What Pakistan Can Learn From the China Model

What Pakistan Can Learn From the China Model

Umar. I. Akhtar

China’s staggering economic success over the last four decades can be attributed to its distinct political model which is neither ‘liberal democracy’ nor ‘authoritarianism’ but rather, a ‘political meritocracy’. In this model, leaders with superior ability and virtue are promoted and selected. It is argued that this model is more suited to China’s culture, history and past political experiences. The idea of having selected authority at the top in Chinese political culture can be traced back to Confucius’s concept of ‘humane authority’.

Such a system is often backed with a belief that ordinary citizens are not motivated or adept enough to make sound political judgments based on morals and rational considerations. After all, the rise of the Nazi party in 1933 was a result of widespread electoral support. India being the second largest ‘democracy’ is another case in point where a fanatical and murderous BJP party has been voted in by the majority. Going back to the times of Athenian democracy, Plato saw the danger of it degenerating into ochlocracy, or mob rule, where rash, cruel and thoughtless group think rules the roost.

A view among Chinese intellectuals is that a large segment of the Chinese population is rural and uneducated and thus lacks the ability to vote judiciously for officials at the higher echelons of government. These intellectuals believe that once citizens acquire sound education and learning it would make sense to move towards a more democratic system. Given that Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates, the second largest out of school population, high poverty levels and no province immune to feudalism; it makes the Chinese experience worthy of serious consideration.

The Chinese Model can be viewed as a kind of authoritarianism infused with democratic characteristics. When Deng Xiaoping opened markets in 1978, he reformed the country’s bureaucracy and introduced ‘democratic features’ into the system such as increased accountability, competition and partial limits of power into China’s single-party system.

The Chinese model is meritocratic at the top and democratic at the bottom. At the local level, China has direct village elections and by 2008 more than nine hundred million Chinese farmers had exercised the right to vote. At the higher levels, China has evolved a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political talent.

Aspiring government officials must pass the public service examination with thousands competing for a single spot. Furthermore, these officials must have a proven record at lower levels of government. They go through rigorous tests and evaluations at each step moving up the chain of political command. 

The logic behind this model of ‘democratic meritocracy’ is that at the lower level you need a closer connection with the people. As you move to the central level, issues are more complex and you need a deeper understanding of economics, science, history, international relations and political philosophy. While being virtuous is necessary at all levels, the higher levels involve a broader area of governance and multiple factors need to be taken into account requiring a deeper interdisciplinary thinking process.

With the rigorous selection and screening  that takes places at higher levels of the Chinese Communist Party, the cadres also undergo trainings that include programs for public administration, consulting experts, learning from best practices abroad, rotational career posting through different sectors as well as cultivation of virtues such as compassion for the disadvantaged through working in poor rural areas for limited periods.

The Chinese political system ensures that officials and civil servants are selected and promoted based on their competence and virtue instead of family lineage, personal connections and political popularity. This ‘new model’ is in fact based on the ancient Chinese Political system of meritocracy, inspired by Confucius, who espoused ‘nobility of virtue over nobility of blood’.

According to Daniel A. Bell, the author of ‘The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy’, China’s phenomenal economic success can be attributed largely to this merit-based system of political appointment. A key reason why China considers merit based selection so important is because of the lessons learned from Mao Zedong’s extractive system and his disastrous experiment with populism in the ‘Cultural Revolution’ where mass hysteria led to the killing and persecution of millions of people including intellectuals, those with ties to the west orpeople viewed as ‘class enemies’ and members of the former Nationalist government by an indoctrinated youth targeting all of Mao’s perceived enemies.

China’s current meritocratic system with its economic successes is based largely on the wisdom of Confucius and hisunderstanding of divine laws and principles. He believed that political meritocracy requires that people be educated enough to make morally informed political judgments. By adopting this approach, the Chinese nation has been able to prosper at a rapid pace.

It is unfortunate that we have not focused well enough on education while allowing ourselves to be deviated from universal principles of truth, justice and fair-play, resulting in decades of poor governance. Our deeply entrenched extractive system, which is both a cause and an effect of a colonially inheritance, has allowed corruption to grow under dynastic, inheritance-based, non-meritocratic rule. While this is changing with the new regime, institutions will require continued reform for impactful and long-term development of the people.

The need of the hour is to make real and not just cosmetic changes to our political institutions so that divinely inspired principles and values can be reflected in them allowing for the objectives of the shariah to be achieved. The objective of shariah(the Maqasid), as explained by Imam al Ghazali, pertain to the safeguarding of the interests of the people. These relate to the individual self, development of intellect, protection and promotion of property, material, faith and posterity. It is only through safeguarding these elements in society that we can eventually become a model Welfare State based on the Islamic principles. For Confucius, a good government is moral and meritocratic while its ruler embodies moral excellence. The ruler would however need to appoint only those men as officials who share his commitment to high principles which include ensuring the social and material wellbeing of the people. 

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