Pro-people policies, dutiful citizens effective in China's COVID-19 fight: Daniel A. Bell

Source:Global Times Published: 2020/5/2 18:23:40

Daniel A. Bell Photo: Courtesy of Bell

Editor's Note:

The recent political debate between Daniel A. Bell (贝淡宁), a Canadian political theorist and dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration, Shandong University, and Niall Ferguson, a leading British historian, has caught intellectual attention. 

Ferguson's claims that China allowed flights to leave Hubei and Wuhan to the rest of the world after January 23 while blocking flights to other parts of China were disproven by Professor Bell's careful research into air schedule records. Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Bell about the process of this debate, the lack of reflection in Western political and intellectual circles regarding their approach of handling the coronavirus outbreak, and post-pandemic China-US relations. 

Bell's latest book, Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, co-authored with Wang Pei, an assistant professor at the China Institute at Fudan University, was published in March by Princeton University Press.

Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World

GT: In your book, you mentioned advisable hierarchy serves people's interests. China, with intellectual, political and social histories of its own, offers both alternatives to, and tests of, prevailing Western conventions. How does the hierarchy in China help it in the current COVID-19 pandemic fight?

Bell: Any large-scale society needs social hierarchy, led by experts who can efficiently deal with problems in different domains. It's impossible to connect large numbers of people in an efficient way without hierarchically structured and specialized social organizations. 

Of course, efficiency per se is not morally justified. It depends on the ends being pursued. Our book Just Hierarchy distinguishes between good and bad hierarchies. Bad hierarchies are those that benefit the powerful and oppress those on the bottom, such as political tyrannies and social hierarchies based on race, sex, or caste.

Good hierarchies serve the people's interests, including those with less power. In modern societies, policymaking is complex and also requires specialized input by well-trained experts who propose efficient ways of dealing with social problems. Those professionals need freedom to criticize mistaken policies and suggest alternatives.

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, health professionals in Wuhan were discouraged from voicing their concern about a new SARS-like virus. In retrospect, that was a mistake because it delayed an appropriate response to the crisis. Both political leaders and the people at large should listen to the informed views of conscientious professionals. In China, fortunately, the respect for expertise is widely shared among the population, perhaps as a legacy of Confucian respect for junzi. When 82-year-old Dr. Zhong Nanshan warned of the severity of the coronavirus on January 20, the whole country listened and prepared for the worst. In countries with a more anti-elitist ethos, such as the US, intellectuals renowned for both their expertise and compassion do not exert the same level of social influence.

Political hierarchies are justified when they serve the people's needs and when the people trust political leaders. Once the central authorities gave clear directives to deal with the coronavirus in late January, the whole country was put under full or semi-quarantine, with every level of government strictly following orders to prioritize fighting the disease. The latest technology was put to use for containing the virus, with hardly any concern for privacy or individual autonomy. Such strong measures helped to contain the spread of the virus in China within a few weeks. Dutiful citizens largely complied with the constraints on privacy and freedom because they had Confucian-style faith that the government was acting in people's best interests. Nor would citizens have complied if they thought the controls on everyday life were supposed to be permanent. The assumption is that people were eventually expected to resume their ordinary lives and responsibilities, with lots of room for self-improvement and time for family duties. Public policies that successfully contained the crisis, supported by dutiful citizens, show the benefits of a centralized political hierarchy in China. In the future, however, such hierarchies need to be accompanied with more freedom of speech for conscientious professionals who can report problems before they explode. 

An ideal hierarchical political system empowers public officials to implement policies that benefit the people, with lots of room for trained professionals to criticize and suggest improvements.

GT: You and Ferguson are engaged in a debate. Observers believed that the analysis of such a prominent historian as Ferguson, with lack of scientific evidence, was more of political presumption. What do you think of such academic politicization in the West?

Bell: One isn't too surprised when political leaders twist the facts. But it's surprising when it's done by academics who are supposed to be held to a higher standard of truth. Niall Ferguson is a leading historian and public intellectual. He is very influential in (Western) conservative circles. I do not usually agree with his political conclusions but I respect his scholarship and try to learn from what he says. We have both taught at Schwarzman College and I like him as a person. So I was surprised by a column he wrote in the Sunday Times of London that claimed the Chinese government allowed regular flights out of Wuhan to the rest of the world after they were cut off from the rest of China because it suggested that China deliberately spread COVID-19 to the rest of the world. That seemed wrong. 

For one thing, I knew from my own personal experience traveling in China in early February that we had to fill in forms asking if we were from Wuhan or had interaction with people from Hubei. Clearly it would have been more difficult, if not impossible, to travel if the traveler answered "yes" to either of those questions (at the time, I felt sorry for the people from Hubei who seemed to be discriminated against in such an open way, but I now realize it was a prudent health policy). So it seemed even more unlikely that China would allow regular flights out of Wuhan after January 23 to the rest of the world. 

