Justifying Control

Among the most frequent of claims made by the Chinese party-state, is that its social system is more competent, stable, and just than that in the liberal West, and particularly America. Pointing to the continuing economic and social devastation in the United States of the coronavirus pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, and the more recent widespread demonstrations and riots, Beijing asserts that what it calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is better suited to deal with disasters both natural and manmade, not to mention the quotidian running of government. As part of their claim to legitimacy, China’s communist rulers have perhaps unexpectedly invoked the spirit of China’s greatest thinker, Confucius. A Confucian boomlet, indeed, is one of the more notable developments of recent years. Whether Confucius has anything to tell us today about how best to organize society, however, is a different matter.

Daniel Bell, dean of the School of Political Science at Shandong University in Qingdao and professor at Tsinghua University, and Wang Pei, assistant professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, argue that Confucius does. More accurately, they believe that the rich body of thought known as Confucianism, riven by contending schools and stretching over more than two and half millennia, offers a particularly valuable approach to organizing man’s natural propensity to stratify himself hierarchically, with rulers and ruled, parents and children, dominators and the submissive, and masters and slaves. Not only is hierarchy natural, it can be just, seeking to establish “morally justified rankings of people or groups with respect to valued social dimensions.” The authors are, in their own words, “progressive conservatives.”

Taking aim at politics in the liberal West, which is based on an ideology of equality and individualism, Bell and Pei attempt, in Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, to “modernize the hierarchical rituals according to progressive social values.” In other words, “unjust power structures” must be replaced with hierarchies that serve morally desirable ends. The authors highlight their disagreement with Western ideas of natural law early in the book, and they follow Michael Walzer’s preference for a pluralistic approach to justice, believing that “there is no one principle of justice appropriate for all times and places.” The question of who determines those morally desirable ends, not to mention what is “just,” is the Banquo’s ghost haunting Bell and Pei’s account.

Confucius Returns with the Party’s Blessing

Before turning to the core elements of their argument, a few remarks on the aforementioned Confucian “boomlet” are not out of place. Perhaps surprisingly for a Leninist party-state in which communist ideology is being increasingly stressed by today’s leaders, there has also been a revival of Confucianism over the past decade. The ancient philosopher’s teachings are gaining favor, if only within the parameters allowed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which at the same time has revitalized Leninist thought under current General Secretary Xi Jinping.  Even absent a new communist ideological push by Beijing, such a reversal in fortune for Confucius would strike those familiar with China’s modern political era as unexpected. China’s liberalizers and modernizers who overthrew the sclerotic Qing Dynasty in 1911 explicitly claimed that the nation’s millennia of adhering to Confucian norms was responsible for its backwardness and the hidebound traditions that only weakened China in the modern world. While Mao Zedong and his communist vanguard swept away any hopes of the post-1911 liberalizers, their successors in the early 21st century have found Confucian morals useful in attempting to maintain control over China’s population and enforce social stability.  In the current environment, Confucianism appears more as an acceptably humane face to the increasing repression in China, than as a guide to Xi for instituting the philosophy’s tenets of just rule.

Bell, who has spent his professional career in China, is at the forefront of an academic subspecialty of modern neo-Confucianists. He is the author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (2016), whose argument is self-evident from the title, as well as an earlier book arguing that China might become officially Confucian, peacefully evolving past Communism in a return to traditional mores. Inveighing against the inefficient if not outright harmful effects of electoral democracy, modern-day Confucians argue for selection of the best educated and most qualified to lead society. Bell returns to the theme of political meritocracy in Just Hierarchy, but more on that later. Through his Princeton China series, he has brought to Western readers the work of other modern Confucianists, or those influenced by reading China’s long Confucian history, such as Tsinghua professor Yan Xuetong, whose Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, argues that current political leadership can usefully draw on examples from pre-Qin (i.e., prior to 221 BC) political practice.

Bell is not the only non-Chinese chronicler of modern Confucianism, though quite likely the only one teaching at a major mainland institution. James Hankins, a professor of history at Harvard specializing in political thought, also has looked at China’s flourishing Confucian subculture, including isolated rural retreats in China devoted to exploring Confucianism alongside other major philosophical traditions. In a series of essays in American Affairs, Hankins has explored today’s popular Confucianism and also focused on the question of meritocracy.

Meritocracy and Hierarchy

This brings us back to Bell and Pei, whose book is essentially a primer on how to insert Confucian concepts of just hierarchy into essentially all human relations. Hierarchy, they assert, is natural; the only questions are the choices between Western electoral systems that produce suboptimal outcomes or China’s successful meritocratic approach, and between Western-style economic hierarchy with a commitment to social equality versus East Asian-style social inequality with a commitment to economic equality. That Communist China has been run by murderous, corrupt politicians, and has one of the world’s worst income disparities is given a nod by the authors, but they mostly remain on the plane of more theoretical discourse.

