rules and institutions of the international system to serve its interests in a better way. The initiatives taken by China to this end are exemplary ones and their reverberations are well reflected in the extant world order. What has objectively been not said with regard to the rise of China so far, however, is how has it become the world power without even adopting the liberal political system. The liberal political and economic system is credited largely for brining prosperity in the Western world. China, for its part, did achieve economic superiority without having the both. The Western scholars do have their own (mis)perceptions and opinion towards China, which are contrasting vis-à-vis system of governance, and economic growth it has received. Some even go to the extent of arguing that China eventually will have difficulty to reconcile its model of economic growth and supposedly closed political model. For them, China has no options other than overthrowing the existing order and embraces the liberal approach – both for political and economic stability. Whatever the prescriptions provided are, China certainly lays importance to its own values and model. The Chinese world-view is traditionally inward looking and defensive rather than being imperial one. China is one of the ancient states and has its own culture, language, and tradition. It rather prefers to call the conduit between the heaven and the earth for others. For those who provided prescriptions as to what China should do and shouldn’t are hounded by fear that alone emanates from its rise. These views, perhaps, are also built on the fact that countries who have adopted the authoritarian system (read Communists) have collapsed with the passage of time and their supposed economic achievement turned out to be cosmetic one in the nature. For China, this certainly is not true precisely for the reason that it has truly achieved phenomenal economic growth in comparison to the states who have adopted the similar system. Nothing could be said of China merely on the basis of information and analysis provided in the press and academic works. Make no mistake, China truly has stood the test of time and succeeded in uplifting vast numbers of people out of poverty. All this leads one to argue that China’s economic growth is real and not the perceived one as has often been reported in the press.
This all makes one to ponder upon as what led to such a dramatic change in the case of China and not for others. How it has done so. Well, answers to these questions are provided in a succinctly written book: The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Tsinghua University Professor Daniel A Bell. Not only does he provide answers to the questions raised above, he too presents an alternative model which Bell calls ‘meritocratic’ to liberal, multiparty democracy based-on one person, one vote to select political leaders. His distinctive model of governance is neither liberal nor authoritarianism but a ‘political meritocracy’. Indeed, the political meritocracy has not only hold China; it has also provided sustained economic growth.
The crux of the problem here, however, is how should one understands the ‘meritocratic’ political leaders or for that matter how can it be applied while selecting political leaders – who ultimately govern the society. What are the traits for that? The answer provided for the same are similar to the one advised long ago by Chanakya, Sun Tzu or Max Weber in a much later period. For Bell, he refers them as ‘civil servant’ with long periods of preparatory trainings and intellectual knowledge of different disciplines. However, this too, is not free from criticism. The antagonist argues that a leader with superior intellectual and social skills is potentially the worst kind of leader, because he or she can figure out the best way of realising immoral purposes (p. 99). Clearly, any theory of leadership that leaves out ethics is deficient. And in that sense meritocracy alone is not sufficient to guarantee quality leaders. In the context of rulers, the immorality cannot even be thought of. The revival of Confucianism and rise of Buddhism in China, perhaps, will not allow that to happen.
The idea that a political system should aim to select and promote leaders with superior ability and virtue is central to both Chinese and Western Political theory and practice. The issue at stake, for now, is how best to reconcile democracy and meritocracy. This precisely is because political meritocracy alone would result in legitimacy problem. As for democracy, it demands people’s participation and if people are not allowed to exercise their sovereign rights that eventually will generate ownership crisis. To avoid such situations, Bell provides three models in his book and, among them, a vertical model with political meritocracy at the level of central government and democracy at the local level would be the most suitable one. The Chinese model certainly is a reality to uphold the moral purpose of democracy. It has been said that meritocratic model is more suitable for Chinese history, culture, and political experience and can be emulated by other countries as well. However, the 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 (p.197). This is so because today even in China there is a serious challenge to political meritocracy primarily for the reason that cadres are often promoted on the basis of loyalty to political superiors despite the set provisions wherein the superiors should take meritocracy into consideration while rewarding political offices. In that sense Bell, along-with others, are of the view that meritocracy do not yet rule China because corruption and nepotism still dominates the political sphere. To the dismay of many, this appears to have been happening everywhere with communist regime or parties who, in principle, purport to say one thing and do opposite in practice. This reviewer’s own experience from Nepal (where majority of the political parties claim themselves as Communists) suggest that Communist do talk about people’s welfare and enhancing nationalism but in reality it has always been the other way round. Certainly, China is a different case and no other communist’s states have adopted the model and should learn from her for that matter.
The book, although entirely focused on China and Singapore model, nevertheless can certainly be a good read for all those who are interested to understand the traits of meritocracy in relation to democracy and leadership selection process. The book deals with a number of issues related with politics and governance and provides solid basis in favor of meritocracy in politics.

Chandra D Bhatta (Chandra.bhatta@fesnepal.org).

 

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