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Apr 12Liked by Branko Milanovic

I interviewed Bai Tongdong in 2011 and he argued the same things, perhaps less systematically. At the time, even if I didn't agree with it, I found quite brilliant (and very Chinese) the idea that it would be useless to pursue an impossible equality, so let's try to make inequality useful for everyone. However, it also seemed quite obvious to me that he intended above all to give an "international" status to neo-Confucianism, inserting it into the debate on justice "à la Rawls" and making it completely compatible with capitalism. From my point of view, these conceptions are the snapshot of the "ideal" Chinese system, they try to marry Confucius with the Leninist avant-garde and at the same time with the market. In this sense, they are also a warning to the CPC in order to be always efficient and paternalistic, not corrupt. Moreover, it is also explicit in the latest resolution on history by the CCP (2021) that Marxism remains as a scientific theory of development whose culmination is the realization of "Chinese values"

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I think one of the objectives of the book is "rehabilitation" of Confucius and Mencius, i.e. the claim that their systems are a legitimate political philosophy although Confucius' writings (that I am familiar with are prone to enormous amount of interpretation & are written in a style that is far from political philosophy. On the other topic, an explicit call for intervention & civilization of yi societies is entirely against CPC policy & practice.

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I also think that the structural symmetry btw the domestic & international case has not been noticed before. And to me, it is like the coup de grace for the entire system proposed by Bai.

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You mean it’s entirely against CPC policy & practice because of the non interference principle of the CPC?

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Agree. But just to make it clear: Bai's views are not identical with the official Chinese position. Re. international relations, they are clearly differently. Even re. domestic political selection, they may differ in emphasis (political conformism vs. education; people's value vs. ethics etc).

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The same as Zhao Tingyang and his “Tianxia” theory. It is not the "official" theory of the Chinese state, but in the theory you can find some hints about China's line, especially in foreign policy. I tend to believe there is a sort of tradition among Chinese intellectuals who somehow “compete” to become advisors to the emperor

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Apr 12·edited Apr 12

‘…the “ideal” state, according to Bai’s own rules, could be regarded by a liberal democratic state as a yi state because it does not accept democracy and the rule by the people’

Time and time again it is unbelievable how hardcore liberals keep promoting the democratic swindle about western bourgeois parliamentarism by parroting those empty stereoptypes about freedom and democracy, like there were the slightest idea about a ‘rule of the people’ and a ‘state of law’ in western liberal political affairs if you give that claptrap a reality check. It is following the tried and tested pattern of constant repetition just so it gets some kind of semblance of reality and truth if you repeat it often enough. Marx devestating dictum of the ‘democratic swindle’ holds true…

And the statement that ….’this unequal order had some chances to be accepted, tacitly or not, thousands of years ago, but it has (close to) zero chance to be accepted today’… just leaves one speechless, given the US drive to world hegemony, fascist tendencies among liberal political elites in the west and the blatant inequalities in economic and social class relations in developed nations. The statement disqualifies itself. Only some privileged upperclass liberal can argue like that…

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This point is not made from a liberal perspective (although it mgt sound as such) but from the PoV that does not accept "meritocracy" based on fanciful criteria domestically and flagrant interventionism abroad, the two key points in Bai's interpretation of Mencius.

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Fair enough, but ‘meritocracy’ is a liberal concept covering the econonmic sphere of society and this much touted bourgeois meritocracy is a trap - it is a liberal apology for inequality and the justification of class society

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As with the Chinese intelligentsia, the Western intelligentsia refuses to see how nurture, in the form of a better quality education, housing, food, even medical care, can override nature. That is a person’s environment can improve, create, degrade, or just flat out destroy one’s natural abilities. Admitting that would threaten their access to the benefits of being in a higher class especially in a very hierarchical society that strictly measures benefits or resources an individual gets using that hierarchy.

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To prevent misunderstanding of what follows, I'll start by saying I 100% agree with your take on Nurture-via-Education-and-Standard-of-Living. That neither Milanovic nor Bai included the 尚书/Shujing/_Book of Documents_, in which the very concept of 天明, the Mandate of Heaven, is born; and Xunzi's works -- to me the most excellent of the Confucian vision, the Aristotle to Confucius' Socrates and Mencius' Plato -- frankly disappoints me. As does Branko's seeming incredulity that the 论语 / _Analects_ is a fundamentally political work. Maybe I've read and annotated it too many times, in too many translations, with too many supplemental scholarly books.

BUT... if by "Chinese intelligentsia" you mean the CPC, I disagree with what I take to be your characterization as indifferent or worse to nurturing the people.

