1. Meritocracy and Democracy

“East is East, West is West.” But, today, the twain are intertwined.

Everyone knows the contrasting traits that distinguish these broad civilizational spheres: authority versus free­dom, the community versus the individual, the cycles of the ages versus the progress of history, and representa­tive democracy versus, in China’s case, rule by a meri­tocratic mandarinate. Yet, we also know that China has become the factory of the world and the largest creditor of the United States.

In this book we revisit the twain that Rudyard Kipling famously said “never shall meet” in this new historical context where China and the West are as tightly teth­ered as they remain highly distinct.

As the West recedes from its centuries-long dominance and the Middle Kingdom regains its solid foothold in history, we are obliged to look out on this changing landscape with Eastern as well as Western lenses.

If the reader will permit the reduction of some essential truths, the modern Western mind tends to see contradiction between irreconcilable opposites that can only be resolved by the dominance of one over the other. Following the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,1 this was the approach Francis Fukuyama2 took when he argued that “the end of his­tory” had arrived after the Cold War in the triumph of liberal democracy over other forms of human govern­ance. In the geopolitical mind of the West, territories and ideologies are either won or lost.

The conventional, though not incorrect, wisdom in the West is that, despite the awesome achievement of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of pov­erty in just three decades, the modern mandarinate of nominally Communist China is not self-correcting, and thus not sustainable. Unless it loosens its autocratic grip by allowing freer expression and more democratic mechanisms for popular feedback and accountability, the “red dynasty” will succumb to terminal political decay – rife corruption, arbitrary abuse by authorities, and stagnation – just as all previous dynasties have in China’s millennial history.

The unconventional observation of this book is that, just as we’ve seen with financial markets, Western democracy is no more self-correcting than China’s system. In a mirror image of China’s challenge, one-person-one-vote electoral democracy embedded in a consumer culture of immediate gratification is also headed for terminal political decay unless it reforms. Taking a cue from China’s experience with meritocratic rule, establishing capable institutions that embody both the perspective of the long term and common good in governance is key to the sustainability of the demo­cratic West. The argument we will make in this book is that restoring equilibrium in each system will require a recalibration of political settings through mixed con­stitutions that combine knowledgeable democracy with accountable meritocracy.