In Summary

This article was orginally published on Inside Story.

Expert on politics and the history of China, Professor John Fitzgerald reviews The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, a book written by political philosopher Daniel A. Bell.

According to Fitzgerald, the book urges readers to see China as a meritocracy-in-progress, where political leaders are selected by merit, in contrast with the liberal West where leaders are publicly elected.

In his review, Fitzgerald is sceptical about Bell’s strong claims in favour of meritocratic rule in contrast to one-person one-vote electoral democracies and argues that the book presents limited evidence to warrant these claims.


When Tony Abbott defended the underrepresentation of women in his cabinet by claiming his appointments were based on merit, he was hardly the first Western leader to use this argument to explain how key office holders are selected. However implausible his claim, though, he certainly wasn’t trying to contrast selection by merit with selection by popular election.

In the West, merit is seen as the alternative to patronage or prejudice rather than a substitute for electoral politics. It would rarely occur to political leaders to contrast merit-based selection of public servants with the elections that brought them to office as political representatives.

This is the leap that Canadian political philosopher Daniel A. Bell asks us to take in The China Model. He invites us to consider the distinction between selecting political leaders by merit and selecting them through public election as a key point of difference between China’s system of government and systems practised in the liberal West.

China, Bell argues, is a developing meritocratic state. On the strength of the country’s achievements, which he attributes to its meritocratic style of government, he makes a number of strong claims in favour of meritocratic rule in contrast to one-person one-vote electoral democracies. Some of these claims are based on his reading of the Singapore model, which he considers transferable to China.

Bell argues that a system of leadership selection and promotions based on merit, rather than public election, is especially well-suited to China’s national conditions. More than that, he believes that China’s practice of merit-based appointments under single-party authoritarian rule represents a distinctive model that places China on the “right side of history.” He sets out to correct Western misrepresentations and set the record straight more broadly by offering what he terms “Chinese perspectives” on matters of government that receive little attention in the West.

Read the full article here.