Westerns tend to separate the political world into ‘good’ democracies and ‘bad’ authoritarian leaders. However the Chinese political model does not fit into the Western political system, and for over the past three decades China has developed its own approach to government. The Chinese political election compared to the ‘Western’ system of electoral democracy can be best described as ‘political meritocracy.’ This means that Chinese leaders are selected and promoted on the basis of examinations and performance evaluations at lower levels of government. Yet there is a large gap between theory and practice and a large democratic deficit. On 30 March 2016, Professor Daniel A. Bell spoke at a Perspectives:Asia seminar about ‘Democracy, Meritocracy or both? The Case of China’.

Professor Bell spoke in reference to his recent book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the limits of Democracy (Princeton, 2015). He elaborated on one of the most important political developments of the twenty-first century, and controversially describes the Chinese system as a ‘vertical democratic meritocracy.’

Professor Bell states, “It is assumed that you have to have experience to be a leader, and it is people who have that experience also have some sort of qualification to be a part of the leadership selection. Every single social organisation in modern society works like that, but the one exception strangely enough is political communities”, he went on to state that “one person has one vote to choose leaders, and those leaders may not have not have had any experience in politics. Think of Donald Trump today in the United States of America.

Professor Bell introduced how in China they used the Imperial Examination system (c.700 – 1905). This examination system aimed to recruit public officials on the basis of merit rather than family or political connection. This examination system helped to shape China’s intellectual, cultural and political life.

Living in Beijing for over twelve years, Bell confesses that he had ‘shocks to his Canadian moral outlook’ and became more open-minded about the Chinese’s political system. He defends his book and states that,

My research is based on my experience living in Beijing and people arguing about democracy and meritocracy. What is the best way to select leaders to lead a country? Which qualities matters most for political leaders and which mechanisms are most likely to select leaders with this qualities ? How can political meritocracy be reconciled with democracy? These questions are often discussed by my friends and colleagues and my book is an effort to think about them in a more systematic way.

A video of the Professor Bell’s talk can be found on our Griffith Asia Insights YouTube channel.

Perspectives:Asia seminar series is a program of public seminars designed to explore issues of contemporary culture, politics and society in our region, while also fostering public discussion of Australia’s relations with Asia. The series now in its’ twelfth year is co-hosted by the Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art (ACAPA) Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

Event photos [Photo credit: Mark Sherwood, courtesy of QAGOMA]: