Thursday, November 29, 2012

It’s Not Freedom vs. Truth; It’s Daniel Bell vs. Mark MacKinnon (and David Bandurski)

In an interesting piece of synchronicity, just as the Lei Zhengfu sex tape case turned the microscope on the political minefields that Chinese reporters tiptoe through every day, the careful and circumspect work habits of PRC journalists were also invoked by Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell in his response to a none-too-favorable profile of him by Mark MacKinnon in the Globe and Mail.

Dr. Bell is a favored intellectual for the PRC regime because he regards democracy as a relative rather than absolute good and thinks China is doing better with a mixed system of single-party rule at the top and some democratic rumblings down below.  Dr. Bell’s views go beyond the Burkean advocacy of social stability through elite rule (a strain recapitulated throughout the modern history of the West) to the rather questionable assumption that the PRC government is a high-functioning meritocracy, at least at the national level.

Dr. Bell is clearly not a favorite of Mr. MacKinnon, who did a reasonably workmanlike job of depicting him as a clueless ass.

Bell clearly felt there should have been some more back-and-forth on the profile, perhaps with an opportunity for rebuttal, instead of MacKinnon interviewing him and then going off to juxtapose Bell’s musings with some excoriating commentary from the neo-liberal quadrant characterizing him as a regime apologist or worse.

In a reply on Huffington Post, Bell contrasted his handling at the hands of Mr. MacKinnon with the apparently kid-glove treatment he receives from PRC state media:

[T]here 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 muckraking, public character assassination, or put on a smiling face then betray their interviewees in print.

This rather Pollyannish take on Chinese journalism—Dr. Bell is seemingly oblivious to the intense and continual pressure to conform to or anticipate the news-management demands of editors, state, party, and/or any bigshot with enough juice to pick up the phone or order a reporter beat up—is not a persuasive rebuttal to a snide hatchet job by an unsympathetic reporter.

Unfortunately for Mr. MacKinnon, in the crude parlance of the day, he fucked up.

Per Dr. Bell:

To be honest, I can live with all these mistakes and misleading innuendos. It won't be the first time interviewees have been victimized by muckraking journalists. What really hurts me, however, is that MacKinnon chose to implicate my wife (he has not met her). Before the article was published, I had forwarded an email from my wife asking that her name be left out of the article, but he chose to ignore that email.

MacKinnon writes that "Prof. Bell's well-kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China." The implication is that I defend rule by the rich because it's in my class interest to do so. In fact, I do not think that rich people should rule China. An important advantage of a well-functioning political meritocracy is that it allows for upward (and downward) mobility based on ability and morality, not class background.

But to press his vulgar Marxist argument, MacKinnon writes: "He met his wife, Song Bing, at Oxford University in 1989, a time when only top students with impeccable Communist credentials were allowed to leave China to study." In fact, my wife is not a party member, and she left China in 1988 because she was awarded a merit-based scholarship by the Hong Kong based Swire Corporation. At the time, my wife was an undergraduate at Peking University's law faculy, and she was admitted to that university as a result of having scored highly on the national university examinations in her home province of Hunan. Perhaps MacKinnon was led to think that "impeccable Communist credentials" played a role in helping my wife go abroad because my wife's 86 year old father was a local level communist cadre. Such "guilt by family association" was typical in the Cultural Revolution and maybe MacKinnon chose to borrow tactics from those days. In fact, the connection exists only in MacKinnon's mind. Again, he could have checked this information, but he chose not to.


The Globe and Mail corrected the article:

“There is a morally legitimate model of political rule that has more or less guided political reform over the last two or three decades,” Prof. Bell said in an interview at his tidy home in Shunyi, an upper-class suburb of the capital where he lives with his Chinese wife, a senior executive at Goldman Sachs China, whose father fought for the winning side in the Communist Revolution, and their teenage son.

