For whom Mr. Bell tolls

Daniel A. Bell, a professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University, has courted controversy this year with his arguments about political meritocracy in China. Many scholars, in China as well as in the West, have questioned Bell’s idea that China leaders have a deep reserve of “performance legitimacy” and that China’s political system has broad support because it is seen by Chinese to produce leaders with an “above-average ability to make morally informed judgments.” Some have bypassed the finer points and branded Bell an “apologist.”

The arguments for and against Bell’s assertions about China’s political system are perhaps best left to political philosophers and experts. But Bell leapt right in to the wonderful cesspool of Chinese media scholarship a few days back when he wrote his rebuttal to Mark MacKinnon’s profile in the Globe and Mail, “A Canadian iconoclast praises China’s one-party system.”

The provocative headline of Bell’s piece, with its question-mark hedge — “Freedom Over Truth?” — hinted at the core question (assertion?) from the outset: does China’s restricted media culture actually produce fairer and more accurate journalism while freer Western media twist the facts to pander to bottom lines and base instincts?

As though playing out a psychological pattern, Bell finds merit in the “Chinese way” of doing things:

However, there are some advantages to the Chinese way of reporting news. When Chinese journalists interview their subjects, they try to put forward a balanced account of what the interviewees have to say, with emphasis on what can be learned and communicated as something new and interesting. They rarely engage in muckracking, public character assassination, or put on a smiling face then betray their interviewees in print.

I don’t want to occupy space here explicating Bell’s ignorance on both sides of this issue. This should be as clear to Bell himself as it is to journalists and communications scholars on both sides of the fence he has unfairly raised.

Let me just say there is no such thing as “the Chinese way of reporting news” — something, time permitting, we will address in the next few days. There is such a thing as the Marxist View of Journalism. But the View has nothing to do with “balanced accounts” or avoiding deceptive geniality.

The three chief principles of the Marxist View of Journalism are as follows:

1. Support for the Party’s principles. Journalists must understand that media work for the interests of the Party, as opposed to the public.
2. Criticism of the “bourgeois concept of free speech.”
3. Maintaining correct guidance of public opinion. Journalists must stick to the propaganda and media control objectives of the Party in order to maintain social and political stability.

It is so very retro (Teddy Roosevelt retro) of Bell to say “muckraking” with such a pejorative snarl. But of course Chinese media do engage in “muckraking” — tisk tisk — and I encourage Bell to start with our book on the subject, Investigative Journalism in China.

I must admit that I read Bell’s essay “Political Meritocracy is a Good Thing” — most readers at The Huffington Post, unfortunately, would have missed the insider’s reference to Yu Keping’s “Democracy is a Good Thing” — only after the 18th National Congress. As I read the professor’s remarks about how Chinese “cadres are put through a grueling process of talent selection, and only those with an excellent record of past performance are likely to make it to the highest levels of government,” I immediately thought of Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang.

Mr. Bell may not know — though he will if he reads our chapter about “muckraking” on HIV-Aids in China — that Li Keqiang presided over one of the worst Aids epidemics in history. He was responsible for the cover-up of the epidemic, which resulted from a blood trade in which government officials were involved. Does that, I wonder, make Li more or less qualified to deal with this pressing health issue? Should Li’s actions to cover up the scandal be construed as “morally informed judgements”?

But given Bell’s assertions about Chinese media, it might be best to take a look at exactly how the Chinese media have treated Mr. Bell. And what better place to start than at the beginning?

Daniel A. Bell first appeared in China’s press on June 7, 2006. The article, reported by China Youth Daily, was re-posted on many websites in China, including the websites of both the official People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency.

In the story, Bell talks about his background, his ideas, how he came to be at Tsinghua University, and how his experience has gone so far. The story is full of epiphanies that are quite frankly silly — probably played up and caricatured by the China Youth Daily reporter. At one point, for example, Bell is concerned that a student sitting in on his class might be a spy. But his fears are eventually allayed and he comes to see things are far more open than he imagined:

Last year, Bell was invited to teach at Peking University. After his first class a student came up and introduced himself in English, saying he was a student at the Central Party School. He wanted to know if he could listen in on the class. Bell welcomed him to join but had questions in his head. During the second class, he paid particular attention to this student and his reaction trying to suss out why he had come to listen in on the course.

“I asked a friend whether the Chinese Communist Party would dispatch spies to my class. Why had this student told me he was from the Central Party School? Did he have any special objective? My friends laughed loudly. They told me that it was completely normal for many students from other schools to go to Peking University, Tsinghua and other famous schools to listen in. This was purely a matter of academic interest. He laughed and told me not to always be suspicious.”

China Youth Daily also has Bell voicing surprise over the degree of freedom he has found in China:

Although he cannot yet use Chinese to write academic studies, Bell has already developed an intense interest in China’s academic publications. He says the “freedom of [China's] academic publications has really surprised me. While publications do not have direct attacks on leaders, they do severely criticize specific policies such as limitations on the movement of the population under the household registration system.”

Notice that Bell says, according to the story, that he is surprised by the freedom he finds in “academic publications.” This is a most interesting point to note given the fact that the headline of the Bell story as it appeared at Xinhua Online and many other places in 2006 was: “Academic Freedom in China Really Surprises.”

Now hold on just a minute. Begging your pardon, Dear Chinese Media, but I believe Professor Bell was remarking on the degree of “freedom” he found in the research printed in academic journals in China. He did not say that China’s “academic freedom” in general surprised him. This, it seems, is a brazen mischaracterization.

But here is Bell just the other day on the problem of sensational and misleading headlines in the Western media:

Another advantage is that Chinese journalists often discuss the choice of headlines with the writers. The aim is to come up with a headline that best reflects the general theme of the article. In the Western press, by contrast, the aim is often to come up with provocative headlines that catch the attention of the reader. The only bad headline, I’m told, is a boring headline. Subjects of interviews, or writers of op-ed comments, are almost never consulted about the choice of headlines. Many readers blame the authors or the interviewees for the headlines because they do not know that headlines are not chosen by them.

The headline at Xinhua Online is arguably quite provocative, suggesting that a Western scholar’s eyes have been opened to the wonders of academic freedom in China. Was Bell, I wonder, consulted about the headline choice?

In any case, it was the reading suggested by the headline that caught the attention of many Chinese academics at the time, prompting a bit of chatter and no doubt some eye rolling as well. China had just had a number of rather high-profile incidents underscoring problems in Chinese higher education. They all boiled down to a system that was not, cringe, merit-based.

In 2005 world-renowned artist Chen Danqing had resigned from Tsinghua in disgust over the unnecessarily rigid (not rigorous, mind you) screening system for student recruitment and academic qualification. Chen saw the system as antagonistic to talent. Right on the heels of Chen Danqing’s resignation from Tsinghua, prominent Peking University legal scholar He Weifang penned an open letter announcing that he would refuse to accept master’s degree students for the 2006 academic year. Why? Because the admissions process was fundamentally flawed, he said, and many of the brightest students were not being admitted because of needless and fussy requirements.

Academic freedom in China? What was this Western newcomer talking about?

Here is an editorial that appeared in Guangzhou’s New Express newspaper on June 9, 2006, two days after the Bell profile made its rounds on the internet and in several newspapers:

Academic Freedom in China is Surprising
By Xue Limai (雪里埋)

Daniel Bell — in Chinese named Bei Danning (贝淡宁) — a Canadian professor of politics seen in Western academia as a “representative of modern-day communitarianism,” arrived at Tsinghua in 2004. At first he believed that “coming to Beijing would be a major challenge,” and he had already “prepared [himself] to face political restrictions.” But two years later, these preconceived ideas are totally changed, and he now believes that “academic freedom in China is surprising.” (SEE China Youth Daily, June 7).

It must be said that Daniel Bell’s understanding of “academic freedom” in China is superficial, and he has not come into contact with “lack of freedom” in the education system. I think his so-called “academic freedom” us hard to support in light of He Weifang’s refusal to admit new master’s degree students, in light of the “Gan Dehuai Incident” involving Peking University law school dean Zhu Suli (朱苏力), or in light of the case of Chen Danqing, who left Tsinghua in fury [over the vagaries of art education in China].

In my view, the basic condition of academic freedom must be the independence and autonomy of the university. This means that universities as a form of social organization maintain a sufficient distance from government power, and that they enjoy a definite degree the right to govern themselves and to develop themselves. On this foundation, the academic freedom enjoyed by faculty does not just mean the freedom of academic research and the freedom to publish the results of that academic research — more importantly, it means having the freedom to manage the university. And yet the biggest problem with the present management system for higher education [in China] is the way administration has entered the academic process (学术行政化), so that academic governance and administrative governance are smashed into one. Administrative methods replace academic competition, academic logic steps aside for administrative thinking, and external power (外部权力) dominates the distribution of education resources. In such a system, how can one even talk about “academic freedom.”

[We have an old saying that], “Tangerine trees growing south of the Huai River bear tangerines while those growing to the north bear citrons instead.” We might say that this is what “academic freedom” is like. Daniel Bell is observing local customs. For example, he’ll no longer do things Oxford-style, “tearing the other side to pieces.” He will do as his Chinese colleagues do, politely “adding a few remarks” after the other has finished speaking. This being Bell’s basis for “academic freedom,” he’s so flush with happiness (as we say) that he forgets his duties back home. Perhaps we should say that he “cannot see the true face of truth” because “the mountain looms up right before him.” [NOTE: This last line is a reference to the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, who writes that he cannot see the true face of Lu Mountain because he lives in its cracks and folds.]

