Chinese social hierarchies help to explain the country’s failure—and success—in coping with Covid.
One of us, Wang Pei, was trained in a radical French philosophy that included strong feminist and egalitarian commitments. The other, Daniel A. Bell, was a defender of a Confucian tradition long denounced by progressive forces on grounds of what was seen as its conservative and patriarchal outlook. Pei eventually became more sympathetic to the positive elements of the Confucian tradition, while Daniel became more sympathetic to the socialist tradition’s espousal of egalitarian social relations. That merger, “progressive conservatism,” became the basis of the book Just Hierarchy, a defense of some—though not all—hierarchical social and political arrangements.
The book was published on March 3, 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in China. Book talks and panels were canceled. By late March, though, China had successfully contained Covid. Restaurants and bars reopened. With the exception of international travel, life basically returned to normal.
The book had an unexpected impact in the West. It was positively reviewed in mainstream media outlets like the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and longer reviews were published online and in academic periodicals. It was the first systematic work on an important and under-studied topic: Which social hierarchies are morally justified in the modern world, and why?
Political factors were also at work. On the one hand, the Covid crisis revealed the need to distinguish between bad and good social hierarchies, which can both cause and combat health emergencies. On the other, the book was misconstrued as a defense of the Chinese political system, which is increasingly seen as an existential threat to liberal democracy.
Social Hierarchies and Public Health Emergencies
As of June 2021, more than a half-million American citizens had died of Covid. In contrast, mainland China has officially registered 4,636 such deaths. Even considering dubious accounting, Covid deaths were only a tiny fraction of those in the United States and other large countries.
So, why did China do relatively well at coping with Covid? One important reason is that the Chinese hold social hierarchies to be desirable. Respect for and trust in social hierarchies helped combat Covid.
True, many blame China’s rigidly hierarchical political system for the coronavirus crisis. Local officials muzzled conscientious professionals—most famously Dr. Li Wenliang, who succumbed to the deadly virus at the age of thirty-three two months after warning about it in December of 2019. Rather than considering the scientific facts, Wuhan authorities let political considerations trump public health. The delay allowed the disease to spread, spawning a global pandemic. Untold numbers of lives have been lost.
Why did things go so wrong in a system that prides itself on selecting public officials with superior ability? In China’s political hierarchy, it’s hard to get things done without approval by high-level political authorities. Thus, Wuhan authorities suppressed Covid information until they had legal approval from the central government. Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang said, “As a local government, we may disclose information only after we are given permission to do so.” The country’s anti-corruption drive may have made things worse: Public officials, fearing the harsh punishment visited on corrupt officials, are now more risk-averse.
Decision-making without explicit support from higher-ups has become virtually paralyzed in China: Bad forms of political hierarchy contributed to the Covid crisis. The lesson is obvious: Truth-telling professionals should have the freedom to expose problems before they explode. This is nothing new: 2,500 years ago, Confucius warned that a ruler would lead his country to ruin if no one stood up to mistaken policies. The Chinese government has since offered a “formal apology” to Li Wenliang’s family, but constraints on Chinese freedom of speech have become even more severe since his death.
That’s the bad form of Chinese social and political hierarchy.
The good forms of social hierarchy became more evident when central Chinese authorities, informed by scientific advice, made the unprecedented decision to lock down Wuhan and Hubei and impose severe restrictions on the rest of China. The disease was brought under control within a few weeks. There were relatively few deaths compared with those in hard-hit countries elsewhere.
China’s success, and that of neighboring East Asian countries, was partly due to its recent experience fighting viral epidemics like SARS and MERS: China’s leaders and people knew the damages from viral epidemics and could take quick control measures without much controversy. But there was also an important influence by hierarchical traditions like Legalism and Confucianism.
