How Europe is catching up with the Chinese on Political Thought, slowly...

"We practically know the West like the palm of our hand, but the West’s vision of the East is still a murky confusion. It is thus self-evident who would hold an advantageous position should there be any conflict in the future between the two." --Ji Xianlin


HONG KONG – In April 2013, Germany’s most influential weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, featured a provocative article entitled:

I don’t believe that democracy is the best way.”

Those words belong to Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian professor of political theory at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

It is time to talk about non-Western models of government: Political Meritocracy

In that article, German correspondent Christian Rickens reported from a conference at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) in Hong Kong. He begins with an introduction of the current global situation and how the Western financial crisis seemed to have unsettled Western intellectual elite, including Nobel Prize winners and Western philosophers. Meanwhile, China looks predestined to overtake the USA as the next superpower in a decade or two. How did China do it?

Well, Mr. Rickens goes on and describes Professor Bell, a renowned “Confucian philosopher and scholar,” who explained at the Economic Think tank how, among other things, Western politicians and top leaders shouldn't be elected; instead they should be selected according to their intellectual ability and moral character - just like in China. Mr. Bell argued that the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), while not perfect, may be the closest resemblance to what he called a true "political meritocracy."

This isn't the 20th century

The article attracted a lot of attention in the German-speaking world, not just for its mentioning the fact that had Professor Bell given a similar talk on German soil he would probably have earned himself an entry in the annual report of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In Germany, such anti-Democracy rhetoric would almost certainly attract the attention of the German intelligence service (the 'Verfassungschutz').

Mr. Rickens continued that although Prof. Bell was little known in Germany (true, until now that this), his popularity in the Anglophone West - in particular the United States and Britain - couldn't be denied – he authored several books, and also published regular columns in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and the British Guardian. Mr. Rickens, therefore, politely asks his readers to bear with him.

The 'Confucian Constitution'-Incident

Many China observers regard Daniel A. Bell’s ‘A Confucian Constitution for China‘ (an opinion piece published in The New York Times, co-authored by JIANG Qing), as yet his finest provocation toward the Western establishment.

Mr. Bell became famous in the US over night, despite harsh criticism from left and right. In a nutshell, the professor's challenge to the West seems to be this: Why is everyone criticizing China’s political system when in reality that very system has lifted China out of poverty and back into world history (it became the world’s largest trading nation in 2013, and overtook Japan as the second biggest economy in terms of its GDP)? While China's political thought seems to offend Western liberalism and political theory, he says, the CPC with its 72 million members has its merits.

The CPC has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty – it is a role model?

The Spiegel article continues that Professor Bell believed that (Western) democracy was flawed in theory, and how (in praxis) democracy doesn't work in a country like China (based on its size and history and set of Confucian values); how China’s leaders are highly selected according to their intellectual and political abilities (and not according to their superficial charm and campaign money); how Chinese education is world-class; how politicians in a liberal democracy are short-sighted and, therefore, why (Western-style) democracy, in Mr. Bell’s view, isn't necessarily the best way to govern a country in the future.

Germans should study China thoroughly

Although the German political class and the intellectual establishment would probably dismiss Professor Bell’s arguments about political meritocracy and communism as frivolous and utterly misguided (Germany is, after all, an ideological enemy of communism, and is a class society), German economists love China for what it is: Europe’s life-support system. The European Union is China’s largest trading partner (in goods and services), with Germany accounting for more than 1/3 of that. Over 5,000 German companies are operating in China, most of them with headquarters in Beijing and/or Shanghai. (Little known fact: China has almost three times more millionaires than Germany.)

German education system lacks world-class universities

As to education, China has surpassed Germany in many ways already. Not only are Chinese students on average smarter than their Chinese counterparts, and Shanghai students are officially the smartest students in the world (see OECD's latest PISA survey), but Chinese elite universities like Peking University, Tsinghua University, and The University of Hong Kong frequently rank higher than any other German institution (see Times Higher Education world university rankings). Although Germany is still a highly developed society, few Chinese find German education and German society very attractive.

With China’s new government under Xi Jinping evidently almost laughing off Western democracy as a role model and instead pursuing its centenary goal of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, maybe it is time for Germany's dichter und denker to retire their old prejudices and start taking Chinese education and political theory more seriously.

Image credit: Nejron/Shutterstock.com

Read at Der Spiegel (in German).

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