What I would like to talk about today is what is the single biggest misunderstanding about China? And actually, if you read the Western media, or if you talk to people from the West, whether it’s journalists or intellectuals or academics or political leaders, there’s this kind of standard trope.
西方人对中国存有怎样的误解？为什么？What are some common misunderstandings about China, and why?
There’s been lots of economic reform over the past forty years, more market reforms and so on, but no political reform, things have stayed the same politically over the last four decades. Now for those of you who are in China, namely all of you now, know probably that that’s probably a wrong view, there’s been so much change over the past four decades.
Remember the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, was a time of chaos. What happened after that? Shortly after the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1970s, China’s political leaders decided that we have to adopt what we can call a political meritocracy, in Chinese, it’s xian neng zheng zhi, and this is the ideal that the political system should aim to select and promote officials with superior ability and virtue. Education matters more for officials, experience, superior performance.
And institutionally what this means is we need to have a complex bureaucracy that has the mission of selecting and promoting public officials who have above average ability and virtue. And that is what has happened over the past four decades, there has been a gradual implementation of the ideal of political meritocracy, along with its institutionalisation in the form of a complex bureaucracy that aims to select and promote public officials that serve the public good. It’s an ongoing project.
是什么导致了“中国没有进行政治改革”的误解？What did result in this misunderstanding?
There is still a big gap between the ideal and the practice, but this is the big difference. Why is it that people in the West have this kind of fundamental misunderstanding about China?
Frankly speaking, because they work with a very simple dichotomy that there are two types of political systems. One is the good democracy, an electoral democracy, where public officials are selected by means of elections. Two, there’s the bad authoritarian regimes, all the rest that use non-electoral means of selecting leaders. So they lump all the different countries together: China, North Korea, family run dictatorships, Egypt, military dictatorships,
All of those countries are lumped in the same category. That’s ridiculous. The most obvious difference is that there has been this effort to re-establish and re-implement a strong form of political meritocracy with a complex bureaucracy that serves the people.
Now, here we are in times of COVID, China has done relatively well at dealing with COVID. Why? Because we have a strong and complex meritocratic system that implements policies that serve the public good.
贤能政治体制为什么适用于中国？Why does political meritocracy suit China？
“贤能政治”的定义？The Definition of "Political Meritocracy"
Political meritocracy is the ideal that everybody should have equal opportunity to be selected and to be promoted as a public official with above average ability and virtue.
So I’m going to argue that there’s been this gradual implementation of a political meritocracy, it’s political reform, right? Political change, yes, political progress since the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution, and that this political reform should continue to be informed by the ideal of political meritocracy over the next few decades.
为什么贤能政治适合中国国情？Why does political meritocracy suit china the best?
Well, I’m going to give three reasons, and the first has to do with the size of the country. China is a huge country. It’s different than Canada, where I’m from, in terms of population. I mean, relatively speaking in terms of population, Canada is quite small.
Now, what happens in a big country like China? The top leaders, those who are at the top, they make policies that are so complex, think of climate change, or think of foreign policy, it requires a lot of complex empirical information.
On climate change, you have to have knowledge of environmental science, you have to have knowledge of economics, you have to have knowledge of international relations. And these policies affect so many different stakeholders, not just the people now, but future generations, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now, and affects the rest of the world.
Those policies need to be made by public officials who have a good, proven track record, who have political experience, who have informed political judgment, who have superior ability, frankly speaking, who are intelligent and who have a good record of being committed to serving the public good.
You can’t randomly select such officials or sometimes leave it to low information voters. They have to have a good, strong record of public experience, of public service, and they have to have education and knowledge that allows them to make informed public judgments.
Now, it’s different at lower levels of government. I work at Shandong University, it’s actually pretty much in the countryside. I go to local communities, the issues there are much more easier, in some sense, less complex, right? Like how much compensation should we give to farmers who are being expropriated to build a hospital.
And for that, there’s actually elections whereby the village’s choose their own leaders, and they know who these leaders are, who’s corrupt, who’s not, it doesn’t require a lot of education experience. Elections work very well in that context.
In fact, Western political theorists in the past, prior to the twentieth century, were not so, kind of, dogmatic about what counts as a legitimate way of selecting leaders. It’s only after World War II that there’s been this kind of dogmatic consensus in the West that the only way of selecting public officials is by elections. It doesn’t depend on a country’s history, doesn’t depend on a country’s size, doesn’t depend on a country’s national conditions and so on.
So, in a big country like China, at higher levels of government, it’s much, much more important to have a meritocratic process to select higher level officials. That’s one reason why meritocracy is important, and why it should continue to inform political reform in China.
What’s the second reason? The second reason has to do with political culture, with history.
What is the dominant political culture of China? It’s political meritocracy. Confucius, Kongzi, over 2500 years ago, he changed the meaning of what it means to be a junzi, or exemplary person. Before him, a junzi is somebody who is basically an aristocrat, you’re there because of your family background, you’re there because of your bloodlines, basically.
Confucius says no. To be a junzi, and exemplary person, you have to have above average ability and virtue, and those people should be put in place to serve the community as a public official. Since then, it’s only slight exaggeration that dominant political culture in China has been an argument over how to select and promote officials with above average ability and virtue. Which abilities matter? Which virtues matter? How to assess virtues? How to assess abilities? What’s the relation between abilities and virtues? How to institutionalise political meritocracy?