From a political point of view, I found it hard to believe that the Chinese government could be so immoral as to allow, if not encourage, spread of the disease abroad.  Even from the point of view of China's narrow self-interest, surely China's leaders knew that promoting disasters abroad would be bad for China's own economy and international reputation. 

So I asked Ferguson for evidence to support his claim. He sent me some newspaper articles and flight records that he claimed supported his allegation. But none of the evidence supported what he said. In our email exchanges, he did not acknowledge the mistake. Unfortunately, his allegation was widely publicized around the world. So I went public on my blog and Ferguson was forced to recognize that there was no evidence to support the allegation that China allowed flights out of Wuhan to the rest of the world after they were cut off to the rest of China. 

I felt bad because I knew it would poison my relation with Ferguson. But sometimes truth matters more than harmony. 

GT: Why so far there is lack of reflection in Western political and intellectual circles regarding their approach of handling the outbreak?

Bell: China's success - and that of neighboring East Asian countries - is partly explained by recent experience combating viral epidemics such as SARS and MERS. China's leaders, and its people, were aware of the real and potential damages of viral epidemics and could take quick measures to control it without much controversy. But the shared Confucian heritage in East Asia also played an important role. Partly, it's because of respect for political hierarchies that serve the people and respect for upright professionals (junzi) such as Dr. Zhong Nanshan. More specific Confucian values also help to explain success. The Confucian value of filial piety, or reverence for the elderly, helps to explain why East Asian countries took such strong measures to protect people from a disease that is particularly dangerous for the elderly. In contrast, countries that venerate the young such as Sweden opted for an approach that New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has termed "let the old die for herd immunity" approach.  Relatively distant hierarchical "greeting practices" such as bowing in East Asian countries helped to minimize contagion compared to, say, the kissing and hugging common in Italy, Spain and France. 

Western societies, in contrast, tend to prioritize individual autonomy and privacy. It's much more difficult for government leaders to implement policies that require sacrifices on the part of dutiful citizens compared to East Asian countries with a Confucian legacy.

GT: Politicizing China-related issues and neglecting China's experience caused the West to fail to contain the outbreak during the initial stages. It seems that many, including Ferguson, have not drawn a lesson. With the coronavirus situation unfolding, will the West be compelled to pay attention to China's experience?

Bell: It might be argued that China's relative success containing the pandemic could force rethinking of deeply rooted political values and practices in Western countries. Unfortunately, China's success is not likely to be viewed as such outside of China. 

Whatever China's success containing the virus at home, it will be viewed as the originator of the problem and hence be "blamed", in some sense, for the pandemic. That makes it even less likely that Western countries will want to learn from China's political system and experience fighting the virus. So what can China do? It should share its experience, help other countries, and do its best to ensure that diseases are contained in the future. Of course, other countries such as Vietnam and South Korea also set good models, in some ways they did even better than China. All countries should try to learn from best practices (and best values) abroad.

GT: Many point to neoliberalism as one of the reasons for the West's failed handling of the coronavirus outbreak. What do you think? What flaws in neoliberal ideology fail to serve nations during the current pandemic?

Bell: In my view, the deepest problem is that Western societies prioritize freedom, individual autonomy and privacy over social harmony. This kind of prioritization gives rise to economic and political systems that are supposed to benefit the individual but in practice often benefit the rich and powerful members of the community. Individualist cultures are most dominant in the US and the UK and it's not surprising that the current pandemic disproportionately affects the poorer and marginalized citizens in those two countries. Western countries with cultures that more strongly emphasize social responsibility and harmony such as Denmark and Norway tend to do better, with fewer deaths and more protection for the poor and marginalized members of the political community.

GT: So far we have seen a heightened competition between China and the US in a variety of spectrums. How will the pandemic reshape China-US relations? Do you predict harsher US containment strategies toward China after the pandemic is over?   

Bell: One of the weaknesses of electoral democracies is that it's often easier to get more voter support by demonizing opponents and inventing enemies rather than reflecting on one's own responsibility for problems and trying to solve problems in an efficient way. Unfortunately, these flaws are especially apparent around election time. In the US, it's almost inevitable that there will be much "China bashing" to get votes. All we can do is hoping that political leaders become more rational after they are elected. Meanwhile, we - China - should not play their games. We should keep our heads down and aim to cooperate with reasonable and talented people to deal with global problems such as global pandemics and climate change. We can also try to inspire others by our model at home. We need to improve the ability and virtue of public officials, as well as to give more freedom of speech for conscientious professionals to report problems before they explode. We inspire by humility, good deeds, and learning from our mistakes, not by bragging about what we do.

GT: How will China and the West perceive each other post-pandemic?

Bell: It's hard to be optimistic about US-China relations in the foreseeable future, but China can gain the trust of other Western countries with more global cooperation and proposing policies that benefit both China and the rest of the world.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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