Stone Statue

The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy

Study Group Review of Daniel A. Bell

The first pick of our newly started Study Group was Daniel A. Bell’s “The China Model”. The Reading Group aka the China nerd book club, aims to read a book on or out of China – both fiction and academic – every six weeks. We already failed on this deadline for our first round, but things can only get better, can’t they? If you have reading suggestions, please send a mail to Julia to name your choice! We discuss the books we’ve read over Discord three weeks after picking them. That talk is open to anyone who wants to join – again, write to Julia to be added to the group.

“The China Model” was probably not the best book we’ll read this year, but the topic is at least highly controversial: What advantages does the China Model – which for Bell means democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy at the top – have over the democratic version of choosing political leaders?

Anyone at home in the political sciences has probably heard of political meritocracy at least once in their introduction to political thought, where meritocracy was most likely reduced to the idea of very smart men aiming to find a way to stay in power for as long as possible. What lies at the heart of meritocracy, i.e. the question of how to choose “capable” leaders, especially in times in which social mobility is finally starting to erode in its understanding of being something natural you only have to work hard for and implications of gender, race and class are being taken into stronger account – is barely tackled by Bell. Instead, he first gives an overview of the limits of democracy, criticizing amongst others that lobbying groups and the voting population can assert great, and to some extent, unfair amounts of influence on policymaking, while the interests of those not yet eligible to vote (due to age or citizenship) aren’t as well represented within the political marketplace. This leads us straight to one of the biggest analytical problems we discussed with regards to Bell. He is using a minimal definition of democracy – one person, one vote – to compare the political system of one country only – the US – to a highly ideal type of meritocracy as it could be in China. Now it didn’t take Trump for most to guess that there had to be a serious flaw in a political system that does not consider clear water an essential human right. In fact, most of the critique Bell employs against democracy cannot be easily conferred to other democratic states. But the idea obviously is interesting; in times in which populism threatens democratic values from within, one starts to wonder what we would have to do to get rid of the demagogues populating political discourse in a number of European states, too.

Is meritocracy the answer? According to Bell, yes, but only in parts and only if we stupid democrats (as in people that consider themselves democratic, not the US political party) could finally get a hold of ourselves and get over this whole ‘one person, one vote’ thing. The democratic voting system is in Bell’s view an obviously idealistic construct which has been proven wrong by voters choosing “incapable” leaders (and from the voting community itself –  if you believe that being born in any given country on this world is just sheer dump luck instead of a reason of pride, Bell’s claim is rather hard to discount given recent election results in most established democracies). While he admits that the political system in China and the US system share some negatives – the existence of political factions, increasing class and social divides, not enough women in politics – Bell is convinced that the Confucian tradition of China goes hand in hand with meritocracy.  He does not consider his argument to be invalid even if China is also facing some other problems not seen in most (Western) democracies (as in corruption and we probably shouldn’t be looking to closely at what the CCP does in Xinjiang). Now, most of us at Mapping China are not historians but most of us also share a healthy suspicion against any white authors going on and on about thousands of years of Chinese history coupled to the claim that we need to understand Chinese history to understand modern China. Nonetheless, history and Confucian tradition is where Bell derives most of his reasoning for a meritocratic rather than a democratic rule in China ). The reading group unfortunately failed to decide whether Chinese meritocratic history has intrinsic value for China today (as said before, we are not historians), but Bell appears to be nit-picking Chinese history for his arguments. We’d like to hear more thoughts on this though!

All in all, we enjoyed discussing Bell’s book, especially because it doesn’t give easy answers to the original question Bell poses at the beginning: if there is no democracy in China, how will its political system look like? Bell himself doesn’t help because he ends his argument before going into depth on how China can make sure to employ structures that will really choose the virtuous leaders he is envisioning. The other question that Bell discussed both implicitly and explicitly – whether or not democracy can learn from meritocracy – is also not easy to answer. On the one hand this is because Bell completely disregards any features of democracy apart from elections. On the other hand, he does not talk much about how political discontent among citizens could reach the top leadership or how the interplay of democratic features at the bottom without involvement at the top could play out. Last but not least, Bell is obviously much concerned with a highly state-centrist way of working that is big on rightful authority and less interested in perspectives of citizens. This has earned him some harsh criticism of being a mouthpiece of the CCP and of mitigating the history of political violence in China. That he received the Huilin prize in 2018 – awarded for promoting Chinese culture abroad – is definitely not surprising. Yet, with a little more realism regarding a broader definition of democracy, a little more fairness in terms of the comparison between an ideal type and real conditions and a little more detail on China’s meritocratic system as it is and as it realistically can be, we would have all benefitted more from reading Bell than we did. Some of his criticisms of democracy hit home though, especially referring to uninformed voters. Ignoring the classist sentiment, the question does remain how we as a voting population can organize ourself to increase the flow of information to everyone and make choices that not only benefit us, but also the non-voting population, such as future generations and people with no voting rights, or in other words: How can we become responsible enough to not need a meritocratic leader to make decisions for us?


