Daniel A. Bell on CCTV, on the very first day of the 19th Party Congress

Daniel A. Bell speaks on the priority of harmony over freedom in a recent interview. Today, his interview appears just beneath CCTV’s extensive media coverage for Xi Jinping’s speech on the 19th Party Congress (see lower half of this page; in case you can’t find it there anymore, just use this link). Fama crescit eundo.

21 replies on “Daniel A. Bell on CCTV, on the very first day of the 19th Party Congress”

  1. Not sure what Daniel is thinking here, but this should be a cautionary tale for us all. It’s rather clear that this interview is being used for the very specific political purpose of bolstering the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s leadership. As such, it could be taken as an endorsement of the full range of the increasingly repressive policies that have been instituted under Xi in the past five years. Regardless of what we think we are expressing when we engage with media in the PRC, we have to be constantly aware that our statements could be used politically in ways that run counter to our intentions.

  2. Why must, and do, Westerners continue to think in terms of dualisms? Good vs Evil; Democracy vs Autocracy; Christians vs Heathens; Freedom vs Determinism; White vs non-White; Purity vs impurity; the essence of the self vs the state which wishes to subjugate that essence etc.

    Maybe it’s these dualisms that amount to the actual endorsement of “repressive policies.”

  3. Harmony without freedom is oppression imposed from top down. Freedom without harmony is chaos instigated from bottom up. It is already self-defeating when scholars contrast these two values. They should always be championed together.

  4. Sorry, the problem here is NOT scholarly – it is about the question who has the power to speak in a closed society. And, at a certain point, the wish to see the world through a culturalist perspective may actually be dangerously naive…

  5. Maybe it’s also naive to think that we can EVER not see things from a culturalist perspective. It basically assumes an Archimedian, God-like perspective when our perspectives are (I would argue) inherently human and therefore contingent and limited.

  6. A woman who is beaten by her partner knows that she is beaten by her partner. Many people in China know that the party controls many aspects of public and private life. Confucians in the sixteenth century knew that the emperor tried to suppress their voices. These are very simple descriptions, and one does not need to assume an Archimedean point of view to make them. Intellectuals who still call themselves intellectuals should keep at least some distance from power (and most thinkers in pre-modern China knew this…).

  7. A white male speaking on behalf of women and a the non-white peoples of a non-white country. So yeah, like I was saying … God-like perspective and all that good stuff. Just a FYI, I happen to be neither male nor white. “Todd Chavez” is a fictional character from Bojack Horseman.

  8. Nice move, indeed. But then how shall we proceed if we start attacking each other ad hominem? And you are not even willing to show me your face?!

  9. Thank you for the FYI regarding select aspects of your identity, Todd Chavez. We require more transparency than that on this forum. It is particularly ironic to try to hold someone else’s views accountable based on his identity without offering the courtesy of fully identifying yourself. Please contact me or Steve Angle privately if you feel you have a good reason to hide behind a character name. Otherwise, please sign in with your name to continue participation. We appreciate it.

  10. I have been following this and there are a few things I would like to point out.
    @Kai Marchal – clearly the first ad hominem happened by you right? Someone makes a point about not thinking about everything is strict dualisms, basically a Nietzschean point, and you claim that this is a “culturalist perspective” and “may be dangerously naïve”. I think that Todd’s comment is a VERY valid one and far too often do academics, masquerading as being “critical”, simply ignore that they may in fact be guilty of oversimplifying the “other” and their political beliefs. Or was it Bin Song’s comments you were talking about? Or were you simply calling Daniel Bell this?
    I think that your comments pretty much shut down any kind of argument or discussion that could have taken place here. It is this kind of attitude (taken by far more than just you) that makes it hard to have these discussions. If I can add this too – clearly if you think that China is the only place that controls the information available to the public, you should seriously reconsider this. Just one example, after the Vietnam War, the American press was no longer given free access to the front lines of war. All the footage that Americans get to see from something like the wars in the Middle East are controlled and filtered now… which probably helps contribute to the lack of “anti-war” sentiments in American life.
    It was also incredibly awkward and distasteful to use the example of “A woman who is beaten by her partner knows that she is beaten by her partner” to try and make your point. I don’t think it is appropriate to use violence against women, something that happens ALL over the world, to try and characterize the Chinese government. It is your privilege as a white male to talk about violence against women in such a detached manner.
    I think it makes sense why a non-white, non-male person would not disclose their identity considering this kind of behavior is so standard.

