NB: This article reflects the view of the writer, and does not reflect the stance of The Warwick Economics Summit
A democratically elected government, in recent times, have been synonymous with the image of good governance. The picture of smartly dressed MPs debating passionately on the UK’s green parliament bench, coupled with the relatively melodious “odd-deur” bellowing loudly from former speaker John Bercow’s deep vocals, has been etched on the minds of voters as the embodiment of free speech and democracy.
Free speech, the belief that everyone’s voice and opinions deserve recognition, has been the cornerstone of Western democracy. It goes by unchallenged, lacking a credible ideological competitor, where many in the world accept it as an inherent good that is pursuable as an ends to itself. But its once unquestionable dominance as the most optimal model of governance is now being contested by China, whose meritocratic, yet very much autocratic, model of governance have paid out substantial dividends to the country in terms of economic growth and development.
To dive deeper into the topic, we reached out to Tianlei Huang, a Research Analyst with the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), who shared that China has been running an influence campaign around the globe, especially through education, which promotes its ideology and model of governance.
“People are attracted to China mostly due to economic benefits, but interestingly, we are seeing a spillover to the Chinese ideology and its model of governance. China is trying hard to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the developing world and building up its soft power,” Huang said.
Education is one of the most important tools China has to expand its global influence, and Huang believed that China made some preliminary achievements on this front, especially in the rest of Asia. Huang pointed to the increase in ASEAN students in China as evidence that the country is attracting more foreign students to its Universities. In fact, in 2015 and 2016 the increase in ASEAN students studying in China surpassed the increase in the US.
Figure 1: Postsecondary Enrollment of Students from ASEAN Countries and Timor-Leste in China and the United States (2015-2016)
“What attracts so many Southeast Asian students to study in China is that education in China is more affordable than the US, and more jobs in their home countries are being created due to the many China-led infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative,” Huang said.
In addition, China is also training more government officials from the developing world through short-term training programs carried out by the many government-affiliated academies. The Chinese Academy of Governance (CAG), for example, is one of the many places foreign government officials are learning the Chinese governance model.
“By November 2017, the CAG has trained around 8,500 foreign government officials and talents from 159 countries,” Huang said. “According to a news release by China Daily, in September 2017, over 200 foreign officials and scholars who were attending training programs at the CAG convened together and learned the “spirit of the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress”.
As China exports its education and culture throughout the world, influencing the minds of students and the decisions of foreign officers, it is worthy to understand what the Chinese model of governance attempts to advocate for.
Daniel Bell, a Philosophy Professor at Tsinghua University, whose views favouring China’s system of political meritocracy has been widely published in the Financial Times and The New York Times, labelled the Chinese model as a “vertical democratic meritocracy”. The idea is that there should be “democracy on the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy on top”, which he argues is a good way to govern a large country.
Democratic participation should only be at the lower community level, Bell proposed, as the local community is relatively smaller and thus its residents are able to understand the needs of their community, recognising competent local leaders and electing them to power. But going up the political chain in a huge country, the one person, one vote concept becomes problematic.
“From a moral point of view, citizens should vote for the common good because their votes affect not just themselves but other people,” Bell explains. “Yet voters tend to vote with their pocketbooks. Many can’t even do that well, since they lack economic competence,” Bell wrote in an opinion piece to the Financial Times.
To solve this, Bell proposes that leaders should be chosen through a meritocratic process, with a mechanism explicitly designed to choose leaders with competence and virtue. The idea is that leaders should not be chosen based on popularity, but rather through strict examinations and vetting designed to coax out characteristics of a capable leader. “Over the past three decades, the CPC gradually transformed itself from a revolutionary party to a meritocratic organisation,” Bell claims.
But while the theoretical picture seems rosy, the reality is far from it. Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, pointed out that the system of meritocracy in China is marred by massive factionalism, clientelism, patronage and corruption. Coupled with a lack of free speech, there is a high chance that many decisions go unchallenged to toe party lines. “How can you have a genuine meritocracy, when you cannot publicly canvas all the credible policy alternatives, is very hard to see,” Ash mused.
One important distinction to consider is that the meritocratic selection by ability does not immediately follow that these leaders will exercise their power justly. Scrutiny is required, ensuring there are checks and balances on these leaders. In a free democratic country, this is easier to do so since powers are not concentrated at a single place or person, but rather diluted through multiple institutions and distributed amongst the electorate.
“The key to democracy is not in the selection of leaders. What makes democracy better than authoritarianism is the checking of leaders by the freedom of others. There is a gap between the ideal and the practice in China, and that gap is not an accident.
“That gap is produced by the structure of the political system,” Andrew J. Nathan, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, said in a panel together with Professor Daniel A. Bell.
Whether China is able to properly execute its ideology of political meritocracy, will depend on the strength of its institutions to select competent leaders. Even so, it needs to account with its innate restrictions to counterweight the selection of its leaders.
“It is still too early to tell if China’s long-term approach to influence expansion through education will eventually bear fruits. But one thing is clear: China is challenging the once dominating Western values,” Huang said. And he is right.
Democracy lacked a credible ideological competitor. Well, not anymore.
Written by Christopher Lim