What is this idea of “vertical democratic meritocracy”? This is the idea that democracy works well at lower levels of government. This is a view that Western political theorists have argued, starting with Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. If you have a small political community the issues are fairly easy to understand, and you know the moral character of the leaders you’re choosing, thus making a strong case for democracy at the lower level. But, in a huge country, as you go up the political chain of command, the issues become more complex and mistakes become more costly.
There’s a need to institutionalize a system to select and promote leaders with superior qualities. It’s a good case for democracy at the lower level, and for meritocracy up top — and in between, we don’t exactly know what’s going to work, so there should be allowances for lots of experimentation and testing for different ways for selecting and promoting political leaders. Democracy on the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy on top — that’s a pretty good way of thinking about how to govern a large country, and I argue that it fits Chinese political culture pretty well. There was a terrible experiment with populism during the Cultural Revolution, so there’s a strong case to reestablish this kind of political meritocracy.