“Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World” by Daniel Bell and Wang Pei


There’s much to be said for attempting to develop social and political theories, models and philosophies based on something other than Western lines of thought and datasets; the latter’s universality and applicability to the wider world is something which, if not taken merely on faith, that needs to be demonstrated. China, with intellectual, political and social histories of its own, offers both alternatives to, and tests of, prevailing Western conventions.

And there have been such attempts, such as Zhao Tingyang’s applying the concept of tianxia more broadly in Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance or David Kang’s work on the “tribute system” model of international relations. China-based academics Daniel Bell and Wang Pei take a similar crack at social and political organization in their new book Just Hierarchies: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World.


 Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, Daniel A Bell, Wang Pei (Princeton University Press, March 2020)
Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, Daniel A Bell, Wang Pei (Princeton University Press, March 2020)

It’s a subject that should be ripe for study. The varying responses to the COVID-19 outbreak have raised questions about whether there is something in the structure of Asian societies that allowed them, some of them, to react better. Political commentators in the United States are now reconsidering the wisdom of completely opening the candidate selection process via primaries and diminishing the influence of party hierarchies. A comparative study could benefit from looking at the philosophies and assumptions that underlie the systems as well as just the systems themselves.

In Just Hierarchies, Bell and Wang obviously wish to take the discussion beyond the realms of academe to the general reader. The book begins with a chatty discussion of seating arrangements and drinking protocols at a Chinese academic banquet, and with this launchpad goes on to discuss hierarchies in society, government and international relations—serious subjects, admittedly—but also between lovers (“nighttime hierarchies”), humans and animals (“ugly pets can also be cute”) and finally machines (there is a section entitled “Confucian cars”). There are references to the Holocene, Montaigne, the Kamasutra and AI. If there is a trade-off between tightly-reasoned rigor and accessibility, the authors have on the whole plumped for later.


I was left unconvinced. The authors start off with a sort of straw man argument that hierarchies are not universally or inherently bad. This allows them to deploy a counter argument in defense of the idea that the way China goes about arranging things, or some things, might in fact be just fine. This agenda is hardly hidden; on the contrary, they are quite open about it:


Our ideas originate from China: We support our arguments mainly (but not exclusively) with references to China’s history and philosophical traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism … And we write for China: We try to provide a coherent and rationally defensible account of the leading social and political ideas of China’s public culture that can be used to critically evaluate the political reality in China.


Fair enough, but the authors’ stated methodology is, rather than setting Western and Chinese thought at odds, to develop a universal paradigm for evaluating whether a given hierarchy is “just” or not. Their answer largely begs the question: the authors argue that a hierarchy is “just” if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks:


The choice today is not between a society with no hierarchies, but rather between a society with unjust hierarchies that perpetuate unjust power structures and one with just hierarchies that serve morally desirable purposes.


This can be hard to determine in any given case, but the larger issue is who gets to decide what is just and moral. The authors, in fairness, acknowledge this problem, but the net result—after citations from Confucius, Chinese history and the like—is that Chinese structures and practices should be evaluated in reference to Chinese conditions, situations and points of reference.

This, again, is a position not without merit, but it’s also the sort of argument that can be (and has been) used to justify just about anything. And it is, of course, an argument which is being stress-tested right now in the COVID-19 crisis.


There is sometimes a thin line between being thought-provoking and provocative and Bell, author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, has something of a reputation for putting Western noses out of joint. The book ends with a discussion on the dangers of AI:


Let’s assume that China wins the race for AI supremacy by 2030. It will be a Pyrrhic victory if the CCP regulates AI research at home while Google and others continue with their reckless research … The CCP will need to regulate AI research not just in China, but in the rest of the world as well… If we are unlucky, the last war involving humans will be a clash between the Chinese Communist Party and Google’s unfriendly creation, and for the sake of humanity we need to pray for the victory of the CCP.


This, from the perspective of the Western general reader this book is presumably aimed at, is a decidedly through-the-looking-glass view of the world.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.