Hierarchy in a Drowning World


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

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020



Imagine a drowning city. The collapse of the Greenland ice sheets has led to a ten-foot rise in global sea-levels. You think this is bad, but it is followed by further melting at the Aurora Basin in East Antarctica, resulting in another forty-foot rise. In his novel, New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson paints a picture of a flooded Manhattan, where morning commuters use vaporetti to travel to and from work and live in apartment towers that reach up out of the rising waters into the sky. As you might imagine, the city suffers from staggering income inequality. Hedge-fund millionaires weave in and out of shipping lanes in their private speedboats, as kids who can’t read ferry people around in leaky gondolas through waters poisoned with toxic waste. The world is facing an unprecedented existential threat. And survival will demand collective action and sacrifice. In such a world, what kind of government would you want calling the shots? 

This question is not something only out of the world of fiction. Climate change and a worldwide pandemic are on everyone’s mind. Yet, for all the talk, it could be argued that intellectuals are not discussing enough what types of government might be best suited for making the tough decisions necessary for long-term planning and collective preparation. One notable exception to this is political philosopher Daniel Bell, who for the last two decades, has been writing books and a seemingly endless stream of provocative op-ed pieces highlighting the ways in which less-democratic forms of government might be better suited to tackling the tough issues we now face. 

As Dean of the School of Political Science at Shandong University and a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Bell is uniquely positioned to compare the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese and Western political orders. In his last book, The China Model, Bell made a strong case for what he called “political meritocracy,” with leaders selected “in accordance with ability and virtue” rather than by the ballot. As Kyle Hutzler wrote in his New Rambler Review essay, this earned The China Model a place on just as many “best of” lists as it did strident rebuttals.

In his latest book, Just Hierarchies: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, he goes in an interesting new direction. Authored with Wang Pei, an academic at Fudan University in Shanghai, the book is more grounded in Chinese culture and history. This is most likely thanks to Wang Pei and her known specialization in Chinese intellectual history. In this new work, the authors analyze how decisions are made for the collective good and how concepts of hierarchy function in terms of meritocracy, bureaucracy, and the good life. Exploring systems of political meritocracy and hierarchies mainly found in the Confucian-influenced societies of East Asia, as well as in ancient Buddhist governing practices found in Ashoka’s India (c. 268 to 232 BCE), the authors work to make their case for what they call just hierarchies. 

Similar to the related terms of bureaucracy and meritocracy, hierarchy is a concept rife with negative connotations. Common sense might suggest that it is the elimination of hierarchies, from race and gender to those found in our political systems, that should be our common goal. Bell and Wang argue that hierarchies exist everywhere and rather than trying to stamp them out—an impossible task, in any case—we should be examining how they function in terms of efficiency and the greater good. With their focus on East Asia, the authors investigate hierarchies in the main spheres of life: in private—between lovers, spouses, friends, and neighbors—as well as in public spaces in order to uncover what types of hierarchical systems should be preserved and strengthened—and which need to be thrown out. The latter chapters of the book take a surprising and intriguing turn by looking at hierarchies between humans and animals (Ch. 4) and humans and machines (Ch. 5).

In what is perhaps the book’s most compelling argument, the authors assert that the most beneficial forms of hierarchal relations entail what we might refer to as an ethics of care. This is not the exact term the authors use, but it’s a good way of making sense of the recurring notion that hierarchies are morally justified if they involve the care of those with less power on the bottom of such hierarchies. These relationships of care—care of the elderly (Ch.1); care for citizens (Ch.2); care for weak countries (Ch. 3); and care for animals (Ch. 4)—should be based on what the authors call “strong reciprocity.” 

To illustrate this, they begin their book with a description of the seating arrangements of formal gatherings in Shandong. Tradition stipulates that the guest of honor be seated to the right of the principle host who is placed in the position furthest from the door, while the co-host (male or female) sits in the opposite chair nearest the door. What may seem like a tedious or even hypocritical expression of social position and rank is not only endorsed but often enjoyed because these protocols facilitate the smooth unfolding of a drinking party. Ideally the etiquette results in the relationships between the members being strengthened. It is a ritual in which everyone knows their role and where guests can feel honored. It is also reciprocal since the warm hospitality received would be reciprocated in kind.  

