Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Daniel A. Bell: Messages from an alternate reality

Daniel A. Bell has written a deliciously deluded piece in the Financial Times explaining that, even though China’s leadership appears to be selected through an opaque process of power-games and intrigue, instead it’s a perfect meritocracy. In fact, the reason why the process is so secretive is to protect the hurt feelings of anyone who fails.

No, really:

He asked me how we select candidates in academia. I replied that we have a committee that aims to select the best candidates, and we deliberate among ourselves. He then asked if the deliberations are open. That would not be fair to the candidates who are not selected, I said. He smiled and said: “The same goes for us.”
[…]
So we should just accept that a lack of transparency is an inevitable cost of any organisation that aims to select the best candidates. It is true not just of the Chinese Communist party and academia, but also of major investment banks or the Catholic Church. That is not to say we should not hope for more transparency in the Chinese system. … full transparency is unlikely and would be unfair to the “losers”.


What’s interesting here is the claim that Daniel Bell does not, any more, seem to be making – that today’s Chinese government is, or should be, “Confucian”, something that he has claimed in the past more than once. This is not surprising as the Confucian-esque language of previous years (e.g., the touting of “Harmony” under Hu/Wen) has been dropped in favour of a governing style much more reminiscent of the Deng Xiaoping era.

Bell has been described in the past (I can't find the quote) as writing as if about an alternate, and infinitely preferable reality in which China's rulers are exactly the philosopher-kings that they like to portray themselves as. However, it seems even Bell's reality sometimes conforms to our own, in which, far from being an entirely meritocratic organisation made up of disinterested Confucian scholars, the party is little more than a route to influence and power, the membership of which cannot even be bothered to pay their party dues.

6 comments:

Ji Xiang said...

Daniel A. Bell wears A-grade rose-tinted spectacles when he looks at China's political system. I also recently took issue with him on my blog, as you know well.

On the other hand, I wouldn't really say the party is "little more than a route to influence and power". I think the people at the top are quite sincere in their belief that their system of governance is the best, and even the only one possible, for China. They genuinely believe that democracy is just not suited for China, that they are doing their best for their people, that they are recovering China's greatness. They are not just there to enrich themselves, although that certainly goes on. And honestly, when you look at the pretty grim lives these people have to lead for decades in order to elbow their way up to the top, and even at the risks involved, you can't imagine that they don't believe in what they are doing.

FOARP said...

"I think the people at the top are quite sincere in their belief that their system of governance is the best, and even the only one possible, for China."

But then you have the way they knowingly lie about so much. They know that their original cover-stories regarding, say, the way they obtained the Varyag, or their construction of island-bases in the South China Sea, weren't true. They know that many official statistics are falsified. they know that the CCP is corrupt pretty much all the way through and not a meritocracy. They know this, and we know they know this, because they made up these lies themselves.

What I think they do engage in a lot is "Well, everyone does this so it's not wrong when we do this", which is why they so often reach for the perceived wrongs of the US government. Double-think - that is the process of knowingly telling lies and simultaneously believing they are true - is also a factor.

FOARP said...

PS - I think the real thing that's notable about this is the way Bell's steering away from his previous spiel about the CCP being really a Confucian party.

Ji Xiang said...

Thanks for mentioning the Varyag, I didn't know about that until know.

Anyway, I agree that they often knowingly peddle lies, but consider that their ideology essentially posits that it is proper and necessary to lie to the public in some circumstances, when the wise and knowing leadership decides so. According to them, the Chinese public just isn't ready for the whole truth, and all countries go through this "stage of development", where concealing the truth is a necessity. Also, "traditional Chinese culture" as the leadership understands it is one where the truth is less important than protecting social harmony. So I don't see much contradiction between what you're saying and what I am.

Honestly, I think it's pretty clear that China's leaders are not just another corrupt kleptocracy out for nothing but personal enrichment, Mobutu or Marcos-style. By their own standards (which I find backward and sometimes downright immoral), they are doing a pretty good job of governing China. This cannot be explained without some sort of commitment to public service.

justrecently said...

What’s interesting here is the claim that Daniel Bell does not, any more, seem to be making – that today’s Chinese government is, or should be, “Confucian”, something that he has claimed in the past more than once.

Men in their mid-50s tend to get real.

FOARP said...

"Men in their mid-50s tend to get real."

Good one (I nearly wrote "LOL" but had to stop myself)! Particularly when their positions at Chinese academic institutes depend on it!