  11. Ben Jackson: many thanks for your long response to my earlier comments! This is very helpful, though I am not sure whether this is also what “Todd Chavez” meant when he/she wrote those lines above. So let me explain my thinking in more details, since otherwise I risk being misunderstood and characterized as a white, male academic who simply dismisses the claims of other cultures/communities. To be frank, my very first reaction to Bell’s interview was emotional and not based on reasons: a Canadian philosopher with a Ph.D. degree from Oxford (that’s how is is introduced in the interview) whose public image is now serving Xi Jinxing’s propaganda machine. “Just a FYI”, to quote “Todd Chavez”, I am not of Anglo-American origin and as somebody who has been living in Taiwan for quite a few years, speaking and writing Chinese, I was and still am upset at Bell for letting all this happen. What you mention about the United States is true, and, like you, I am simply appalled by the horrible historical record of the US. Yet, when I was critizing Bell, all this did not matter for me, since I was trying to make what you could call a highly contextualized argument. As somebody who lives in a Chinese-speaking community which also happens to be a free and open society, I am simply appalled by Bell’s apparent willingness to collaborate with such a propaganda machine (he is praising traditional Confucian values in this interview, while he should know that China’s social reality is much more complex; I do not believe that many men – yes, indeed, men! – in China have gained their actual power positions by being filial or wise). And I also think that that if you want to criticize the US for their lack of media freedom, you cannot be silent about modern China’s propaganda machine.
    Another point: I was speaking as an angry man, indeed (no reason to deny this), who also happens to be white. But understand that I am also speaking as a situated agent: Taipei, the city where I live and whose freedoms I cherish, could be attacked by China at any time. And, yes, I do perceive Bell as being, at least sometimes, “dangerously naive” (Please tell me why I am wrong here.)
    So what you call “a Nietzschean point”, may thus also be a typical postmodern move: We are all relativists, we show tolerance towards alien cultures, we do not dare to criticize the Other, we are nice to each other… (Shall I ask you here whether you have ever felt existentially threatened by an authoritarian China?! So, no, I don’t see myself as “detached”…) In other words, such a move could demonstrate the same smugness that you identify in my words (it is difficult to identify the other’s intentions in the digital space)
    You are partially right that my example about the woman beaten by her partner was not very good. But then you move too quickly, I think, by attacking me and my “privilege as a white male”. Do you imply by this that my original criticism does not have any value at all? And why don’t you address my original criticism of Bell? Shouldn’t it also be your concern?
    Finally, in my understanding (as somebody who has never lived in the US), your criticism reflects the political culture of US liberals. They are based on certain understandings of the values of equality, freedom, and respect for the individual. But these values are seldomly represented by the Chinese propaganda machine.
    One final word: In our contemporary Western societies, it is more than ever important to speak for the Other. But, then, one also needs to be careful not to be turned into an apologist of anti-Western resentment.

  12. “Why must, and do, Westerners continue to think in terms of dualisms? Good vs Evil; Democracy vs Autocracy; Christians vs Heathens; Freedom vs Determinism; White vs non-White; Purity vs impurity; the essence of the self vs the state which wishes to subjugate that essence etc.”

    Yet you assert that either there’s a “God-like perspective” or only “cuturalist perspectives,” negate the first disjunct, and conclude there are only “culturalist perspectives.” These hasty slides into post-modern territory are a massive self-inflicted wound for Chinese philosophy as a sub-field.