Racism as Dissent? – Harmonious Society, Internet Sovereignty, and Discussing Ethnic Minority in State-Regulated Cyberspace

by Lin Zihao


In this essay, the author wants to explore how discussions of ethnic minority are embedded in a wider public discursive field in Chinese domestic digital sphere in contrast to the global cyberspace. Before carving out the netizen mentality, the concepts of “harmonious society” (Chinese: hexie shehui) and “Internet sovereignty”, two defining official discourses developed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the ruling entity of PRC, since the new millennium, are introduced. Under the moral stances of social harmony guarded through means of state-sponsored online regulation, Chinese netizens are positioned in a state where certain boundaries of free speech are pinned down: ethnic hatred and religious discrimination become heavily censored issues. To fulfill a harmonious socialist vision, the state actors take pain to promulgate positive images of ethnic minorities in digital media. With strict online content regulation on the other hand, overt racism/ ethnic hatred is prohibited and hugely marginalized. This is in no way asserting Chinese blogosphere as a trouble-free utopia: the author illustrates further how certain netizens shun perceived punishment or social pressure, negotiate their counterattacks on state-dominant narratives and, eventually, racialize heated discussions.


Read the fifth Mapping China Working Paper of 2017 here.

Einführung Politische Partizipation in der Volksrepublik China

Im Zuge wirtschaftlicher Liberalisierung verändert sich auch die Interaktion zwischen Staat und Gesellschaft. Das alte institutionelle Gefüge verliert seine Effektivität und zunehmend individualisierte Momente der Interaktion gewinnen für die Stabilität und Legitimität eines politischen Systems an Bedeutung.[1] Während in China die individuelle Selbstorganisation der Gesellschaft zuvor durch ein strikt hierarchisches und zentralistisches System verhindert wurde, brachten die Reformen eine zunehmende politische Pluralisierung.

Auf Grundlage dieser Veränderungen wird oft eine zwangsläufige Entwicklung hin zu liberalen demokratischen Strukturen erwartet. Tatsächlich haben sich solche Vorhersagen für die VR China bisher aber nicht bewahrheitet. Stattdessen scheint das politische System Chinas einen „Black Swan“ der Politikwissenschaft darzustellen: „Conventional political science models of regime types and regime transitions, constructed around dichotomous systemic categories stemming from the Cold War period (“from dictatorship to democracy,” “from plan to market,” and so forth) assign almost no adaptability to Communist party-states. (…) China has not taken the road anticipated by Western social scientists and desired by Western publics. Marketization has not spelled democratization” (Heilmann 2013).[2]

Wir verzichten bei diesem Schwerpunktthema deshalb bewusst auf die Bezeichnung „Demokratisierungsprozesse“ und möchten stattdessen zeigen, welche Kanäle zur politischen Partizipation in einem vertikal und horizontal stark fragmentierten politischen System existieren.

Formen politischer Partizipation

In Demokratien stellen Wahlen die offensichtlichste Form politischer Partizipation dar. Da die Ein-Partei-Herrschaft der Kommunistischen Partei in China ein Imperativ darstellt, besteht keine Möglichkeit auf kompetitive nationale Wahlen in China. Weiterhin muss bedacht werden, dass existierender Partizipationsformen in China konditionell gegeben sind: „(…) pluralization and the considerably expanded sphere for political participation are (…) only conditionally granted by the PRC” (Yu 2009).[3]

Vor diesem Hintergrund, stellen wir im Schwerpunktthema „Politische Partizipation in China“ nach und nach die verschiedenen Möglichkeiten politischer Partizipation vor – zu denen sowohl institutionalisierte als auch nicht institutionalisierte Formen zählen. In der Folge werden beispielhaft zwei Kanäle politischer Partizipation vorgestellt. Die ersten beiden Beispiele stellen institutionalisierte Formen politischer Partizipation dar.  In zukünftigen Beiträgen werden aber auch Momente erfolgreicher – oder nicht erfolgreicher – Versuche vorgestellt, bei denen Individuen bestimmte Ziele durch politische Partizipation zu erreichen versuchen. Diese können sowohl selbstgerichtet sein – die Verteidigung seines Grundstücks gegen den Abriss (钉子户) – oder auch Proteste mit größerer Reichweite, wie zum Beispiel die Occupy-Bewegung (占领)[4] , oder andere Proteste gegen lokale Missstände.