There are earnest, if sometimes unintentionally humorous, chapters on different types of hierarchy. The first chapter looks at that between intimates, meaning the mostly the family, but also housekeepers, and also gives some truly intimate advice for the bedroom, suggestions which probably don’t appear in most treatments of Confucian thought. The final two chapters look at human relations with animals and machines, the latter heavily influenced by Marxist readings on the only fully acceptable master-slave relationship.  Here, they firmly counterpoint Confucian teachings with Aristotle’s defense of slavery.  

For most readers, however, the two middle chapters, on just hierarchy between citizens and between nation-states, will be the most interesting and instructive about today’s China. It is here that the implications of Bell and Pei’s Confucian hierarchy become most clear. Bell’s work on political meritocracy drives the chapter on citizens’ rights and the best political system. The goal of a political system should not be the free expression of preferences, but rather the selection and promotion of leaders who will promote the well-being of the people (regardless of their desires). On this scheme, meritocracy can be considered even more representative than democracies, if it reaches far and wide to promote capable officials.

This is indeed consonant with most of Chinese history, where, in the words of Etienne Balasz, a leading French Sinologist of the mid-20th century, the “virtues preached by Confucianism were respect, humility, docility, obedience, submission, and subordination to elders and betters.” Politics as paternalism is the driving concept in this version of Confucian order. While Bell and Pei would argue that the goal is to provide the most welfare for the people, an equally strong claim can be made that centralized meritocracy is a system that largely reduces to ensuring the controlled continuation of the bureaucracy, itself perhaps the most enduring feature of Chinese political organization.

There is unexpected irony, if not humor, in their side comments on the “authoritarian inclinations” of Donald Trump, versus the elided-over actual authoritarianism of the CCP.

The governing moral principle here is little more than upholding the power of the state, supposedly in the best interests of those governed. Unlike Aristotle, who in the Politics solves the problem of legitimate rule by proposing that equal citizens rule and be ruled in turn, Confucian thought eschews political equality, positing instead that a representative hierarchy of meritocratically chosen talents is the most reliable path to ensure the best rule. While such a system may indeed be more efficient than those in the West, it is not simply utilitarian, but rather indistinguishable from the conception of the bureaucratic state as the legitimate organizing principle of political life, whether under emperor or general secretary.

If meritocracy means the non-democratic selection of the most capable, the question of course is how to ensure that the best truly are chosen. Bell and Pei give copious examples of the breakdown of the meritocratic ideal in China’s past, usually through corruption of the elites and their selection process. Acknowledging these shortcomings, they are at pains to give a place for democracy at the lower political levels but cannot endorse competitive election for leaders at the apex of society. Their argument that the Chinese political system “incorporates strong elements of democracy” may be institutionally correct at the lowest levels, especially in the post-Mao years, but the practice of politics under current General Secretary Xi Jinping has steadily reduced the sphere of even the very modest democratic procedures noted by Bell and Pei.

There is unexpected irony, if not humor, in their side comments on the “authoritarian inclinations” of Donald Trump, versus the elided-over actual authoritarianism of the CCP. One must feel some pity for the two authors, who must dance around the manifest authoritarian policies of Xi, who challenges both their hopes for collective leadership and their belief that the most competent, versus simply the most ruthless, will emerge at the top of China’s meritocratic system.

The same chapter contains an interesting discussion on the Legalist tradition in Chinese history, emerging in the later 3rd century BC, which privileged a powerful, autocratic state that liberally employed punishment over the type of more humane Confucianism favored by Bell and Pei. What is absent from their schema, of course, is free electoral choice, or more broadly, self-determination. Without that, they acknowledge, it is difficult to limit the power of political elites, but the costs of competitive elections outweigh the benefits of a mechanism by which the people can change their leaders. They have no real answer to the question of how to prevent the abuse of power, weakly noting that collective leadership and choosing leaders who are “likely” to use their power to serve the public are the best defenses against abuse of authority. At the end, we are left with aspirations, rather than the flawed, but concrete mechanisms established by electoral democracies.

Whose International Order?

The other compelling chapter is that on relations between states. As China has become a superpower over the past several decades, the approach of both the CCP and China’s traditional states towards the outer world has become a hotly debated topic. Whether Beijing is seeking to overturn the post-World War II international order, or simply modify it, or perhaps wants simply to take it over, criticism of Chinese foreign policy has grown commensurate with state power. Is there indeed an unbridgeable gulf between Western and Asian conceptions of international order?