One legacy of Chinese Legalism—and its modern Leninist incarnation—is the need for a strong, centralized state able to take harsh measures against serious and immediate threats to social order. Chinese rulers have often relied on Legalist justifications for heavy-handed state power and harsh punishments to achieve their ends. Indeed, one lesson of the “hundred years of humiliation” and civil war before 1949 was the need for a strong, centralized, effective government to provide social order. The latest manifestation of this tradition is the massive top-down mobilization of state power to contain the coronavirus epidemic. Once the central government gave clear directives in late January, the whole country was put under full or semi-quarantine; each level of government strictly followed orders to prioritize fighting the disease with the most modern technology available. As President Xi put it, “We must encourage the application of big data, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and other digital technology to play a better supporting role in monitoring and analyzing outbreaks, tracing viruses, prevention and treatment, and allocating resources.”
There was hardly any concern for privacy or individual autonomy.
Still, draconian measures justified by Legalism cannot fully explain China’s success. The Confucian tradition also played an important role. Dutiful citizens largely complied with limits on privacy and freedom because they had Confucian-style faith that the government was acting in their best interests. They would not have complied if they had thought such controls were permanent.
More specific Confucian values also contributed to success. Filial piety and reverence for the elderly help explain why East Asian countries took such strong measures to protect people from a disease that is particularly dangerous for the elderly (within families, adult children often wore masks and asked children to do so to protect elderly relatives). In contrast, countries that venerate the young, like Sweden, chose an approach that New York Times columnist Ross Douthat termed, “Let the old die for herd immunity.” Also, East Asian countries’ relatively distant greeting practices, like bowing, helped minimize contagion when compared with, for example, the kissing and hugging common in Italy, Spain, and France.
Perhaps most important, Confucian-inspired respect for expertise, which is widely shared in East Asian countries, also increased the effectiveness of scientifically informed policies. In China, when eighty-two-year-old Dr. Zhong Nanshan, famous for leading the fight against SARS, warned of the severity of the coronavirus on January 20, 2020, the country listened and prepared for the worst. Such modern-day junzi (exemplary persons) command great authority: They are trusted to use their expertise to serve the common good. In countries like the United States, which have a more anti-elitist ethos, experts do not exert the same level of social influence. Dr. Anthony Fauci is perhaps more admired in China than in the United States.
Thus, bad forms of hierarchy, embodying conservatism and fear of retribution in a rigid top-down political system, contributed to the spread of the epidemic; but good forms of hierarchy, including meritocratically chosen officials, trust in conscientious experts, and regard for the elderly, along with customs like distant greeting practices, help explain China’s success. Whatever Covid’s origins, if the rest of the world had followed China’s approach, we would be dealing with an epidemic that had killed thousands to date rather than millions.
Distinguishing between good and bad hierarchies doesn’t just explain China’s failures and successes; it can help prevent Covid-style calamities in the future. The solution to the problem of bad hierarchies is not to abolish hierarchies altogether, but to improve them. A healthy hierarchical political system both empowers public officials to implement policies that benefit people and allows trained professionals to criticize and suggest improvements. China does well at the former, Western countries at the latter. A system offering both advantages would have an edge in future public health emergencies.
Explaining Just Hierarchies to the Rest of the World
Is there any reason to think that Western countries will become more open to the ideal of just hierarchies in politics or everyday life? It’s hard to be optimistic. One reason lies in the very cultural foundations of Western societies. Societies that prioritize privacy and individual autonomy tend to reject Legalist-style totalitarian measures, even as short-term responses to urgent health crises. People in cultures that reject social hierarchies, even public-regarding and scientifically informed ones, are less likely to dutifully follow leaders who call for sacrifices in times of crisis.
In practice, of course, there is a giant disconnect between what people do and what they say. As the distinguished historian James Hankins put it, “My observation is that everybody in the West thinks they favor equality over hierarchy, but everybody tries desperately to rise in whatever hierarchy they find themselves.” It’s worth asking why there is seemingly irrational fear of social hierarchy tout court in Western societies. One reason for the default moral position against hierarchy is that the word hierarchy itself has a strong pejorative connotation in English; indeed, the whole idea of a “just hierarchy” sounds oxymoronic to Anglophones.