Dorfwahlen – oder grassroot elections – stellen eine der bekanntesten Kanäle für politische Partizipation dar. Dorfwahlen wurden 1998 durch das „Organic Law of Villagers“ Komitee der Volksrepublik China eingeführt. Durch diese Methode der „Selbstregulierung“ oder des „rule by the people“  soll die Regierungseffizienz erhöht werden, indem (lokale) Kader für ihr Handeln verantwortlich gemacht werden.  Das benannte Gesetz sieht vor, dass die Wahlen frei und fair gestaltet werden und in periodischen Abständen durchgeführt werden. Es hat sich allerdings gezeigt, dass diese Wahlen von den Dorfbewohnern oft nicht als effektive Praxis wahrgenommen werden, um kompetente Kader auszuwählen oder korrupte Kader verantwortlich zu machen. Zudem haben Cheng und Li (2015) gezeigt, dass lediglich ein Viertel bis ein Fünftel der Wahlen kompetitiv ablaufen.

Deliberative Budgeting

Deliberatives Budgeting – oder „paritipatory budgeting“/“consultative budgeting“ – wird von Sintomer et al. (2012) als „(…) the participation of non-elected citizens in the conception and/or allocation of public finances“ definiert. Nach dem Vorbild von Porto Alegre (Brasilien), hat die Einführung dieses Mechanismus in Wenling (温岭市) zu einem Erfolg geführt, der mittlerweile auch die Unterstützung hochrangiger Politiker bekommt und einen Durchbruch für „grassroot Partizipation“ bedeuten könnte (Cheng and Li 2015). Der Bürger bekommt durch diesen Mechanismus die Möglichkeit an Sitzungen teilzunehmen, in denen über die Verwendung öffentlicher Ausgaben entschieden wird. Auf diese Weise wird nicht nur die Effektivität und Verantwortlichkeit im Haushalt erhöht, sondern auch die Korruption gesenkt und der Bürger als Teil der Zivilgesellschaft gestärkt.

Neben dem Fokus auf Formen politischer Partizipation als solche, bietet es sich ebenfalls an, diese in einen größeren Kontext zu setzen. So ist es denkbar, die Bedeutung politischer Partizipation für die Regime-Legitimität zu beleuchten oder gegenwärtige Trends und politische Entwicklungen in Zusammenhang zur Zivilgesellschaft zu bringen.

Nächster CfP: voraussichtlich Herbst 2017

Zur einführenden Lektüre eignen sich:

Béja, Jean-Philippe (2006), “The changing aspects of civil society in China.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 73 (1), 53-74.

Hu, Zongze (2008), “Power to the People? Villagers’ self-rule in a North China village from the locals’ point of view.” Journal of Contemporary China 17 (57), 611-631.

Shaw, Victor N. (1996) “Mainland China’s Political Development: is the CCP’s version of democracy relevant?” Issues & Studies 32 (7), 59 – 82.

Yongshun Cai (2009), “Social Conflicts and Modes of Action in China”, The China Journal, No. 59, 89-109.

Wei Pan (2003), “Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China”, Journal of Contemporary China, 12 (34), 3-43.

[1] Heberer, Thomas; Schubert, Gunter (2008), Politische Partizipation und Regimelegitimität in der VR China Band I: Der urbane Raum. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften / GWV Fachverlage GmbH, Wiesbaden.

[2] Heilmann (2013), Embracing Uncertainty – Guerrilla Policy Style and Adaptive Governance in China, China Analysis 103, online verfügbar:

[3] Yu, Keping (2009), Democracy and the rule of law in contemporary China. Edited by Yu Keping. Leiden, Boston.

[4] Weitere Informationen zu der Occupy Bewegung in China finden sich unter anderem auf der Homepage von Chinahush



Arthur studiert einen Master in Chinese Studies an der Universität Leiden und befindet sich gerade in Jinan, wo er einen einjährigen Aufenthalt als Teil seines Masterstudiums absolviert. Bei Mapping China arbeitet er als Editor.