Democracia y Política

Unnatural aristocrats


In China and its role model, Singapore, “meritocratic” leaders are under scrutiny

CLOSELY tracking the Shanghai Composite Index in its downward slide in August was the reputation of China’s government for consistency, competence and even common sense. Worse, its hapless response to the bursting of a stockmarket bubble, which its own propaganda had helped to inflate, was only one of a number of bungles. It mismanaged a modest devaluation of its currency, the yuan. And a catastrophic explosion in the northern port city of Tianjin revealed appalling lapses in the enforcement of regulations. All governments make mistakes. But China’s bases its legitimacy on its performance rather than a popular mandate. Now foreigners and citizens alike are asking whether the Chinese authorities have lost the plot.

Despite the rash of bad news, the Chinese Communist Party can still boast more than three decades of success in fostering spectacular economic growth and in raising China’s global standing. A few rough weeks do not give the lie to “the China model”—in which authoritarian one-party rule is said to be justified because it produces the social order and wise leadership that beget economic growth. Supporters of this idea like to point to the career paths of China’s leaders compared with those of democracies such as America. Barack Obama, they say, became president on the strength of little else but stirring oratory and effective fund-raising. In contrast, by the time he became Communist Party leader in 2012, Xi Jinping had worked his way up through party and government hierarchies and had served in both the party’s central bureaucracy and four provinces, each one bigger than many countries.

To the party’s admirers, Mr Xi sits at the apex of a pyramid in which cadres are promoted through proven excellence in doing their jobs and passing exams. It is a political system that aspires to meritocracy, offering a number of advantages over electoral democracy. It is not prey to short-term populist temptations when the next poll looms. Nor has it any interest in exploiting social tensions to win votes. And it is not inherently biased against those without a vote, such as future generations and foreigners. These advantages are discussed in a recent book by Daniel Bell, a Canadian academic who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing (“The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy”). Mr Bell concedes that the practice of meritocracy in China “often deviates from the ideal”. Mr Xi himself is a “princeling”, the “born-red” son of a party grandee. Some officials are promoted because of their loyalty to a patron; some positions are bought; some exams are sat by ringers. But Mr Bell holds up meritocracy as a valid ideal for China to be pursuing, as opposed to the “democratisation” urged by the West.

Meritocracy, it is argued, would also appear more in tune with traditional Chinese political culture. As George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore, claims in his endorsement of Mr Bell’s book: “Over many centuries…the institution that Chinese people have held in highest regard is their examination system, because it is meritocratic and objective.” In fact it was always prone to abuse, but it at least held out the illusion of fair criteria for promotion. And it is mirrored today in the public-service examinations that candidates for government jobs must sit. But just as in imperial times, when knowledge of classical texts was “not a sufficient test for political virtue”, so today, updated exams have signally failed to produce an ethical bureaucracy.

China’s leaders themselves prefer not to harp on about the virtues of imperial rule; the party prides itself, after all, on having created a “new China”. But they are not shy of showing admiration for Chinese-majority Singapore, despite its different ideological moorings. Singapore, they believe, is a meritocracy that works. In an election on September 11th Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since before full independence in 1965, is all but certain to win again. That will be taken in Beijing as yet another vindication of Singapore’s authoritarian but meritocratic style. Incumbency (and much else) gives the PAP an electoral advantage. But the PAP can also point to a record of stellar economic success, social order and clean government.

Even in Singapore, however, not everybody feels meritocracy is working. In a lecture in April Ho Kwon Ping, a tycoon and prominent intellectual, fretted that the Singapore model risks becoming a “static meritocracy” which “creates a self-perpetuating elite class”. He cited statistics showing that 63% of university-educated fathers had children with university degrees, compared with 12% of fathers with no more than a primary education.

Demerit points

In the previous election in 2011 the PAP won in its usual landslide, but its share of the vote, 60%, was its lowest since independence. A number of concerns dented its popularity: property prices; the rate of immigration; crowded public transport. But perhaps its biggest problem is the perception that it has become a self-serving elite. It may not have helped that the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, referred in July to the need for a “natural aristocracy”. It was a reference to Thomas Jefferson, who contrasted such a class, based on “virtue and talents”, with an “artificial” aristocracy grounded in birth and wealth. But it touched a nerve: in Singapore, as in China and elsewhere, the children of the successful do better than others. (Mr Lee’s father, Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, argued that talent is hereditary, but that cannot be more than part of the story.) Even a second-generation elite can become an artificial aristocracy.

Singapore at least gives voters the chance to purge the ruling elite through elections. In 2011 Mr Yeo, a respected minister, lost his seat. China’s system, however, offers its citizens no such hope. Without democratic accountability, its meritocratic pretensions are no more than what they were to the imperial dynasties: a way of making dictatorship more efficient and more palatable.

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