Canadian-born Daniel Bell was appointed as the dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University from 2017 to 2022, a period characterized by Xi Jinping’s austerity drives and the sudden global shutdown of COVID-19. Freed from academic bondage, he writes up his experiences in The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University.
Now, if you asked me to write up my China experiences (an approach twice made to me by British publishers), you’d get a series of angry rants and raves about supermarkets and tea houses, fake goods and racists, but as a political philosopher in the homeland of Confucius, Bell has many more productive things to say about China and the Chinese. He does, occasionally, fulminate about injustices, most notably the restrictions brought on academic banqueting by anti-corruption laws. But he also has much to say about the drift in China’s political economy from what he calls “Leninist Legalism” into a philosophy that derives much of its foundations from Confucius.
Bell dates the official “Confucianisation” of China to 2008, where the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics tried to present Confucius as the cuddly face of modern China, rather than Mao or Marx.
He sniffs out some truly quirky but illuminating areas of Chinese political life, starting with a chapter-long discourse on why Chinese men dye their hair. Bell tracks it all the way back to Spring and Autumn statements on rites and rituals, that suggest that black-haired men, young and vigorous, should run the state, while white hair is a sign that it’s time to put someone out to pasture. That might have played well in the Bronze Age, when life expectancies were so much lower, but today it means that the arrival of grey hairs sends Chinese politicians into a panic.
Speaking as someone whose hair went white while I was in China, this puts a huge number of things in perspective. For the first time in my life, after reading Bell, I seriously considered dyeing my hair, all the better to squeeze a few more years out of my career before I am deferently consigned to the lower table.
As a political philosopher with a deep sympathy for China, Bell has harsh words for the complacent West. He rails against “cuteness” in politics, arguing, much as once did Charlie Brooker with Cassandra-like powers of prophecy, that all those people who voted for Boris Johnson because of his apparent bumbling bonhomie were setting themselves up to be swindled. The culture of “cuteness,” he claims, has had “little social impact” in the world’s happiest countries like Denmark or Finland, only in places trying to hide systemic toxicity.
Bell concedes that the Chinese government apparatus might be a humourless monoculture of dark-suited robots, chosen in secret and unaccountable to the electorate, but he also leans into John Stuart Mill’s comment on “the tyrant of public opinion” – giving the people their say, no matter how ill-informed, is what gave us Brexit and Trump.
He is not an apologist for China, by any means. But he is someone who has tried to accommodate and engage with a one-party state with a very different set of cultural cues and traditions. With wry annoyance, he notes that the more experienced he became in Chinese matters, the less he was asked to comment on them by the Western media. He details his feud with the New York Times over editorial policy, and his banishment from The Guardian after daring to complain about an inflammatory headline added to one of his articles.
The result is a fascinating snapshot of the late 20-teens in Chinese bureaucracy, an era already fading into history, but as Bell argues persuasively, strongly rooted in paradigms that stretch back much, much further into the Chinese past.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University is available now from Princeton University Press.