    Instead of using this platform to complain about not having such a platform, why not use this platform to explain why your “God-like perspective and all that good stuff” argument isn’t grounded in a false dichotomy?{1} (After all, you think thinking in dualisms is problematic, as you’ve asserted yourself. So why do you afford yourself the luxury?)

    {1} If you truly believe that “God-like perspective” versus “cultural perspectives” is a legitimate dichotomy, then I politely recommend Kwasi Wiredu’s Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective.

    • Out of fear that it wasn’t clear, the first quoted bit is from Todd and the remainder is a response to his/her argument scattered across his/her posts. I agree with Ralph that it’s a sophomoric argument that I’m responding to, but it’s an all-too-common argument, so I’m curious why Todd thinks the disjunctive premise is true (and the argument sound).

      Be that as it may, I think we should be concerned about how our research is instrumentalized (by whom and to what ends). I hope that Kai’s point gets a more sophisticated response, but I’m already sympathetic with his position, so I won’t attempt to move things forward for the sake of moving things forward.

  13. I find it quite disconcerting how this discussion has jumped the rails and diverged into something rather ugly, which I believe is really below the usually high standard of this blog. It means a missed opportunity to think about the relation between philosophy and power and how we in the field of Chinese and comparative philosophy relate to it, which is what Kai started out with in this case and which he has often brought up in other contributions – and which I also think is a question we do not ask often and penetratingly enough. Our own positionality of course plays into this, how could it be otherwise? But pointing fingers at each other in such an unsophisticated manner and with such poor arguments is abysmal. I am thankful to Kai for having forwarded the news, but perhaps we should not be discussing Daniel Bell as a person (whatever one thinks of him and his scholarly and other activities). Isn’t one question we should ask the one about how we deal with the fact that we who study, research and publish about Chinese philosophy (here we should have a common identity, shouldn’t we?) do that in a time when it is also used (and many would say instrumentalized) for the purpose of pursuing political agendas that have little to do with it. How to guard against the possibility of being implicated – if that is something you are also concerned about?

  14. The possible role that we play as scholars, whose positions and views can be co-opted by — “implicated” in — political agendas is very much an echo of the concerns that seem to have worried some of the authors of the Lunyu. It is telling that we haven’t been able to get any further in avoiding that pitfall in the intervening millenia. You can walk away from something or try to be relevant. Sometimes, relevance requires an engagement with powers that can be risky, given that abject criticism can simply be ignored by the latter. Is there a way to engage in this sense without being perceived as an apologist? Maybe Bell is in a crucial position here.

  15. Thanks, John, Ralph and Manyul, for your thoughtful comments! I do not deny that Bell’s role can be seen from different angles. He certainly has made important contributions to the scholarly debate between East and West, by publishing books and organizing conferences. But one can (and should) distinguish between his scholarly contributions and his more political interventions, say in Davos (https://danielabell.com/2012/02/19/daniel-at-davos/) or by providing the sort of Confucian family story to CCTV we have seen this week. I think, it is difficult to understand this sort of behavior if one is aware of the historical record of the CCP, especially their uses – and abuses – of intellectuals over the last 50 years. Why not keep some distance here, i.e. keep a low profile (as many Chinese intellectuals actually do)!? For many people beyond the narrow confines of academy this sort of behavior is enough of a reason for turning away from Bell. And yes, Ralph, Bell is just a single case, we should be speaking about the problem more generally. What do you think?

    • I think that one way to approach this huge question is to divide it up into more specific and therefore more manageable questions and to approach the subject matter from a variety of angles. How philosophers look for societal relevance in times of late capitalism and market logic is one question, how they look for an influential position close to the ruling powers is another. One can lead to the other, but they can also remain two largely separate agendas (think of Straussians in the PRC). The proximity of philosophers/intellectuals to those in power has of course been a topic for centuries, both in China and in Europe, if not universally. Within the field of more recent Chinese philosophy, the issue is for example very much at the heart of the Billeter-Jullien controversy.

