Daniel Bell, centre, with a group of students from Shandong University
(Photo: from The Wall Street Journal, WANG PEI)
In thinking about China’s relationship with the West, specifically the U.S., it is all too tempting to invoke intensely geo-political lenses - that is, frameworks couched in terms of ‘great power competition,’ ‘cooperate-compete-confront,’ or realpolitik and its more whimsical equivalents - to encapsulate the state of the relationship.
The issue with such approaches is not so much what they include, as what they exclude: the individual stories, the interpersonal trust and bonding, and the human touch that makes supposedly impossible friendships possible.
It is against this backdrop of a downward spiral in Sino-Western relations, specifically between China and select members of the G7, that scholar Daniel Bell’s The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University (2023) was written and published.
Daniel Bell is now a Chair of Political Theory with the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. Canadian-born and Oxford DPhil-educated, he is perhaps best known for his works in straddling a modern interpretation of Confucian philosophy, Chinese political science, and contemporary political philosophy, each strand contributing towards an intriguing and thought-provoking melting-pot of ideas - culminating at the ideal of ‘political meritocracy’ that he has defended with eloquence and vigour across a multitude of platforms. With a prolific career spanning Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, and now Hong Kong, his previous works include The China Model (2015) and Just Hierarchy (2020).
In The Dean, Bell offers a captivating insider’s account on what it was like for him, a foreigner to China, to serve as an academic at one of the most prominent universities in China, tasked with the mission of revitalising Confucian thought for the 21st century.
The first catch: he was appointed dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration, a historic first (as he noted in the book, nearly all of the departments of leading Chinese universities are helmed by renowned Chinese academics) that saw Bell embroiled in complex interpersonal dynamics fusing political and ideological squabbles, mundane bureaucratic quibbling, and delicate communications and relations management between colleagues and students.
The second catch: as time progressed, Bell came to realise that his deanship gradually became more of a ceremonial affair and less a substantive position. He came to make peace with that fact, sought to resign, but was repeatedly urged to stay till his successor could be appointed.
In his riveting, unapologetically humorous read, Bell reflects upon his ‘wait for Godot’ by collecting insights and fusing them with conceptual tools from fields as divergent as ancient philosophy, sociology, social media studies, to the study of factionalist politics in China, in making sense of topics as varied as governmental leadership norms and decisions, politics of academia and publishing, and the shifting public zeitgeist and mass culture in modern China.
Clear merits of the book aside, there are two broader takeaways offered by the read on the nature of Sino-Western relations. Both converge in demonstrating that the facilitation of mutual understanding between the Chinese people and their counterparts in the West not only remains possible, but is of vital importance amidst the piling-on of misperceptions concerning China.
The first, is that the ‘view from afar’ about China often holds key discrepancies with the lived reality on the ground. For China watchers in the West pontificating on the country, there is the very easy temptation to reduce the country to stereotypes - e.g. that it is a monolith steered and driven by a unified, unyielding, and all-powerful party; or that its people all share identical and affirmative attitudes towards their government, due to the instilled political culture and customs that shape their understanding of the world. Alternatively, more sympathetic accounts may portray China to be a miraculously well-oiled, immaculately technocratic machine, one that synthesises the virtues of meritocracy with an efficient post-modernisation bureaucracy.
To be fair, Bell had never shied away from the fact that his conception of the China Model is not - at the end of the day - an unapologetic defence of the status quo in China. Indeed, he had repeatedly emphasised that the model presents an ideal type that China should converge towards, in virtue of its historical particularities and unique cultural context.
Yet throughout his many years of being ‘on the ground’ in Beijing (teaching at Schwarzman College), Shanghai (Fudan) and Shandong, Bell certainly came to learnt of the ways Chinese academic institutions and bureaucratic apparatus operated. His ‘field experience’ enriched his understanding in ways that are hard to replicate by those engaging with China studies through distant observations and reflections alone.
Indeed, his book is packed with highly distilled and detail-driven observations, ranging from China’s ‘cuteness culture,’ ‘drinking and dining table hierarchy,’ and the fixation of political leaders upon their hair colours - exemplifying fully the anthropological proposition that cultural understanding begins with an intricate observation of routine behaviours.
No amount of Zoom or Microsoft Team conversation can supplant such face-to-face interactions. And there is something deeply poetic about the fact that the most resilient and enduring of human friendships are forged not through high-sounding, intellectual debates over theories and models, but through basic, trust-building exercises and socialisation.
The second, is that Bell’s latest exemplifies a model of critique for those who are seeking to constructively engage with, comment on, and make sense of the shortcomings of contemporary China.
It is convenient -- yet erroneous -- to think that writing on China must come in two distinctive, dichotomous modes: unreserved praise that is borderline pollyannish, and uncaveated criticisms that end up demonising the country, and the 1.4 billion people who reside within its borders. Neither seems particularly helpful.
Bell takes a remarkably nuanced approach in his social commentary - which is neither bombastic nor patronising. He emphasises that many of the Party members he knows are sound, decent individuals in their own right. Yet he also flags that institutional and non-institutional political norms can lead to hugely problematic sludge, especially if instantiated through a default instinct to minimise political risk (in face of prospective promotion) and maximise the ‘stability’ of tenuous coalitions of interest.
The scholar minces no words over the daunting challenges of being thrown into the ‘deep end’ as an academic administrator, in face of the rapidly morphing boundaries of speech, unique combination of excitement and frustration experienced by his students in face of China’s economic prospects (with automation, in particular, a subject of concern).
On topics such as corruption and accountability mechanisms, Bell offers more sophisticated musings than can be found across much of the reductionist, existing discourse. He ponders over whether attempts at introducing more checks and balances to academia - and politics at large - has created artificial divides across social groups, despite their overarching necessity. He also draws aptly and tactfully upon faculty governance as a metaphor for the secrets of sound governance at large.
China has a long way to go, but to move the needle forward in discussions concerning its merits and demerits, its strengths and defects, what is notably needed is a more compassionate yet critical approach that remains in short supply today. I have no doubt that Bell’s recollections of his years in Shandong could contribute valuably towards such discourse.