贝淡宁认可中国古代的科举制度 Bell praises China's ancient examination system
Basically, the most famous invention in China is the examination system to select public officials. In Imperial China, there was a 1300 year history where public officials were selected first by examinations and then by performance evaluations at lower levels of government. Beautiful idea.
中国当下的公务员考试体系如何？How are the current public servant examinations?
The same idea was implemented, in form, more or less, in the last four decades. The content of the political meritocracy has differed. In the Ming and Qing Dynasty, the examinations tested more for knowledge of the Confucian classics.
Now, the examinations to be put on the road to political power, they’re more like high level IQ tests, they’re very, very, very difficult to those of you who have participated in those examinations, and then you have to prove yourself at lower levels of government, in a decades-long process to be selected and promoted at higher levels of government. That’s the dominant political culture of China.
If you want to establish a political system that is effective, and that can consolidate for the long term, it has to build on that political culture. And in the past four decades, there’s been this wave, we can call it this wave of political meritocracy, we have to continue to build on that wave and to improve it.
Two reasons why we should continue to have political meritocracy: one, it depends on the size of the country, two, it depends on the political culture of that country.
And it also depends on what the people think, that’s the most important third reason.
Political survey after political survey shows that ordinary people use political meritocracy to assess their own leaders. They want leaders who have above average ability and virtue, and when they lack virtue, when they’re corrupt, for example, when they misuse public funds for their own or for their family interest, then those leaders lack legitimacy, and frankly speaking, the whole political system lacks legitimacy.
That’s why corruption is such an existential threat to the political system here, it has to be dealt with, so that people have faith in their political meritocracy. So those are the three main reasons why we need to have political meritocracy in China. There has been this ongoing political reform, political change, yes, political progress, based on implementation of political meritocracy, and this ideal should continue to inform political change in China.
Now, when I give this talk in, I’m from Canada, in Canada or other Western countries, people say, oh! This guy is against democracy. Actually, no, I love democracy, democracy is a beautiful idea, and I think we need more political participation by the people.
As a population becomes more educated, naturally they want more say in government, and we should have much more democratic mechanisms in China. For example, I’ve already mentioned elections at lower levels of government, that’s a great idea. Or we can have sortition, to be consulted when it comes to political decisions. We should have democratic polling, is another great idea. We should have different forms of political participation, fine, we need all of that in the future.
So, on the one hand, we need more democracy, on the other hand, we need to have more political meritocracy. There’s no conflict, I am in favour of both. I love democracy, and I love political meritocracy. The only little, little amendment to my love of democracy, and I confess this gets me in trouble sometimes, is that I don’t think that we should use competitive elections to select leaders at higher levels of government.
贤能政治有哪些优势？What are the advantages of political meritocracy?
What are the advantages of political meritocracy? One is that all leaders have political experience, they have a proven record of good political judgment. If you were to use elections to select leaders at higher levels of government, the people could select leaders who have no political experience. Now again, think of the United States, the hopefully outgoing president, he was selected without any political experience. I mean that, frankly speaking, is dangerous.
We don’t know how these people are going to act, and look what happened. So if we have competitive elections to select leaders, it would undermine this main advantage of political meritocracy, which is that we can be sure that all leaders have political experience.
Another advantage of political meritocracy, all leaders can take a long term view. On issues like climate change, they could plan for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now, they don’t have to worry about the whole political organization is going to change or the ruling party is going to change in four or five years time.
If you were to use competitive election to select top leaders in the next election, you might have a totally different set of priorities. Very hard to plan for the long term. So we need to keep that advantage of political meritocracy.
Another advantage of political meritocracy, the leaders can spend their time thinking about appropriate policies that benefit the people. If you were to have competitive elections, what would happen? Think of the United States, the leaders there spend so much time raising funds, in fact, it’s wasting time.
Ideally, you want leaders to think about policy, not about raising funds. They give the same speech over and over again to different people. So my point is that if we were to have competitive elections to select top leaders, it would undermine the main advantages of political meritocracy.
So the basic point is that we need to have political meritocracy and we need democracy, short of one person, one vote, to select leaders at higher levels of government. It’s not a complex argument.
Sometimes, when I go to the West and I give this similar talk, they say, oh! You are against human rights, because you favour a particular form of government for China, but not for the rest of the world. No, I love human rights. People should have a right not to be tortured, innocent people shouldn’t be killed, genocide is bad, slavery is bad, those are universal, we don’t have to argue about that, only crazy terrorists would disagree on those issues.
But when it comes to selecting and promoting public officials, then we need to allow for a little bit of pluralism, a little bit of diversity, there is no one size fits all selection. It depends on the country’s size, on a country’s national conditions, on a country’s history and so on. It depends on what the people want. I think that’s hugely important, but when it comes to what’s an appropriate method to select public officials, then we should allow for a little bit pluralism, a little bit of open-mindedness.
When I go to Canada, where I’m from, and I present my views even to people that I love dearly, like my own family members, like my sister, I tell them this stuff, they look at me, and they say, you’ve been brainwashed. You’ve been living too long in China. I try to be polite. What I’m thinking in my mind, I don’t say it, in fact, I hope she doesn’t watch this video, I’m thinking you’ve been brainwashed living too long in the West, you need to be open-minded too.
So I’m going to conclude here. All I’m asking is a little bit of open-mindedness and humility. We should allow for morally legitimate differences when it comes to what’s an appropriate method to select and promote public officials. Let’s agree that there has been substantial political reform in China, still a huge gap between the ideal and the reality, but we should continue to reform, based on this ideal of political meritocracy, at higher levels of government, and democracy, short of competitive election to select top leaders.