Set across the street from Beijing’s elite Dulwich College, Prof. Bell’s well-kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China. He met his wife, Song Bing, at Oxford University in 1988. She was there on a merit-based scholarship from the Hong Kong-based Swire Corporation. The couple lived in Singapore and Hong Kong before Prof. Bell was hired at Tsinghua in 2004, the first foreign philosophy professor to join the university since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

I particularly enjoy the grudging flavor of “whose father fought for the winning side in the Communist Revolution” and the retention of the rather eye-popping editorializing of “Prof. Bell’s well kept house as well as his background suggest his family is of the class he thinks should rule China.”

Apparently somebody—and/or his editor—could not stomach the idea of a thoroughgoing upgrade of these dismal paragraphs, because identifying Song Bing’s father as simply a local cadre or, for that matter, dropping the reference altogether, would have undercut the implication that anti-meritocratic party favoritism explained Mdme. Song’s impressive resume and Dr. Bell’s China-ruling taste in real estate. 

 In fact—gulp—the fact that she won a merit scholarship to Oxford and then went on to become a heavyweight at Goldman Sachs might imply that Professor Bell has evidence of meritocracy in his own home!

What the heck.   People make mistakes and don’t like to admit them.  I’m the same way.  

Mr. MacKinnon’s voluminous Twitter feed understandably does not include a shout-out along the lines of “Check it out!  I had to retract some sloppy reporting!#Sorry Song Bing!”

Instead, he primly links to a vociferous attack on Bell’s Huffington Post article by David Bandurski of the Hong Kong Media Project.  It slides past the central issue in Bell’s piece—the dubious and undocumented innuendo concerning Mdme. Song’s bona fides—and tries to shift the attention to discrediting Bell for his wide-eyed protestations about the Chinese media.  It is a hurried (hey, Mr. Bandurski, the title of Bell’s piece isn’t “Freedom or Truth”, it’s “Freedom Over Truth”; it’s right there in the screen shot you grabbed from the Huffington Post) and not, to my jaundiced eye, a particularly effective piece of Fisking.

Bandurski really gets lost in the woods by sneering that Bell can’t even recognize the non-meritocratic nature of education at his own university, Tsinghua:

In any case, it was the reading suggested by the headline [about academic freedom] 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.

Needless, fussy, rigid?  Maybe.  Relying on punishing entrance exams that weed out people who don’t test well but could succeed and excel?  For sure.

But people who get into Tsinghua are smart.  Full stop.  Quite possibly, the reason for Prof. Bell’s idiosyncratic views on the meritocratic character of Chinese institutions is because he is in the privileged position of working with the best and brightest at one of the most meritocratic outfits in China.

In Mr. Bandurski’s effort to take down Bell, he reprints a China Youth Daily profile of Bell, one that Bell undoubtedly found infinitely more pleasing than MacKinnon’s (sample: 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).

It provides some interesting information on Bell’s time in Singapore, which perhaps molded his optimistic outlook on single-party elitist/meritocratic governance, as well as an acceptance of political oversight:

“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.”

It’s an awful thing to say, I guess, but you get a more useful perspective on Bell and his ideas from the China Youth Daily puff piece than you do from MacKinnon’s profile.  Wonder what that means.


Liz said...

Nicely explained! I had missed much of the back & forth reactions and their chronology.Thanks for setting the record straight.

Liz Mitchell

tylerjones said...

Amazing post! I really like how you have written and expressed everything.

Unknown said...

thanks for this. Bandurski and the HKU CMP are generally awful, stuck in the colonial and anti-commie CHina bashing past. Arent they rather redundant to everything from the scmp to the nyt to the HK tabloids? I tire of this game where you resolutely support whatever any liberal says in CHina, and uphold whatever the self-professed freedom fighters and anti-regime heroes say or do. Bell has has limits as a critic but he's serious, lives and works in China and not HK for example, and knows more than the CMP hacks. Also he's actually trying to make things better, as opposed to the lame posturing from gweilos and other non mainlanders at the august 'commonwealth' institution known as hku.

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