Beijing Bull: The Bogus China Model

Daniel A. Bell argues that the world can learn from the undemocratic “China Model.” Yet the China he lauds is an illusion.

Printer-friendly version November-December 2015

Daniel A. Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 336 pp., $29.95.

THE IDEOLOGICAL competition between democracy and authoritarianism was supposed to have died with the Cold War. But it has returned with a vengeance, powered above all by the rise of China. Now comes a book by a respected scholar, Daniel A. Bell, that purports to explain the secrets of the China model and to show why it works better than liberal democracy. The book will have wide influence because of Bell’s impressive academic credentials, his accessible writing style, his wide-ranging knowledge of both China and the West, as well as his energetic convening of conferences and symposia.

But Bell’s new book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, is not an account of the real China. Just as Western thinkers for centuries have constructed images of China to wield as weapons in their polemics with one another, so too Bell presents a fictional China as a rhetorical platform from which to continue a long-standing debate internal to Western political thought—the debate between liberal democracy and communitarianism. His book will badly mislead any reader who looks to it for an understanding of China.

Communitarianism—as Bell explains in his entry on that subject for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—“began in the upper reaches of Anglo-American academia in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawls’s landmark 1971 book A Theory of Justice.” Rawls’s book provided a twentieth-century update of the classic social-contract theories that laid the conceptual groundwork for liberal democracy. Communitarians, Bell writes, objected to Rawls’s theory on three grounds: its pretension to define values that are universally valid for all cultures; its emphasis on individual autonomy at the expense of the social attachments that people need for their sense of well-being; and its exclusive focus on personal fulfillment at the expense of the “concern with bolstering families, schools, neighborhoods, and national political life.” Communitarians did not oppose democracy. But they proposed that it should be legitimated and organized in such a way as to take account of certain realities: that values vary across cultures, that the individual is socially embedded rather than isolated and that the welfare of the community is as important to the good life as the welfare of the individual.

As a McGill undergraduate, Bell was influenced by the philosopher Charles Taylor, who (among other contributions to communitarianism) sought to solve the problem of an overambitious universalism by proposing “a genuine, unforced international consensus on human rights” among cultures. Bell earned his PhD at Oxford, where he worked under the direction of David Miller, who argued in his 1999 book Principles of Social Justice that there is no single criterion of justice, but that different societies place different degrees of emphasis on its various aspects. Bell’s first book, based on his dissertation, was Communitarianism and Its Critics (1993). It is a defense of communitarianism in the form of a charming and sometimes humorous dialogue (a form he has used in a number of his other writings).

Bell launched his teaching career at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he encountered the theory of “Asian values,” then being promoted by Lee Kuan Yew and other Singaporean officials for the purpose, to quote Bell again from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “of challenging Western-style civil and political freedoms.” After Singapore, Bell moved sequentially to the University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and now Tsinghua University in Beijing. The latter is widely viewed as one of China’s top two institutions of higher learning and has graduated more leaders of the Chinese Communist Party than any other. At age fifty-one, he is a tireless commentator and media figure, Chair Professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program and editor of Princeton University Press’s Princeton-China Series, which aims to “publish the works of contemporary Chinese scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and related fields [and thereby] foster an understanding of China on its own terms.” He also serves as director of the Berggruen Institute of Philosophy and Culture, an organization funded by the investor and philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen, which seeks “to understand cultures and develop new thinking.” Berggruen is also coauthor, with Nathan Gardels, of Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between East and West, which argues that the West should “[take] a cue from China’s experience with meritocratic rule.”

Bell’s success is attributable to his erudition, productivity, cheerful writing style and talent for collaboration. Both his intellectual curiosity and his skill at networking are evidenced by the long lists of acknowledgments in his books, each including a mix of independent academic experts, Chinese government officials, China apologists, and human-rights activists (although not one of these activists, so far as I can see, is from inside China). Not everyone with whom he has worked necessarily agrees with everything he says. But he is positioned in the center of an extended network of academics and other thinkers who share various elements of his beliefs.

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