ASK A GROUP of Chinese friends how they deal with restaurant checks and they’ll tell you that one friend always pays for the rest (usually after a prolonged bout). Among my Western friends, the bill is often split among participants. The contrast reflects a difference of priorities: for my friends in the West, splitting the bill is desirable because it leads to a fair and equal outcome; but in China, equality isn’t always what matters. Sometimes, as in the case of paying the bill, virtuous behavior — a display of kindness, a touch of generosity — trumps the demands of fairness. The mountain of monetary debt I owe to my Chinese friends is a testament to this fact.

This gets at an unsettling truth about moral actions. Although the Declaration of Independence claims that it is “self-evident” that all men are created equal, some virtues are only attainable from unequal positions: you can’t begin to describe a good parent, coach, teacher, or doctor without speaking of a superior and an inferior. When we think of these figures as role models — as we often do — inequality is a precondition; it is not in spite of their superiority, but because of it, that they are seen as targets for our adoration. Hierarchies can be launchpads for success.

Westerners have long believed that their political success derives, in part, from their individualistic and egalitarian values. Yet recently, China’s growing political and economic clout — and its increasing assertiveness on the global stage — has challenged the familiar story of American exceptionalism. Might China’s meritocratic system, and its implicit commitments to hierarchy, be the secret of its extraordinary success?

The political scientist Daniel Bell belongs to a cadre of Confucian-inspired meritocrats who has pondered this question at length. In 2015, he argued in The China Model that a political meritocracy, in its ideal form, can outperform electoral democracies. China’s rise meant that democracy’s purchase on moral supremacy was waning. Less obvious, however, was Bell’s argument that an idealized, hierarchical system modeled on present-day China contained the seeds for an attractive alternative. It’s one thing to claim that a hierarchical system is politically viable — with China, this much has been proven by its historic rise; but it’s another thing to claim that such a system can command moral legitimacy and respect. The latter requires another book.

Daniel Bell and Pei Wang’s Just Hierarchy is a colorful exploration of the moral justifications behind elements of China’s success. Their thesis — a simple truism among Chinese but a potential setback for Western progressives — is that not all social hierarchies are bad, some are good, and a fixation on equality leaves little room to appreciate the benefits of the good ones. The authors are quick to denounce hierarchies on the basis of ascriptive categories such as race, sex, caste, and appearance (a qualification that injects a dose of progressivism into the aging corpus of Confucian thought). But this leaves other kinds of hierarchies, such as those based on age or merit, unexplained. We do not, for example, instinctively write off relationships between parents and children or teachers and students even though inequality is a shared feature of them all. What, then, makes these hierarchies different?

One justification, according to the authors, is reciprocity. We often assume that hierarchies result in an uneven distribution of benefits. But this is because the kinds of hierarchies we imagine — such as those based on race, class, and caste — are expressly designed to advantage the powerful. Some hierarchies, however, are meant to benefit the subordinates. Ask any teacher and they will likely tell you that their relationship with their students can be mutually beneficial. The authors even contend that some hierarchies exhibit more reciprocity than egalitarian relationships. In countries that value filial piety, for example, parents retain a higher status relative to their children over their entire lifetime. Generational hierarchies create a set of reciprocal obligations that are hard to replicate otherwise: parents must oversee their child’s emotional and moral growth when they are young, and, in return, children must take care of their parents when they’re old. This makes the egalitarian alternative — where children, upon reaching adulthood, are regarded as independent equals — seem less reciprocal by contrast.

Another justification of hierarchy is dynamism. No matter how deserved one’s economic or social privileges may be, they can become unjust when passed into the next generation. The problem, then, is not with hierarchies per se, but with ossified hierarchies — the cultural associations tied to skin color, the excessive transfer of intergenerational wealth, and the barriers to geographic and social mobility — that make them especially “sticky.”

From the personal, the authors next move to the political. In a nod to Bell’s previous book, they suggest that China-style political meritocracy can be a case of justified hierarchy. Their reasons are twofold. The first is contextual: political hierarchies can be just in China because its past is primed for it, and its people receptive to it. Two intellectual traditions inform China’s meritocratic lineage. During the Qin dynasty, Legalism (which prioritized social order) informed the creation of a complex bureaucracy and a heavy-handed state. Up until the Republican Revolution of 1911, these doctrines formed the basis of the meritocracy, which appointed leaders based on a rigorous series of examinations. The contemporary Chinese regime has abandoned the traditional examination system, but its current process of selecting leaders, the authors claim, retains much of the exam’s meritocratic ethos.

It’s true that a society’s past plays a role in its future. Indeed, according to John Rawls, the preeminent liberal philosopher, a concept of justice must draw from ideas implicit in a society’s “background culture.” At the same time, a society’s political options are never exhausted by its past. (Hong Kong and Taiwan are culturally and historically Chinese, yet they have enjoyed democracy for decades.) The contextualist view, while a necessary buffer against liberal hegemony, can also slip into relativism: without the room for nuance, it can devolve into dangerous slogans — a bastion for conservative dogma, a weapon against progressivism, and an absolution from moral indictment.

