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President Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese leadership do not get to positions of national leadership without undergoing decades of trials to demonstrate their capacity to run a country. Reuters/Carlos Barria

Our democracy can learn from China’s meritocracy

For several years now, polls by organisations like the Lowy Institute have been telling us that Australians aren’t particularly impressed by our democracy. This seems a startling revelation. But it shouldn’t be.

With five prime ministers in five years, Australia’s democracy hasn’t exactly been stable or functional of late. Yet there’s more to Australians’ dissatisfaction with their democratic system than Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.

In a 2014 Australian parliamentary lecture, Lowy polling director Alex Oliver advanced other theories said to explain Australians’ ambivalence about democratic politics. Most had to do with the state of our democracy or society. But Oliver also put forward the interesting idea that non-democratic powers in our region are influencing Australians’ view of democracy at home:

… nations with different political systems, particularly in our region, are seen as successful despite being non-democratic, and present a somewhat viable, even attractive, alternative to our imperfect democratic system.

In particular, countries like China offer Australians “aware of these different political systems and their successes” a political blueprint not necessarily “wedded to the ideal of democracy as the only viable form of government for a successful nation”.

Oliver’s theory is an interesting one. For her, it’s quite plausible that Australians who are sick and tired of our democracy’s immaturity, epitomised by revolving-door leaderships, are looking at more stable authoritarian systems like China for answers.

The China model and political meritocracy

Shouldn’t this worry us? Not according to an important new book by one of the leading Western intellectuals working in China today.

In The China Model, Daniel Bell argues that democracies can learn from China’s system of political meritocracy. Princeton University Press

In The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Daniel Bell argues that contemporary Chinese politics has become defined by a system of political meritocracy that might offer solutions to some of democracy’s most enduring woes.

According to Bell – a Canadian scholar who has lived and taught political theory in China for the past 12 years – Westerners should be looking to China for political inspiration.

The China Model is animated by Bell’s growing suspicion that democracy is not the universal good many assume it to be. Beleaguered by a number of tyrannies, democracy too often ignores the interests of all but the voting classes. It’s shortsighted and rarely anything other than an exercise in replacing one group of bastards with another.

Hostage to the whims of self-interested voters and populist politicians, democratic politics has been likened to a ship of fools.

Bell sees “Chinese-style political meritocracy”, which he admits remains far from perfect and in some instances far from realised, as “a grand political experiment with the potential to remedy key defects of electoral democracy”.

Notions that leaders should be meritorious intellectually, socially and with respect to virtue date as far back as the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 BC). Such ideas have become central to Chinese Communist Party rule. China now has a complex system of exams and tests that aspiring politicians must pass to attain positions of influence and power.

Assessments are put in place to ensure those who lead possess above-average aptitude – intellectually, socially and morally. Over years and decades, aspiring leaders are put through a series of trials that test their capacity to run a country. In China, no Palin or Trump would ever get close to an office of power.

Many may still see China as an “authoritarian” country. But Bell indicates that measures like these assure citizens only the Communist Party’s best and brightest will lead.

In this way, a political meritocracy lives and dies by the political maturity, virtue and achievement of its politicians. Without having to adopt multi-party elections, the Communist Party can thus claim legitimacy based on continued performance.

But while it may be no democracy, China’s meritocratic system isn’t entirely devoid of democratic traits either.

Bell believes that what makes the China model unique is its blend of meritocracy at the central level of government and democracy at the local level. Between these two extremes, bold political experimentation is also encouraged and, where successful, replicated.

Daniel Bell explains the ‘China model’: meritocracy at the top, experimentation in the middle, and democracy at the bottom.

As Bell puts it, it makes sense for people to vote for representatives at the village level. They know who they’re voting for. Even if they get things wrong, the stakes aren’t so great. Mistakes can be rectified.

At the national level, it’s more complex. Choosing a wrong or inexperienced leader can jeopardise the lives of a billion people. For this reason, only those who have shown certain traits and proven themselves at various levels of government over decades should be tasked with leading a nation.

Daniel Bell discusses his book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, with Stein Ringen of the University of Oxford.

Two lessons for Australia

Australia’s recent track record shows even a supposedly mature leader and stable political party doesn’t provide immunity from political gaffes, partyroom tantrums and ruthless power grabs. Though our system couldn’t be more different from China’s, there’s good reason to take note of what’s happening in the world’s largest “non-democratic” country.

Specifically, Australian citizens and politicians can take away two lessons from China.

First, it’s not enough for politicians to be popular. They must continually demonstrate their merits to lead. More governmental and institutional measures are required to ensure political representatives are virtuous, experienced and knowledgeable enough to be our country’s chief political leaders – before they reach this position.

While this may not be very democratic, our recent record shows very clearly that not every person who manages to win a vote should lead. Some shouldn’t be representing us at all. There’s too much at stake to always reduce a nation’s fate to “one person, one vote”.

Second, citizens need to learn to have more faith in politicians who can demonstrate their leadership merits. Politics is hard and it takes time. Citizens need to realise that.

Democracy, as English political theorist Matthew Flinders has written, cannot “make every sad heart glad”. Acknowledging this will free our politicians from the servitude of popularity polls and negative media.

Certainly, this could make them less accountable to us. But the more likely outcome is a mandate to get on with the job; to deliver what was promised at election time.

These lessons are hard to implement and harder still to swallow in a democracy such as Australia. Like Bell, had I read what I’ve written here five years ago, I too would have called myself undemocratic. Yet maybe the time has come for Australia’s system of governance to become slightly less democratic and just that bit more meritocratic.

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