The Chinese word dengji (等级) is similarly pejorative, referring to unjust rankings like those based on race or sex. But the Chinese language also offers neutral- or positive-sounding terms for hierarchy—like chaxu (差序), cengzhi (层秩), zhengxu (正序), and cengji (层级), each tied to a particular kind of social hierarchy. True, it is a challenge to find a neutral-sounding Chinese word that covers all social hierarchies; but in English, the use of hierarchy in a neutral sense is mainly restricted to scientific realms such as biology.
Moreover, in Western societies, the dominant narrative of modernity is that traditional hierarchies expressed and institutionalized unjust values like racism, sexism, and aristocratic privilege. Social progress, it follows, involves rejecting hierarchies and endorsing modern values like equality and freedom.
In China, by contrast, traditional hierarchies and modern values are not viewed as polar opposites, especially in the wake of what is now seen as the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, which sought to extirpate the “four olds.” For traditional Confucian thinkers like Xunzi, the opposite of hierarchy is not equality but chaos. This view remains widely shared in today’s China.
In Western societies, linguistic and historical biases against social hierarchy are reinforced by a cognitive bias. It’s easier to understand what we mean by “bad” hierarchies because they all have the same salient character: Hierarchies tend to be seen as relatively fixed relations of power, like social rankings based on race or sex, that benefit those on top and harm those on the bottom. But that is not true of all social hierarchies. For example, there are good prima facie reasons to defer to the expertise of public officials with proven records of scientifically informed judgments made for the common good. But it’s complicated to spell out the justifications for morally justified social hierarchies because these justifications vary according to social relations. As we argue in our book, what justifies hierarchy in families is different from what justifies it among citizens, countries, humans and animals, and humans and intelligent machines. Given the strongly-held default moral position against social hierarchy, some Western readers may not want to engage with these relatively complex arguments for morally justified social hierarchies.
Western views of China’s current political system may also have closed the minds of some readers. Just Hierarchy defends an ideal, but it argues that there is a huge gap between the ideal and current Chinese practice and that the Chinese Communist Party needs to decrease that gap by acting more humane and less repressive. The book’s argument was taken by some as a defense of China’s status quo. Our critical standpoint is more evident to intellectuals in China, including, we regret to report, the censors of the Chinese translation of our book (we had proposed “Towards Progressive Conservatism” as a subtitle for our book, but the idea was vetoed on the grounds that the words for both “progressive” (进步主义) and “conservative” (保守主义) are too politically sensitive).
On the other hand, some scholars, like Roda Mushkat and Elena Ziliotti, wrote constructive and empirically informed critiques of the book; so did reviewers who share a “progressive conservative” outlook. It is not so uncommon, in fact, for Western thinkers to defend progressive values while respecting—if not celebrating—some kinds of traditional hierarchy. Left-leaning Catholics defend the Vatican’s religious hierarchy while advocating more grassroots activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Reform Jews adhere to religious rituals with hierarchical origins but respect the value of equality between women and men. Progressive defenders of the monarchy in the United Kingdom and Canada argue that the institution should become more sensitive to racial equality—but not be abolished. Compassionate conservatives argue that we should try to reform hierarchical institutions so that they benefit those with less power rather than seek to cancel all the symbols and legacies of our non-progressive ancestors.
Beyond that, social hierarchies—in companies, religious organizations, the military, universities, and NGOs—also shape our everyday lives. They, too, need to be justified, though the justifications will likely differ in their particulars. Just Hierarchy is a starting point meant to stimulate the effort to distinguish between good and bad social hierarchies so that we can promote the former and stamp out the latter in pursuit of a more just world.
Daniel A. Bell is dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University in Qingdao.Wang Pei is assistant professor at the China Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. They are co-authors of Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World (2020).
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