China’s rise has attracted global attention and many have focused on China’s economic model behind its rise which is of course important. But China’s evolving political change has been somehow ignored by many. In fact without much fanfare, China has established a system of meritocracy or what can be described as ‘selection plus election’. Competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and broad support, through a vigorous process of screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and various types of elections. This is much in line with the Confucian tradition of meritocracy. After all, China is the first country that invented civil service examination system or the ‘Keju’ system. Today, China practises – not always successfully, but on the whole successfully, meritocracy across the whole political stratum. Criteria based on poverty eradication, job creation, local economic growth, social development, increasingly, environmental protection, are all key criteria for selecting and promoting officials.
A good example of this was the profile of China’s new leaders elected at the 19th Party Congress. Six of the seven of the top leaders, members of the standing committee of the Politburo have run provinces or province-level municipalities, many of which in terms of population or GDP are equivalent to many nations combined. Indeed, the Chinese system of meritocracy today, makes it inconceivable that anyone as weak as George W. Bush or Donald Trump could ever come close to the position of the top leadership. It’s not far-fetched to claim that the China model is more about leadership rather than the showmanship as it is in the West. China’s meritocratic governance challenges the stereotypical dichotomy of democracy versus autocracy. From Chinese point of view, the nature of the state including its legitimacy, has to be defined by its substance, that is, good governance, competent leadership and success in meeting the people’s needs So despite its many deficiencies, the Chinese polity has delivered the world’s fastest growing economy and has vastly improved the living standards for most Chinese. Winston Churchill’s famous dictum “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried” may be true in the Western political and cultural context. And many Chinese even paraphrase Churchill’s remark into what Sun Tzu, China’s military strategist of the 6th century BC called “Xiaxiace”, or the least bad option, which means a system that would allow for the exit of bad leaders through regular elections. But in China’s Confucian tradition of meritocracy, a state should always strive for what’s called “ShangShangCe.” or the best of the best options, by choosing leaders of the highest caliber. This is by no means easy, but efforts to this end should be ceaseless and continuous. China’s political and institutional arrangements and innovations so far have produced a system, which has in many ways combined the best option of selecting well-tested competent leaders and the least bad option of ensuring the exit of the leaders, who should exit for all kinds of reasons, through for instance, a collective leadership or age limits. China’s model of ‘selection plus election’ is by no means perfect. It’s still being improved upon. But it’s well positioned to compete with the Western model of popular democracy.