I hardly know what else to say: Xue Limai has said it so well. But of course Xue’s criticism of Bell’s views was based in the first place on a mischaracterization of Bell’s remarks.

I find Bell’s first appearance in the Chinese media rather elucidating given his recent remarks pitting some nebulous notion of Chinese principles against an equally fuzzy and over-generalized notion of Western pettiness. Perhaps, just perhaps, things are more complicated than Professor Bell has made out?

For just a bit more background, allow me to also provide a partial translation of the very lengthy profile of Bell that appeared in China Youth Daily on June 7, 2006:

When Daniel Bell first decided to accept a position to teach philosophy at Tsinghua University, his Western colleagues all stared at him in astonishment: “Are you crazy?” At the time, this Canadian professor of philosophy was teaching in Hong Kong. His colleagues were well aware that Hong Kong not only had a relaxed academic environment but its incomes were enviable.

“Of course I understood their concerns,” Bell says. “Free and unrestricted discussion is extremely important to research in this field. But I also understood that coming to Beijing was a major challenge for me.”

Daniel Bell is not “blind to China.” Back when he was studying in England, he started a multinational family with Chinese student Song Bing (宋冰). . .

“Actually, even my Chinese family at the time didn’t support my coming to Beijing,” Bell confesses. But compared to Hong Kong students, Beijing students left a very deep impression on him. Before, on the many occasions he was invited to Beijing to give lectures, the curiosity of Beijing students made him feel “very excited.” “But in Hong Kong, the relationship between teachers and students mostly stays politely cool.”

However, he admits that another thing that charmed him about Tsinghua was that “this school’s students are all China’s brightest and best young people, and many of China’s leaders graduated from Tsinghua University.”

In this way, overriding all objections, [Bell] in 2004 became a visiting professor in the School of Philosophy in the College of Humanities at Tsinghua University. The next year, he formally became a professor. Wan Junren (万俊人), the head of the School of Philosophy at Tsinghua University, says of Bell: “He is no different from the other Chinese professors.” According to Wan Junren, Tsinghua University was the earliest among philosophy schools at major universities in China to a foreign professor.

Bell is not a blind optimist. In fact, before he came to Beijing he had already prepared himself to “endure political restrictions.” But this originated more with his “Singapore experience.”

After his wedding, Bell and his wife discussed where to go in order to develop their careers. “We were from the East and from the West, and we wanted to find a place compatible with both Eastern and Western cultures. At the time we felt the best choices would definitely be Singapore or Hong Kong.”

Bell’s doctoral thesis was about communitarianism. In the 1980s, the debate between communitarianism and liberalism was an important tide in philosophy. In the 1990s a number of leaders from Asian countries began raising criticisms about Western-style democracy and political freedoms.

. . .

“When I was teaching at the National University of Singapore, the department head there was a member of the ruling People’s Action Party. After he was replaced, the new department head wanted to see my list of readings, and he said I should speak more about communitarianism and less about John Stuart Mill (a representative figure of liberalism – reporter’s note). When I spoke about politically sensitive material such as Marxist ideas, a number of special people would appear in the classroom. When I used [Singapore's] domestic politics to make my points, the students would keep quiet. For that reason, when my contract wasn’t renewed after it terminated there was nothing strange about it.”

Bell says that this sort of situation has never occurred during his time in Beijing. “Tsinghua University has never given me explicit directions about what I should teach. When I submitted my course outline, it was quickly approved by the department. When I taught ‘Problems in Contemporary Philosophy’ and ‘Ethics of War’ to graduate students, the student remarks during class were excellent, and my colleagues were very friendly. I can discuss anything whatsoever with them.”

Although he cannot yet use Chinese to write academic studies, Bell has already developed an intense interest in China’s academic publications. He says the “freedom of [China's] academic publications has really surprised me. While publications do not have direct attacks on leaders, they do severely criticize specific policies such as limitations on the movement of the population under the household registration system.”

“Could this be a trap?”

When he first arrived in China, Bell was full of curiosity about everything Chinese, but he had his concerns. “As a newcomer I didn’t know where the boundaries were,” he says.

One day, a student invited him to take part in a salon at Tsinghua at which the topic was democracy. “Could this be a trap? I immediately discussed this with some friends I trust, and with my wife. They all advised me to give it a wide berth.” Bell smiles. “Only later did I find out that this was an normal academic discussion among students and I was worrying unnecessarily.”