The Westphalian system, ostensibly establishing a norm of equal sovereignty between states, is the target for Bell and Pei. Despite the liberal rhetoric on international relations, they argue, hierarchy between powerful and weaker states is the international reality. Given that, a type of diplomatic paternalism is most appropriate for ensuring that the weak are not dominated by the strong. The hierarchical relations between states must be reciprocal, but not “weakly” so, where states can quickly renege on agreements and cooperative action. Rather, a “strong” reciprocity, one informed by an understanding of the interests, culture, and history of each state (but particularly of the stronger toward the weaker) is the best way to ensure that the tendency towards manipulation, intimidation, and abuse is lessened. This scheme echoes, if faintly, Aristotle’s categorization of friendships in the Nicomachean Ethics, where friendships of utility mirror Bell and Pei’s weak reciprocity, while friendships of the good, based on mutual respect and the desire to make the other better, are analogous to strong reciprocity.

After a brief digression on ancient Indian political thought, and particularly that of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka (r. 268-232 BC), Bell and Pei turn to the Confucian philosopher Xunzi (3rd c. BC). On Xunzi’s definition, just leadership is based on “humane authority” (a concept recently developed by Tsinghua’s Yan in his Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers). What guides and makes a leader humane is the scrupulous adherence to established ritual, which moderates relations between superior and inferior. As much as that is recipe for just rule at home, argue Bell and Pei, it is also the key to a just hegemonic role abroad. It is through the proper observance of ritual, according to the Confucians both ancient and modern, that strong reciprocity based on respecting mutual interests is inculcated in state relations.

Everyone recognizes that our world is defined by hierarchies, regardless of our rhetoric. Millennia of Confucian thought have attempted to humanize and moderate those hierarchies, precisely to protect the most vulnerable and make moral the most powerful.

While laudable, many of the examples given in this chapter underscore just how far China’s Leninist party-state is from the type of humane authority envisioned by the Confucians. Not related by Bell and Pei is the infamous comment by China’s then-Foreign Minister at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010 that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact,” while glaring at the Singaporean representative. Such an attitude could not be farther from the type of strong reciprocity (let alone nominally respectful behavior) advocated by Bell and Pei. The authors admonish that simply throwing money at smaller nations to gain their political support is not an example of strong reciprocity. However, that statement unintentionally highlights Beijing’s liberal use of development aid and what is sometimes called “debt-trap diplomacy” to gain clients in Eurasia, while doing little to respect their interests or societies. Beijing’s constant intimidation of Taiwan and the Philippines, and attempts to do the same to Japan, India, and Vietnam over territorial disputes; its recent actions to end Hong Kong’s autonomy; and its continuing repression of Tibet all serve as evidence of the threat it poses to its neighbors, regardless of the rhetoric of “win-win” diplomacy. Finally, Bell and Pei’s admirable statement that “rulers lose the moral right to govern if they engage in massive abuses of human rights of their own people,” and thus also cannot claim international leadership, is too easy a target when discussing the sanguinary record of the CCP.

The bigger dangers of Bell and Pei’s prescriptions, however, come as they argue, despite Beijing’s record, that it should “aim for more” as a regional leader in Asia. It is Washington’s military presence and alliance system in Asia that is the problem, according to Bell and Pei, despite their own acknowledgment that geographical distance (such as that which separates America from Asia) naturally reduces geopolitical tensions between nations. As they correctly note, a large, powerful country can be neutral in regional disputes with its smaller neighbors, but that is harder to ensure, which truth is clearly shown by Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Instead, ignoring the tensions caused by Beijing’s actions, they assert that Washington should “accommodate and make concessions to China’s desire to establish a regional hierarchy with itself at the head…”. Given Beijing’s policy towards its neighbors, and its lack of humane authority at home and abroad, this seems like a recipe instead for ensuring resentment, fear, and increased regional tension, if not conflict.

Any carping by a review, though, is beside the point to Bell and Pei. They are unambiguous about the fact that they write for China, not any Western nation, attempting to provide a coherent and defensible account of leading social and political ideas in China’s public culture that will ultimately strengthen its power.

There is little doubt that, despite the restrictions imposed by living in an increasingly illiberal authoritarian state, the hearts of the authors of Just Hierarchy are in the right place. Everyone recognizes that our world is defined by hierarchies, regardless of our rhetoric. Millennia of Confucian thought have attempted to humanize and moderate those hierarchies, precisely to protect the most vulnerable and make moral the most powerful. Yet, the limitations of Confucian though have also been clear throughout history, just as the laudable goals of Western democracy still work through their contradictions and shortcomings. As appealing as Confucian thought is, it works better in the realm of theory than in the messy reality of power and competing interests and the eternal human longing for freedom.

The author would like to thank Professor Amia Srinivasan of All Souls College, Oxford, for her illuminating suggestions on Aristotle.