Daniel A. Bell, born in 1964 in Montreal and raised in a working class family, was educated at McGill before obtaining a DPhil from Oxford in the area of political theory. He is a Canadian Confucian scholar who has lived in China for the past 20 years working for the last five years as the Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University. The current location of the Shandong province of China is the birthplace of Confucius. Bell wrote this book in what seems to me to be a playful yet serious way. It includes eleven chapters with quirky titles such as A Critique of Cuteness and Drinking Without Limits. An enjoyable read, it is composed of short stories of Bell’s life in Shandong. It gives the reader a firsthand account of living in a country/civilization that is impossible to find in the Western media. The description of the constraints that collective leadership impose on decision making in the upper echelons of a university are instructive. The ability of groups to be brutally honest about appointment and promotion matters while preventing the humiliation of those not chosen for either of these paths is illuminating. The need to explicitly state ‘everything’ to ‘everybody’ is absent. Another topic that receives attention is the relationship between teachers/professors and students. One sees more affection and honesty than is often found in universities. In one instance Professor Bell is accused of a bad attitude by one of his students who later apologizes and claims he was drunk when he upbraided Bell for his rather selfish approach to a ‘disappointment’. True to his study and understanding of Confucian thought, Bell provides examples of his own self-criticism, which is refreshing to read from an accomplished scholar.
At the outset, Bell declares his stated purpose of writing the book, to dedemonize China. He has patiently and with good humour explained how the Chinese political system works and how he managed to ‘stumble’ his way through his five-year deanship making the kind of mistakes everyone makes when they are in unfamiliar territory. In addition, one can pick up along the way an outline of the history of Confucian thought and learn about the Chinese as a civilization, not simply a nation state or a political entity.
Regarding Bell’s stated purpose of writing the book, it is necessary to examine the concept of demonization which is all too common in these days of rampant hate mongering.
To demonize is to misrepresent someone or something as being entirely evil, contemptible, demonic. This is an unpleasant subject as it is all too obvious that this process, coupled with the underlying presence of racism, elitism, ethnocentrism, religious prejudice and our many human ways of putting ourselves above our fellow humans, grows quickly.
Demonization of nations, civilizations, ethnic groups now appears to be an easy task for those who wish to dabble in this unsavoury art. First one must prevent the publishing of anything that might point to positive characteristics of those being demonized. Then of course one needs a megaphone which in modern societies is provided by the mass media. Journalists must be on board and editors must be like conductors, orchestrating ‘expert’ opinions and moving quickly from probable evil doings to certainty that such atrocities have happened. Eventually, those making outrageous statements without credible evidence must be believed.
Growing up in a strict fundamentalist religious environment of the Protestant variety, I quickly picked up some seriously misguided ideas about who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. As a child one of my first encounters with shame was when I spoke freely about the ‘facts’ I had been fed in a mixed congregation. The adults who had fed me these judgmental ideas were embarrassed and tried to hush me up, making me feel uncomfortable and guilty of some misdeed which I couldn’t identify. So that was my first lesson. One could be prejudiced and state ‘facts’ that were not true or at least highly suspect, but one had to be careful about how this was done.
I later read about the demonization of Russians during the Cold War when I was encouraged to think of Russian and Soviet society as being comprised of evil or, at best, sadly deluded people who believed what was written in their newspapers. It is interesting to look back and see that at the same time I was encouraged to believe what was written in Canadian newspapers.
Professor Bell gave a keynote address at “Les Géopolitiques de Brest 2021” in which he addressed the issue as to “Why China is Demonized in the West”. He provided a rational analysis of how the West perceives China, what is expected of China, how China’s government and society is viewed in the West and how for many in the West, democracy is only possible if there is a ‘one person, one vote’ system in place.
An example of the demonization of China was the theory that China had spread the COVID 19 virus from Wuhan to several cities in the West (London, New York, San Francisco, Paris and Rome) by allowing planes to fly to these cities after Jan. 23rd when it stopped planes flying from Wuhan to other cities in China. The accusation could have been made by some journalist who hadn’t done his/her homework but was in fact made by a highly trained and well-respected historian with a DPhil from Oxford, Professor Niall Ferguson. Extensive research was then undertaken by Daniel Bell to discover what flights had left Wuhan after Jan. 23, 2020 and what their destinations were. It turned out that this accusation made against China was unfounded. This story is well covered in Bell’s blog initially posted April 21, 2020 and I include it here to note the legs that such accusations have when made by highly regarded academics. There was no retraction that I am aware of, and further no apology for making such a serious ‘mistake’. In fact, Professor Ferguson felt he was owed an apology by Professor Bell.
This is the nature of demonization. It is assumed that the one or the group being demonized must prove a negative, that he/she/they are not demon(s) and even when the evidence is fictitious or presented wrongly, the onus is on the demonized to correct the wrong impression and in many cases, without the megaphone the media provided in the first place.
Every society has the disgruntled, the people who interpret everything the government does in a negative light and can convince those who don’t know the society to be highly critical of policies and processes. Every society has examples of human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice. Yes, even Canada has these. I think back to a book by Edward Greenspan who was a criminal lawyer in Toronto. What sticks in my memory is a man who was picked up after an American was shot while hunting in Quebec during the 50’s or 60’s. For being in the wrong place at the wrong time and without an adequate legal defense, an innocent man was executed. Such were the sentiments of the day that Canada did not want to lose valuable ‘hunting tourism’ and needed to resolve the case with speed to the satisfaction of the American public.
Every society has dissidents. Now imagine these dissidents getting a megaphone around the world with the media amplifying everything they write about a country from that viewpoint. Presto! You have demonization! Pour that onto the fertile soil of prejudice that already exists against ‘the other’ and you have the explosion of hatred towards a group of people or a country.
The views of dissidents or those who hold very negative opinions about the person/group being demonized are often assumed, many times without any credible evidence, to be true.
Professor Wang Gungwu MBE, Asia’s illustrious sinologist, in his mid 90’s, who can lecture, without notes for an hour explaining how Asia has come to be what it is now, has stated recently that ‘untruths repeated often enough’ become truth. That is the frightening part of this.
My main reservation for this book is the stated goal. Professor Bell hopes that rational presentation of facts and history from someone who knows his way around several blocks, having been educated in McGill and Oxford, would be enough to have the scales fall from the eyes of those who see demons instead of Chinese people but I have my doubts.
I do recommend his book to anyone seeking to understand what it is like to traverse the globe and assume a high-level teaching position in a country so different from Canada where Professor Daniel Bell was born and became an adult. Perhaps Bell will succeed in his quest and I applaud his efforts in that regard, but it is a tall order to overcome years of disinformation as well as at least 2 centuries of racism.
It has been shocking to see the anti-Asian hatred in many Canadians and the biased reporting. Accusation turns into verdict without credible evidence. The Canada I grew up in was more open minded and fair. I wonder where that Canada has gone? I suspect intelligence agencies and personnel that produce leaks and suspicions without foundation don’t help. Real intelligence is rare these days. It is surprising to see anonymous intelligence reports without a shred of evidence taken as fact to persecute people. Is this a rules-based order? Where are the rules? And more importantly, where is the order?
Saralee Turner (MLS) is a citizen of Singapore who was trained as a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario. Born and raised in Toronto, Turner spent much of her adult life in Asia working with several libraries in Singapore before her retirement.