Last year, Bell was invited to teach at Peking University. After his first class a student came up and introduced himself in English, saying he was a student at the Central Party School. He wanted to know if he could listen in on the class. Bell welcomed him to join but had questions in his head. During the second class, he paid particular attention to this student and his reaction trying to suss out why he had come to listen in on the course.

“I asked a friend whether the Chinese Communist Party would dispatch spies to my class. Why had this student told me he was from the Central Party School? Did he have any special objective? My friends laughed loudly. They told me that it was completely normal for many students from other schools to go to Peking University, Tsinghua and other famous schools to listen in. This was purely a matter of academic interest. He laughed and told me not to always be suspicious.”

Later, Bell became acquainted with the student from the Central Party School. The student told him that he came to Peking University to listen in “just because he wanted to hear some foreign-taught classes and improve his foreign language skills.”

. . .

A Talk at the Central Party School

Bell joked one time with the student sitting in on his class, asking if he might be able to go to the Central Party School to give a talk. Without a moment’s thought, the student said: “No!” But before long this student gave him an invitation.

“I really couldn’t believe it. A foreign professor of political science really could go to the highest institution of learning in the Chinese Communist Party and give a talk?” Bell’s eyes open wide.

“‘Yes!’ the student answered quite seriously, ‘The Central Party School is now revising its past policies. So long as someone is approved by the vice-principal, foreigners now can talk at the Central Party School.”

For a time both sides were uncertain about what the topic of the talk should be. Finally it was the student who suggested: “You can talk about how to improve your English.”

Bell laughed. “I don’t know anything about that! You know I’ve spoken English since childhood. What use it that to Chinese students?”

The student encouraged him: “Don’t be so modest. You are a big professor, there’s definitely something you can talk about. It’s settled. I’ll pick you up tomorrow.”

. . .

The focus of professor Wan Junren’s academic research is contemporary Western ethics and political philosophy. Daniel Bell’s research came to his attention in the early 1990s. After that, he came to understand [Bell's research] more through international academic conferences.

“I’ve met many scholars from Western academia, so why did I hire Bell?” Wan Junren poses the question himself and answers it: “Ethics and political philosophy are subjects we’ve decided to prioritize going forward. And Bell is very focused on classical political philosophy in China and on Confucian ethics, and his research is unique. His understanding and sympathy for Chinese culture and education, as well as his career objectives and timing were all reasons. At the time that we hired Mr. Bell, Peking University and other universities were in talks with him. His decision to accept our offer had a lot to do with his endorsement of our academic team. The addition of Mr. Bell was very positive for the development of the ethics and political philosophy program at Tsinghua University’s School of Philosophy.

. . .

He’s Becoming More and More “Chinese”

The first thing many people ask Bell is what language his uses in the classroom.

He says that his hope is to be able to use Chinese, but in fact he still uses English. “For my first class close to 100 students came, but for the second class only 20 or so came. I was somewhat disappointed by that. Later I learned that many students had come to my class to practice their English, and when they found they didn’t understand they just didn’t come back.”

As Bell’s Chinese has improved his acceptance of Chinese in class has grown. He has now started accepting questions in Chinese during class. But if the questioner has a strong local accent, or the question is long and deals with lesson topics, he asks for the question to be repeated.

. . .

Even his wife Song Bing admits that Bell has over the past two years become more and more “Chinese.” Living with his mother-in-law [his family] contact is closer than that of many traditional Chinese families. Some students compliment him on his handsome looks, and unlike Westerners he doesn’t shrug nonchalantly and say, “Thank you.” He casts his eyes down, lowers his head and says, “Oh, it’s nothing” (哪里,哪里).

. . .

He has now grown accustomed to calling his colleagues “Teacher” rather than addressing them by directly by name. And no longer does he keep the Oxford style of “tearing the other side to pieces.” Like his Chinese colleagues, he simply politely “adds a few remarks” after the other has finished speaking, in this way criticizing the views of the other side and defending his own views.

After living in China for a few years, Bell has found that when returning to Canada to visit relatives, he’s puzzled at how his mother says farewell at the door. “Why don’t you send me off at the airport?” So, he has already become accustomed to the Chinese method of sending people off at the airport or the train station. It is only in habits like playing hockey . . . that others can see that Western ways of life are still impressed upon him.

“Teachers in China, and especially professors at top universities, have a high social status, so it seems that the hatred they suffered during the Cultural Revolution is a thing of the past. This is change!” Bell hopes to see changes in Chinese society, so he plans to stay in Beijing over the long term. He even plans to open a quiet restaurant in the neighborhood of Tsinghua University. “It has to be the kind of place where you can read a book, talk about ideas and enjoy good food with friends.”

[CORRECTION: The title of Bell's piece in The Huffington Post was "Freedom Over Truth," not "Freedom or Truth" as previously written here.]

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