Perhaps an easier to understand example of how this works can come from the parent-child relationship. Japan is where I spent my adult life. Like in other parts of East Asia, in Japan filial piety is alive and well. Traditionally, the eldest son or daughter not only inherits all family assets but this child also inherits the obligation of caring for their parents into old age. While this used to be part of the legal code, now there are laws stipulating an equal distribution of assets if there is no will. In the case of my marriage to an eldest son, it was decided between the two brothers that the younger brother would inherit-- and likewise care for the parents. Just like in America, there are a myriad of varying cases of how this works, but at base the obligation a child has toward their parents is much more strongly emphasized. In Singapore, there are filial-support laws which enforce the reciprocity of the relationship.

As a Confucian society, people in Japan trust that vertical hierarchies help foster communitarian values and the greater good. Japan, like Korea and China, considers itself to be a collectivist society, called shudan shugi. In societies without such hierarchies, motivations are founded on self-benefit, which might be advantageous for some individuals, but creates a less harmonious and less egalitarian society as a whole. This is perhaps counter-intuitive, but the vertical societies of Japan and South Korea have flatter wealth gaps. It must be said that this is not so of China, which has almost American levels of income inequality and similar holes in their social safety nets, including a lack of a national healthcare. Much of the criticism to Bell’s 2015 book, The China Model, is due to the fact that he is based in China, which is not living up to its own traditional—or even its communist—philosophical ideals. Bell and Wang are aware of these problems and their study is thus more wide-ranging, exploring meritocratic variants from Japan and Singapore to France. 

France might not be a Confucian society, but within Europe the country is known for its top-heavy style of government. With a President who holds tremendous power and government ministries that are entrusted to promote regulation well beyond what is considered typical in other countries, it is seen within Europe as being more bureaucratic and paternalistic in its style of government. Wages and labor issues are much more strongly regulated than in neighboring countries and there is even a ministry that works on issues of language usage. When we think of rising waters caused by carbon emissions, for example, France was able to make tough and unpopular decisions regarding nuclear energy. I am not promoting nuclear energy per se—only making the point that when public opinion in Germany effectively stalled this carbon-clean form of energy, France was able to do what their scientists felt necessary to maintain a footprint that remains significantly less per person that that of Germany. Similarly, we can look at how a vertical system vs a non-vertical has handled other key issues. For example, how Singapore has addressed the perils of COVID vs. Italy or the US. How Korea addressed global recession in 2009 vs. Britain. How different countries are handling climate change—which are able to make rapid change vs those flailing due to their political systems and what the authors call the tyranny of public opinion. 

One modern requirement for a healthy democracy demands an educated and stable middle class. But what to do when the population eschews life-long learning and people no longer reads books—instead relying on corporate media pieces shared on social media designed to generate “clicks” by inflaming rather than informing—often to the detriment of nuance and truth? We now find ourselves in a world in which the 24-hour news cycle—fueled by social media—is eroding our ability to engage in critical reasoning to solve complex problems, or at least elect leaders that can. This is to ask: what happens when political decisions are held hostage to public opinion that itself is based on profound misunderstandings of science and history? Then what? Well, we would find ourselves in a society where one person’s ignorance is equivalent to someone else’s expertise. It is a lack of faith in experts that has led to an America that votes for politicians based on their personalities and star-quality rather than for demonstrated experience in leadership and government. We have a congress of successful business people and the lawyers who protect them. Contrast that with possible governments composed of physicists, engineers, medical doctors, chemists, and—wait for it—moral philosophers?



In examining the distinction between relationships that are vertical (emphasizing hierarchy) vs. horizontal (valuing social equality), the authors tackle the concept of legitimacy. In Western democracies, notions of equality, checks and balances, as well as government transparency form the basis of legitimacy. We have seen in East Asian countries how things can tilt toward what has been called politely as “paternalistic.” The authors address this by suggesting that the moral justifications of leadership can be found in Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist philosophies; they also appeal to simple common sense. For example, if economic inequality or other forms of social unrest becomes destabilizing, then the validity of the hierarchy needs to be questioned. We saw this happening in South Korea in 2016-2017, when millions of citizens took to the streets to demand the resignation of the President Park Geun-hye, as well as the firing of several members of her cabinet for various improprieties. 

The question can also be presented in reverse, by asking whether American-style individualism and the pursuit of happiness, freedom, and consumerism might become serious obstacles when crises demand sacrifice for the communal good? Is the most we can hope for equal opportunity to claw our way to the top regardless of the health and security of the group? Shouldn’t societies be judged by their treatment and protection of its weaker and more vulnerable members?

