Daniel Bell, a Canadian who teaches political science at Tsinghua, one of China's most prestigious universities, has of late been rattling foreign China watchers with his commentary about alternatives to democracy in China.
Bell claims that because democracy is flawed as an ideal, China's political future is more likely to be determined by the Confucian tradition of 'humane authority'. He also criticises Westerners who judge political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic.
I share some of Bell's concerns about the dangers of thinking about China's political future as a linear path with the ultimate goal of multi-party parliamentarianism. I also agree with Bell about the need for cultural sensitivity when assessing developments in China (or any other country).
Now, however, Bell has taken his ideas a step too far.
In an opinion piece called 'In Defence of How China Picks its Leaders', written with Eric Li, a Shanghai-based American venture capitalist, Bell states that the Chinese political system 'comes close to the best formula for governing a large country: meritocracy at the top, democracy at the bottom, with room for experimentation in-between.' He also writes that the 'Chinese regime has developed the right formula for choosing political rulers that is consistent with China's culture and history and suitable to modern circumstances.'
If I did not know that Bell does indeed live in Beijing I would think he is locked up in an ivory tower on an isolated island.
To state that 'the advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy are clear' is absurd. Certainly, Chinese officials are more competent and knowledgeable than before the reform period, when political correctness was the overriding criteria for a successful official. But China's Communist Party today rules a political system characterised by nepotism and patron-client ties, rampant corruption, and privileged citizens' outright contempt for the law.
In the more than twenty years I lived and worked in China I never had a conversation with a single Chinese who approved of the secretive manner in which the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are chosen, nor of Communist Party officials being promoted based on their family background or support by powerful and corrupt mentors. Chinese citizens yearn to live in a political system governed by a rule of law and checks-and-balances that aim to provide transparency and accountability.
As for Bell's and Li's claims that in a big country, 'one person, one vote' is problematic, perhaps one could point them in the direction of Indonesia where – despite the ongoing problems of democratic transition – 62% of Indonesians said democracy was preferable to any other form of government, according to the 2012 Lowy Institute Indonesia Poll.
Photo by Flickr user Remko Tanis.