Having successfully lobbied the removal of presidential and vice-presidential term limits in China, Xi Jinping now looks set to join the ranks of other populist authoritarian leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin who have used constitutional means to consolidate authoritarian power. While China watchers rightly worry about the long-term democratic implications of this move, it’s the country’s system of political meritocracy that may suffer the most immediate hit with the rise of China’s first strongman populist leader since Mao.
A ruler for life, even one as qualified as Xi, puts to the test the notion that the top of the political hierarchy will always be populated by the best, brightest, and most virtuous. It also jeopardizes China’s collective leadership and rotation of power, imperfect but important meritocratic mechanisms nonetheless put in place during the reform period to ensure the country’s disastrous experiment with authoritarian populism never gets repeated.
But the re-emergence of authoritarian populist politics in China damages political meritocracy’s reputation in another way as well. In recent years, advocates of political meritocracy have often claimed that one potential advantage to this system of government is its capacity to block the rise of populist political leaders.
In the 2016 paperback preface to his influential yet controversial book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, the political philosopher Daniel A. Bell contended that Western democracies differ from political meritocracies in the sense that democracies typically respond to troubled political and economic times by turning to “angry and insular populism that only looks inside for solutions” whereas meritocracies tend to continuously “innovate and learn from the rest of the political world.”
Writing elsewhere, Bell put it more bluntly, saying that were China to do away with its vertical model of democratic meritocracy today, there would be little to stop officials and citizens opting for populist solutions over policies that may be right if not always popular. In fact, the most likely outcome in his scenario, Bell believed, “would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces.”
In other words, why populist pressures haven’t been as prominent in a country like China is partly due to meritocratic measures that have ensured political officials and civil servants are selected and promoted based on their intellect, social skills, and virtue over family lineage, personal connections, and political popularity.
There is certainly some truth to these claims. Though there are scholars who consider China a meritocracy in name only, there’s little doubt that employing meritocratic attributes like intellect, social skills, and virtue as the basis for selecting and promoting political leaders has meant a populist like Donald Trump would unlikely rise to the pinnacle of political power in China.
Though much has been written about the American president’s “campaign against established knowledge” and his inability “to answer even rudimentary questions about policy”, the more damning indictment from the perspective of political meritocracy is that Trump and the democratic system that brought him to power not only tolerated but rewarded the openly debased behavior that helped the reality TV celebrity amass his fame and fortune. Indeed, Trump’s “bashing and pummeling” style of politics, to borrow David Brooks’ words, is precisely what would have disbarred him from consideration for top political posts in a political meritocracy, without even mentioning his absolute lack of political expertise and experience.
Of course, not all populist leaders lack appropriate meritocratic attributes. Some, such as France’s Marine Le Pen, can be described as shrewd political actors with established records of political achievement and the social savviness to appeal to large populations. Others, like the Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn, are able to boast stellar academic and intellectual credentials – like Xi, Fortuyn attained a PhD before entering politics. He was also a chair professor in sociology.
Even so, such populists would likely fall short where it matters most: on the attribute of virtue. For Bell, what makes political meritocracies distinct is the requirement that political leaders must act for the good of the whole community, not just a sub-section of it. This strikes against the heart of the populist modus operandi, which is to demonize the so-called ‘enemies of the people’.
Yes, championing the people’s cause is unquestionably virtuous. Yet when this occurs at the expense of an enemy ‘Other’ – a category that not only includes society’s elites but its lowliest and most vulnerable members as well – any claims to virtue are fundamentally undermined.
But Xi’s rise as a strongman populist leader has demonstrated that emphasizing a leader’s intellect, social skills, and virtue may not provide the safeguards against populist leadership that political meritocracy’s advocates have come to believe. Even before this latest episode, it was already clear to many that Xi was more than comfortable borrowing from populist playbooks; as Devin Stewart and Jeffrey Wasserstrom write, it’s hard to overlook the parallels between Xi’s China Dream vision and Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. Domestically, the Chinese leader’s popularity has increasingly become tied to his persona “as a virtuous husband, a friend to the toiling peasant and an enemy of the corrupt.”
There’s little doubt that these latest developments would worry even committed political meritocrats like Bell. But despite acknowledging that “politics cannot be completely free from populism”, the Qingdao-based political philosopher maintains that China’s political system has made leaps and bounds since Mao’s disastrous experiment with populism during the Cultural Revolution. Today, as he put it in an interview earlier this year, “[m]eritocracy is where mainstream political culture is in China”.
Yes, there’s still populism, factionalism, patronage, corruption, and lack of transparency in China. But that’s because the “process of ‘meritocratization’ in China is an ongoing and unfinished process”, according to Bell. These latest setbacks notwithstanding, the “best way for a virtuous political system to avoid populism is that the political hierarchy responds well to the needs of the people (not blindly responding to the needs of the people: rulers in virtuous politics need to consider the interests of all those affected by the policy, such as future generations and people abroad).” Both Xi and the CPC leadership as a whole have a long way to go in these respects.
The interesting question then becomes: if one day the process of meritocratization is completed, and virtuous politics becomes the CPC’s governing ideology, will we see less populist politics as Bell’s argument suggests?
The answer, at least according to Michael Young, the British sociologist who first popularized the term meritocracy, is probably no. If anything, his 1958 novel The Rise of Meritocracy, which has made a popular revival in the wake of events like Brexit and Trump’s election, tells us that a pure or perfected meritocracy is likely to produce more not less populism.
In Young’s story, set in a future United Kingdom, achievement has replaced ascription as society’s principal governing ideology. Those who rise to the top of the meritocratic hierarchy are, as Young put it, naturally “encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had.” For those who find themselves at the bottom of this hierarchy, though, bitterness and discontent soon erupt.
Though the “enduring genius” of meritocracy creates the illusion that makes the “resulting inequality appear like justice” – establishing what is essentially a “justly unequal” society in doing so – it also holds the germ from which populism grows. This is because contemporary populism, according to the twentieth-century sociologist Daniel Bell in his commentary on Young’s story, “is not for fairness, but against elitism; its impulse is not justice but ressentiment.”
And so, even if those who rise to the top of the meritocratic hierarchy are virtuous, socially-inclined, and intelligent, they will still have benefited from an inequitable if just hierarchy. Once burst, the meritocratic illusion is thus liable to bring forth popular ressentiment.
In this way, meritocracies are no more immune than democracies to the populist menace. Though theoretically structured to give all people a voice and the potential to hold positions of power, democracies are almost always inequitable, entrenching power in the hands of a minority and breeding resentment among the powerless.
Alex Goerlach and Dawn Nakagawa spell this claim out succinctly: “Chief among the flaws of representative democracy is that out of the many, few can be chosen to represent the people.” For them, this “inherent exclusivity makes the chosen few form – whether they wish to or not – a class of their own.”
Even the most virtuous or socially-minded political representative can, over time, lose touch with those they represent. The same is true in a meritocracy where only a select few will ever qualify for positions of leadership. Over time, this ruling elite will ossify and “the fluidity and dynamism unleashed by meritocracy” in its early phases will be “replaced by a rigid caste system.”
Abolishing term limits in China may be the first emblematic of sign of this ossification. It’s also vindication that the emergence of an oligarchy is not so much antithetical to the rise of meritocracy as its natural corollary.
But until China becomes like the fully-fledged meritocracy that we read of in Young’s story, when the need for society’s winners to justify their rank or appease the discontent of society’s losers is eradicated, leaders like Xi will have to continue to ease popular ressentiment by playing the populist even as they work to solidify their own grip on power.