Home / Opinion / The charms of creating a Confucian paradise

If there were a bad time to talk about political meritocracy, then this would be it. In the one country that birthed the idea outside Attica, the elite is grappling with an economic crisis. This has come on the heels of vicious infighting in its highest council where one princeling has felled another one to cement his power. The winner of this duel, Xi Jinping, now finds himself trying to clear a far bigger mess: official corruption.

Since his elevation to the top rank in China, Xi has launched a no-holds-barred campaign against corruption. He has unleashed the Central Discipline Inspection Committee (CDIC) on the “tigers" and “flies". The two species refer to high- and low-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members who have enriched themselves by corrupt means. One big “tiger" to be bagged is Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Swatting “flies", too, is in full swing. But Xi’s task is not only difficult from a mere numerical perspective but also carries huge political risks. Unlike Mao Zedong, Xi does not have the same aura or legitimacy to do what he thinks is necessary.

Roderick MacFarquhar, the author of the definitive study of the Cultural Revolution and a long-time China observer, has some scary estimates of the extent of corruption in the ranks of the 80-million strong CCP. If only 10% of the party cadre is corrupt, that makes it eight million members. If one adds family members to the list of those enriching themselves, the number rises. Add a spouse: 16 million, a child: 24 million, a sibling: 32 million, a sibling plus spouse: 40 million. This alarming calculation is based on a conservative number of party cadres assumed to be corrupt. Xi’s task, very clearly, is either logistically impossible or will lead China to an upheaval probably worse than the Cultural Revolution.

These numbers and China’s current troubles should be enough to end the idea that political meritocracy is a viable alternative to democracy where irrespective of one’s abilities one can rise to the highest office. Daniel Bell, a professor at Tsinghua University, thinks otherwise. In The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, he builds a convincing case for an alternative to democracy.

In his deconstruction of democracy, Bell explores two extremes: the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority. The former will not allow the selection of leaders with an appropriate time horizon to deliver the goals that led to their selection in the first place. These leaders will always worry about their re-election. Bell makes this argument explicitly and is among a handful of brave political theorists to do so. His solution, and realistic one at that, is a Singapore-style political meritocracy. The other extreme—the tyranny of the minority—leads to exceptional economic inequality. No democracy with a capitalist organization has escaped this, with the US being the exemplar.

Bell has argued that in political meritocracies, both extremes can be avoided. China, whatever its ongoing travails, has a superior record of delivering wealth and prosperity to its masses, something they could not imagine even a century ago. Perhaps the country was primed for meritocracy, culturally and historically. Even the Communist interregnum proper—1949-79—witnessed the rise of competent leaders. Zhou Enlai and Peng Dehuai are good examples. When Mao exited the stage, the only leader who could run China competently, Deng Xiaoping—an “unrepentant capitalist roader"—was brought back to Beijing quickly. This was nothing but the run of meritocracy.

One can always argue that the power to remove incompetent political leaders in an election is probably the best instrumental safeguard that decisively tilts the balance in favour of democracy. In a political meritocracy, the cementing of a bad leadership is a big danger. But here is an empirical quirk: modern political dynasties are almost always encountered in democracies. South Asia as a whole is a good example. The US has a similar story. In contrast, Mao’s progeny are nowhere today and the princelings who have made it big have done so on merit. That, too, has not been sufficient to ensure their survival in case they make mistakes. Bo Xilai is a good example.

Serious re-evaluations of democracy are inhibited by two factors: fears about the alternatives turning sour and a century of educational indoctrination that makes imagining the alternatives a frightful exercise. Bell’s book should be read as an antidote (or if you prefer, an elixir) to overcome these doubts.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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