      For those who understand themselves as Confucians, in turn, there would be much to learn from earlier Confucian authors in this regard, who cherished the talking of truth to power (as Manyul points out with regard to the Lunyu, but one might also think of Zhu Xi’s memoranda to the emperor or Huang Zongxi’s Mingyi daifang lu). In this way, one could think about the conditions for searching the proximity of those in power and about those for distancing oneself, although proximity in this case probably shouldn’t be understood as stopping to talk truth to power, quite the contrary (if e.g. you think again of Huang Zongxi’s conception of the Head of the Imperial College). This would lead to a question of the sort: “What should a good Confucian do in the face of the political realities today in the PRC? [or for that matter, the United States].” And also counterfactually: “What would a Zhu Xi or a Huang Zongxi do if invited to advice the Party Leadership?” These are of course difficult and also normative questions, but we probably shouldn’t simply assume that seizing the opportunity and aligning with the party agenda is the obvious answer, but if the example of these historical figures is anything to go by it seems to me that the good Confucian would offer criticism, not apology.

      On a personal level, many of us can recount stories where we have felt being instrumentalized in the PRC and we cannot easily say that none of it is our fault or that we didn’t facilitate the instrumentalization in any way. When I accept a medal made out of silver from Hanban, how do I square that with my criticism of Confucius Institutes? How do you give a talk about Confucian self-cultivation in Beijing knowing that in a few cases filial piety has been made into a criterion that decides whether local officials are promoted or not? I think that we have to deal with this difficulty in a way so that we continue to understand our role primarily as academics, and not mistaking ourselves for politicians. If I noticed that my actions started to establish a pattern where I always end up on the side of those in power, I would get very worried (also about my worth as an advisor…). It might of course be a different story if I worked in the PRC and wanted to continue to do so, but from the location where I am currently placed, i.e. Switzerland, I find it a privilege that I can speak and write what I want to without much fear of facing political repercussions. It is true, one can be instrumentalized for about just anything (and its opposite) and there might be no good way of preventing that, but if one leaves a published or known record of critical and independent statements, at least it should be easy enough for those who care about it to understand that we haven’t given in and become corrupted by power (or, perhaps better, the illusion of it).

      Sorry, this is probably already too long an answer for a blog contribution – and still it is much too short…

    • That’s an interesting piece! There are lots of questions to raise for both Bell and the author of the piece, who is critical of Bell’s desire to be considered Chinese. An ethnicity like “Chinese” is a difficult thing to draw strict boundaries around when it is itself the product of a history of ethnic conquests and imperialism. I’m not sure I’d want to hijack this post with a deeper discussion, but it is an interesting link. Thanks, Larry.

  16. Sorry for the delayed response, just saw this exchange. Here’s the context. In June 2016 (last year!), I was asked to be interviewed by CCTV as part of a series on “foreigners in China.” I’d normally refuse such requests, but I accepted on the condition that we could discuss the issue of “Chineseness,” and I’d argue that it should be grounded in culture rather than race. They filmed an interview on this topic, along with scenes of my everyday life in Beijing. CCTV English duly broadcast the show, along with the (Chinese language) interview. I was pleased, but asked why it was never shown on Chinese language TV, as originally planned. I was told something about “敏感“, and dropped the topic, knowing I wouldn’t get very far. Then, to my complete surprise, CCTV (Chinese) resurrected filmed scenes and broadcast them during the 19th party congress over a year later, minus the part I cared about, viz., the argument about cultural Chineseness. Oh well,perhaps this can indeed serve as a cautionary tale. Please do not share this post outside of this email group.

  17. Dear Daniel, thanks for your response! The background information regarding this interview is helpful, indeed. And it would be good to continue this discussion here. However, our originally rather heated discussion petered out rather quickly. And I am still waiting to hear more from Ben Jackson (if this is his/her real name?!). Or maybe this is all too sensitive to discuss in public, which actually would be a very bad sign! –

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