Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Westerners who laud a Chinese meritocracy continue to miss the point

A CENTURY ago China tried its first experiment with representative government, after millennia of imperial rule. The first president, Sun Yat-sen, soon stepped down. His successor, Yuan Shikai, was a mustachioed military man admired in the West as a progressive conservative. He even asked the American government for help in drafting a new Chinese constitution. A legal scholar from Columbia University, Frank Goodnow, arrived in Beijing in 1913 and advised on the drafting of two versions. The first gave Yuan Shikai nearly unchecked powers over Chinese citizens, the budget and foreign policy. The second, in 1915, would have made him emperor, but Yuan died soon after, in 1916.

Mr Goodnow believed that Chinese conditions and culture were not suited to democracy, and that Yuan was just the sort of autocrat China needed. History judges Yuan less kindly. He stamped on the green shoots of the new republic, while nourishing his own corrupt ambitions. As for the unfortunate Goodnow, he came to be remembered as the foreign stooge of a Chinese dictator. He had, he realised too late, been manipulated by those who found him useful—not the first, nor the last, Western adviser to China to feel this. But he maintained his view that the “efficiency and stability” of an autocratic ruler were more important to China at that point than “liberty and popular government”. The title of a later academic paper on Goodnow labelled him an “embarrassed monarchist”.

Many other Westerners have followed Goodnow in believing China’s unique history or economic backwardness ill suits it for representative or, what Chinese critics call, “Western” democracy. In the 1960s and 1970s some Western intellectuals, smitten with China fever, were persuaded that Mao Zedong had achieved an egalitarian society. They said the Chinese Communist Party rejected selfishness and promoted sacrifice and service to society. In the light of what was later revealed of the Mao-made famine of 1958-62 (see article) and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, those views now appear grotesque. Most of Mao’s erstwhile admirers acknowledged this and some are among the party’s harshest critics today.

Now, thanks to China’s stunning economic rise, a new group of admirers has emerged. Their cheers have grown louder since the global financial crisis laid bare Western shortcomings. Thomas Friedman, a columnist at the New York Times, declared in 2009 that parts of China’s authoritarianism looked more appealing than America’s dysfunctional democracy. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Mr Friedman allowed. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

Part of a belief in Chinese enlightenment is built on a conviction that China’s leadership system is increasingly meritocratic. The city-state of Singapore provides the model: clean, efficient and run by Nanny—an enlightened meritocracy, epitomising what used to be called “Asian values”. 

Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, has long argued that the West does not know best. He asserts that China is fast getting to where Singapore is in terms of governance. “Far from being an arbitrary dictatorial system,” Mr Mahbubani wrote recently in the Financial Times (part-owner of this newspaper), the Communist Party may have succeeded in creating “a rule-bound system that is strong and durable, not fragile and vulnerable.” He suggests that this rule-bound system has thrown up “possibly the best set of leaders that China could produce”. Jim O’Neill, a Goldman Sachs analyst who came up with the “BRIC” acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, says that if China were a football team, you would want to wear its shirt.

Among the shirt-wearers is a Canadian political theorist, Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University in Beijing, co-editor of “A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future”. Mr Bell believes that the party’s emphasis has shifted to “the task of good governance led by able and virtuous political leaders.” The scholar-official, it seems, stands in for the gentleman from Whitehall who thought he knew best. The party recruits the best and the brightest, says Mr Bell, and the vetting process for the promotion of top leaders is impressively objective and rigorous, though he admits scope for improvement, especially through more transparency.

But to believe virtue always floats to the top in a system such as China’s is fantasy. Chinese government and society are shot through with corruption. Even official media report about cadres gaining promotion through connections, not merit, and despite the occasional execution of corrupt officials, the government can do little about it. The Confucian ideal of self-cultivation is admirable, but it neglects the crucial detail known as human nature.

The virtues of law

The answer to China’s challenges is not a return to some exclusive cultural wellspring of virtue. It doesn’t exist. The lesson of China’s 19th century was that supposedly meritocratic Confucian government, unchallenged and unchecked, had failed. “Western” systems of government have plenty of flaws too. Families and groups with more money or power perpetuate their influence in society. But the door is always open for talented outsiders to gain power and earn wealth and, more importantly, to lose it. Richard Nixon was undone by a free press and by the institutions of his own government, not, as with the Chinese former Politburo member Bo Xilai, by a lieutenant who turned against him and fled to a foreign consulate. What will create more meritocratic government in China is continued economic development; more education for more people; open competition; moving towards a free press; an independent judicial system; and, in time, a representative political system. Illustration by Michael Morgenstern, article by Banyan for The Economist

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