Of any modern country, Singapore perhaps takes the best stab at bringing this kind of thinking in how it structures its government. Being steeped in both British education and Confucian values, Singapore’s founders sought to blend East and West in ways that would create stability for a practically resourceless and tiny nation-state. While maintaining a Westminster system of government, Singapore’s ever-dominant People’s Action Party has sought to create socialistic, or collectivist aims using capitalistic methods. The “no beggar bowl” society has used government to create affordable housing, 94% homeownership, universal healthcare, retirement planning, top-tier education, often negative unemployment rates (currently 3% in the middle of a global economic crisis) and the world’s fourth highest Per Capita GDP exceeding that of every European and Western country aside from Luxembourg. Singapore has been consistently rated the most transparent government in the world for more than a decade – priding itself on having stamped out corruption and graft. A major reason why this all works for Singapore is people’s faith that their government has their best interests at heart and that stability and economic equality are higher priorities than individual choices or the weight of individual opinions. Like corporate executives, Singapore’s top leaders are paid salaries in excess of USD $1 million per year with bonus packages for meeting key economic and social metrics. In turn, the people expect their leaders to optimize their well-being—staying above the tides of public opinion and short-term politics. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet are entrusted with keeping the ship stable and on the right course—and they are considered to be the top minds and specialists capable of doing that. They are given a paternalistic deference to be allowed to do their jobs. The results of this social contract speak for themselves.

Over the years, Bell’s work has received criticism suggesting it is an apology of the Chinese party-state. But I think that misses the point since his ideas are not about the CCP but about communitarian values found in traditional East Asian thought and how these can inform the political system and our lives—both in China and the rest of the world. In discussing just hierarchy between citizens, for example, Bell and Wang take some time to remind readers of the strong points of the old imperial examination system in China, which was open to almost all members of society with exams taken blind to prevent a selection process that favored the children of aristocratic families. Europe would not see anything like it until comparatively recent times. Even now in Japan and France, top students of top universities compete with each other to enter government service and the government bureaucracy. In the West, bureaucracies are looked at with some disdain, though it has to be said that it is questionable whether a government of non-experts and a relentless business sensibility has created a better society. I would argue it has not. 



Another chapter of particular interest was Chapter 3 on the “Just Hierarchy between States,” in which relations between nation-states must also be founded “on the need for reciprocity” (106). Invoking David Kang’s provocative book, East Asia Before the West, the authors point out that in 500 years of the Chinese Imperial Tributary System, there was only one war. Also that borders between China and the Tributary counties of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were respected during that period. Despite the fact that the countries were in an unequal relationship, they maintained balance and harmony. Bell and Wang suggest this happened because the system demanded that China act in ways that was not in always its immediate self-interest. For example, technology transfers and trade relations that were beneficial to the weaker states maintained in order for the status quo to be maintained. 

This might not sound very appealing. But in terms of climate change, don’t the developed and more powerful countries have an obligation to take into account that the average poor person in less developed parts of the world would likely prefer to climb out of poverty quickly by burning cheap coal as they have until now rather than accept cuts to progress that might be small potatoes for the average Californian. The problem with policies like the Paris Agreement is that they expect both poor and rich countries to make huge sacrifices for very small benefits. And how it must irk to be in a post-colonial country and hear the big boys in the north tell you that, sorry, you are late to the party. Taking a cue from the great Buddhist King Ashoka of India, the authors discuss the way more powerful countries can lead in ways that show humility. The authors are not-so-implicitly critical of China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” and say that China can play a leading role in the East Asian region only if it gains the trust of neighboring countries by abandoning the attitude of moral superiority that characterized the tributary system and be open to learning from the cultures of neighboring states (137-38).

If we have learned nothing else in 2020, it’s that things can change very quickly with the local becoming the global. When the going gets tough, who do you want making decisions? I suggest you will want someone committed to the collective good. And you might also want a person not bound by special interest in election cycles. Someone who can make tough decisions based on rational and informed analysis of short and long-term community benefits and risks. We all know that our model of endless growth, personal optimization, and consumerism-as-citizenship is simply not sustainable, not for the planet and not even for those winning the race to the top. It is time to herald in a new age.

The problems we face will require working together, both in communities and more, between nation-states. Bell and Wang want us to acknowledge that beneficial hierarchies exist. And our job is to make use of them where appropriate to make a more just world. For as the authors take pain to insist, hierarchies exist no matter what, and it is our job as citizens to insist that they be the types that promote compassion and protection of the vulnerable—dare I say even economic justice—rather than those that do not.



Posted on 7 January 2021

LEANNE OGASAWARA has worked as a Japanese translator for over twenty-five years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film. Her creative writing has appeared in the Kyoto Journal, River Teeth/Beautiful Things, Hedgehog Review, the Dublin Review of Books, the Pasadena Star newspaper, and Sky Island Journal. She also has a monthly column at the science and arts blog 3 Quarks Daily.