The second reason applies more broadly. “Political meritocracy,” the authors write, “may be particularly appropriate in a time of fast technological change and unpredictable global shocks.” The current state of globalization and technological disruption has increased the stakes of political leadership, and thus competent leaders should now be prized over representative ones. The pandemic has lent some credence to this view: so far, the virus has accentuated the ruthless efficiency of China’s leaders, while exposing the indecisiveness of their US counterparts. But Bell and Wang’s alternative is not without costs either: “Political meritocracy is not compatible with competitive elections at the top,” the authors write, “because electoral democracy for top leaders would undermine the advantages of a system that aims to select and promote leaders with experience, ability, and virtue.”

As Bell and Wang rightly point out, democracies have difficulty planning for the long haul. Periodic elections incentive politicians to reap short-term rewards that can make it in time for election season. Meanwhile, China’s Xi Jinping has already laid out his plan to become a global leader in emerging technologies by 2025, and a global superpower by 2050. But this is both a blessing and a curse. The same mechanisms that inhibit democracies from realizing grand strategies also protect them from grand catastrophe. In 2018, Xi abolished term limits to become China’s ruler in perpetuity. When faced with uncertainty, the meritocrat chooses self-extension; the democrat elects for self-preservation.

The authors are careful not to overstep their bounds, acknowledging that their arguments may not hold much sway in the West. For a more ambitious project, a reader should turn to Against Political Equality by Tongdong Bai, a philosopher from Fudan University and a law professor at NYU. He shares many of the same intellectual influences as Bell and Wang, but if their book is an exercise in moral excavation — the recovery of values lost — Against Political Equality is an attempt at moral reinvention: the search for values coveted. Bai is looking for a political model that transcends cultural barriers, one that bring out the best of both the East and Western traditions. “The ideal regime,” Bai writes, “would be a mixture of these Confucian models and some other [Western?] political models.”

Bai is a staunch supporter of the liberal order, defending the primacy of individual rights and the rule of law. In this way, he is no China apologist, acknowledging that the current regime is a far cry from the ideal he proposes. But he is also a Confucian who believes in the legitimacy of the benevolent ruler. As such, Bai proposes that one chamber of a bicameral legislature be elected by merit. Proposals include nominations from the lower house and local legislatures, an examination, or a quota system that would bring together leaders from all facets of society including military veterans, industry heads, scientists, and activists. Meanwhile, a democratically elected chamber can remain, for although Confucius denied the right for citizens to rule equally, he acknowledged that the legitimacy of the rulers ultimately derived from the people. A meritocracy is therefore not a total rebuke of democracy. Bell and Wang also admit that the current Chinese regime’s approach to legitimacy based on economic performance is unsustainable, and that “democracy is necessary to save political meritocracy in China.”

Although the meritocrats draw their ideas from Confucian philosophy, their circumscribed view of public participation has an uncanny resemblance to early American republicans. Federalists such as Hamilton and Madison were well known for their skepticism of popular rule. To allay their fears, they created a representative system that could select men of “merit” (read: white propertied men) who could “refine and enlarge the public views” — a cosmetic phrase for the distrust of the underprivileged. Furthermore, up until the 20th century, the selection process for the president was far from democratic: they were controlled by party insiders in the same manner as one of Bai proposals. State legislatures would choose their “electors” who would then select the president based on the directives of the party bosses. That constant feeling of institutional clutter and sclerosis that afflicts contemporary politics is a vestige of early republican designs. It is why, every four years, Americans think they are voting for their president, when in fact they are impeded by that vexing obstacle known as the Electoral College.

That the ideal meritocracy across both books resembles parts of the early American republic is informative. It suggests that the search for the “best” and the impulse to disqualify and disenfranchise the “worst” are really opposite sides of the same coin. Whether a system can truly claim to uplift the worthy without simultaneously denigrating the “unworthy” has yet to be seen, but one finds little encouragement from American history. Throughout the 20th century, progressive reforms to expand the vote moved republican America closer to a democracy. But more recently, the pandemic, along with the domestic crisis in race relations, have laid bare the incompetence of democratically elected leaders. All this raises the question: Which way should we move the needle now? Might a post-pandemic world demand less democracy and more meritocracy?

Constructive projects in non-Western political theory are more than a set of arguments. They’re also a lesson in cultural interpretation: we often judge our own societies by our ideals and other societies by their practices. When we do so, we assume that other societies lack ideals; that, unlike us, they have exhausted their options, swept their mistakes under the rug, and forsaken progress. Even if you are not convinced by the arguments in these books, they will nevertheless make you more aware of this kind of ethnocentric thinking. Just as splitting the bill might not always be the right answer in a given context, democratic equality might not always be the best solution to a volatile and unpredictable world. The search for better alternatives is still in its infancy. Until we find it, dinner is on me.

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Chang Che is a freelance writer on contemporary China and US politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @changxche.