For a young Montrealer growing up in the 1960s and 70s, China seemed like a far away, almost imaginary place, with utopian communities like Shangri-La and Xanadu (I’ve since visited both places – Xanadu is a patch of grassland in Inner Mongolia and “Shangri-La” is a small town in Yunnan province that has been renamed to attract foreign tourists). My only experience with the country consisted of “Chinese” food such as chop suey and fried egg rolls (it turns out those dishes are not served in China). If it’s possible to get basic facts so wrong, how is it possible to understand Chinese politics from so far away? Like many Westerners of my generation, I first paid attention to Chinese politics in May 1989. At that time, Tiananmen Square was occupied by more than one million prodemocracy student demonstrators. It was an exhilarating period, the people taking charge of their political destiny and pushing for political reform of an authoritarian system, with the whole world seemingly on their side. For me, it was an especially exhilarating time because I met and fell in love with a young Chinese woman who would become my wife. As graduate students in Oxford, we participated in marches and demonstrations in support of the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Just about every overseas Chinese student joined the marches. But the whole thing came crashing down on June 4th, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping ordered the army to violently crush the prodemocracy movement, killing hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Beijing. It was state power at its most naked and brutal, and it plunged overseas Chinese students into depression. My wife told me she would never return to China. And I had to give up my dreams of visiting the country. Or so we thought. In 2003, we moved to Beijing, and we’ve been here ever since. I teach political theory at Tsinghua University, a university famous for training future political leaders, and my wife works for a leading U.S.-based investment bank in China. I still think the government was wrong to kill peaceful protesters – and it will have to apologize eventually – but I also think I was wrong to cheer for the protesters. In retrospect, my political sympathies seemed to have been a form of self-love: I cheered for them because they seemed to be aspiring to a form of life similar to my own.
Since then, however, I’ve made a serious effort to engage with, and learn from, the leading political debates in China. Academics and political reformers in Beijing argue about which qualities matter for political leaders and how best to select leaders with those qualities. They also argue about how best to limit the power of meritocratically selected leaders and how to reconcile democracy and meritocracy. These questions are not typically asked in Western political debates, but they are hugely important in China. My book The China Model:Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2015; paperback ed. 2016) is an effort to think about those questions in a systematic way.
On the face of it, my approach should not be too controversial: it’s an argument for taking Chinese political theory and institutions seriously and for the view that Chinese political culture and history should serve as the main standards for judging political progress (and regress) in China. It would seem odd to defend an argument for, say, reforming Canadian political institutions according to Confucian values, and it should seem equally odd to argue for reforming the Chinese political system according to the political values I learned as a child that owe nothing to the Chinese experience.
That said, my book has drawn its fair share of critical fire. Why the opposition? Perhaps the most important reason is reflexive attachment to the view that liberal democracy is the only defensible form of government (the “end of history”): more precisely, one person, one vote is the only morally legitimate way of selecting political rulers and it is morally perverse to suggest otherwise. So why bother drawing upon different political ideals in China’s own culture and institutions? Well, my book argues that vertical democratic meritocracy – the idea that democracy works best at local levels, and the political system should become progressively more meritocratic at higher levels of government -- is a morally legitimate and politically realistic alternative that we need to take seriously if we want to understand and evaluate Chinese politics. There is still a large gap between the ideal and the reality in China, but vertical democratic meritocracy can and should serve as standard for evaluating political progress (and regress) in a Chinese political context where the ideal has a long history, has inspired political reform over the past three decades, and is widely supported by the people according to reliable political surveys.
I do not expect that all (or even most) readers of the Montreal Review will agree with what I say – I have trouble convincing my own family in Montreal (that said, I’ve always had trouble convincing them of anything). But please keep in mind that this is a book about China, not Canada, and I do not expect that leading Chinese political ideals will serve as an inspiration for reforming Canadian politics any more than I expect leading Canadian political ideals will serve as an inspiration for reforming Chinese politics. I do not deny that there can be mutual learning – Chinese food is now much better (and authentic) in Montreal, and I’m even happier to report that there are many fans of the Montreal Canadiens in Beijing – but when it comes to politics, we need to allow for the possibility of morally legitimate difference.