As a guy who chose to forfeit the Golden Handcuffs of Western international school teaching in order to work in mainland-Chinese "international" schools - i.e., no expat students or administrators now, only Chinese - eight years ago, I saw ceaseless evidence of government intent to improve not only the academic and moral education of the young, but also to make access to good education less unequal (the latter most visibly in the "Two Reductions" campaign to outlaw zhongkao and gaokao test-prep schools). Better still, I saw the effects behaviorally in students. They still have a long way to go, but they are visibly trying and, I think, sincere. It's in the self-interest of "the Communist Dynasty" to fear the Mandate of Heaven too. And I say that less than half-jokingly.

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Thank you, Prof. Milanovic, for your review. I appreciate the fact that you gave a good overview of my starting points: how the historical transition Confucius and Mencius faced (the Zhou-Qin transition) is a form of early modernity, and how to read the early Chinese classics, which were written quite differently from typical Western philosophical works. It is also important that you notice the symmetry between my domestic and international proposals.

Now, about how to identify the meritocrats, first, I argue that on the very local level, only one person one vote is needed. Only in larger communities, is the bicameral structure needed. Of the meritocratic chamber, exam is only one way to select the meritocrats. Members of the upper chamber can be voted in by legislators one level lower. This "levelled" model was practiced by the Americans during the founding of the U.S. Another mechanism is to identify "proxies" for merits (capacities of compassion and intellect). A quota system can be offered to the military, environmental and other NGOs, scientific associations, and etc. A two-term governor can be given a one 10-year term in the upper chamber (with no possibility of reappointment). Exam is used only as one of the three mechanisms, and even here, I suggested that exams should only be used as qualifications for people who wish to run for the upper chamber. Yes, those who do well in exams are not necessarily wise and compassionate politicians, but exams do test people's capacity to learn and to persevere. Besides, wouldn't it be good if every American senator can pass the foreign service exam (so as to know where Iraq is) before they can vote on the Iraq war?

Of the de-facto class stratification and solidification, it happens in any and every society, and I don't see how the three mechanisms fare worse than a democratic system. The "Confucian" state offers at least the education (which will be tested) that the higher status of someone can only be justified by the service to the "lowly" people. 

On the international scale, military interventions are only the last resort. More often, for example, in my proposed order (the Confucian Tian Xia Order), a country cannot hide behind sovereignty while emitting a lot of CO2. Other countries are justified to criticize or even sanction that country. Only in extreme circumstances, for example, when people of a state are starving to death, and this state still threatens other countries with military invasions or is busy with producing nuclear weapons, can a military intervention be justified. No military intervention (not even an economic sanction) can be justified on values alone. Indeed, your counterexample is more like what I am worried about liberal interventionism: a country can be attacked for violating human rights (or whatever values the liberal democracies hold sacred). 

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Many thanks Prof. Bai for the thoughtful response to this review!

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.... Now, about how to identify the meritocrats, first, I argue that on the very local level, only one person one vote is needed. ....

Presumably the last few millennia of the Chinese civilisation provide ample basis for devising such ways, with their characteristics being developed according to the historical and geographic circumstances of the actors. Without having read the book, it sounds odd that you need to speak on this problem as if all depends on your ideas. Mr. Milanovic could be pointed to, say, The Annals of Lü Buwei, and so on.

....Of the de-facto class stratification and solidification, it happens in any and every society....

1. Neolithic societies demonstrate a high degree of egalitarianism : viz., no special burials. And, given that they were also societies of peace, stability and prosperity higher than the subsequent periods, there is hardly an obvious reason why we could not think how to take lessons from them.

2. The very term "meritocracy" was invented by the British Labour intellectual Michael Dunlop Young, in order to point out its inherent tendency to lead to not just social stratification, but a stratificational disaster. It would be constructive if Confucianists and other Chinese intellectuals were to directly address his argument, as well as the the arguments of a number of other Western critics of elitism, like Ivan Illich, the authors of The Bell Curve (1994), etc.

.... In my proposed order (the Confucian Tian Xia Order), a country cannot hide behind sovereignty while emitting a lot of CO2. ...

There appears to be a problem, in that science is an organised pursuit of the truth rather than a body of knowledge, while politics functions as if the knowledge of the truth is already in ruler's possession. Politics does not and arguably can not nourish an understanding of the whimsicalities of science. Consider the following instances:

-- A cure for scurvy, after having been found, was abandoned for generations.

- The ancient records recognised the celestial origins of meteoric iron, while the modern times French Academy of Science officially voted against such a possibility.

- A number of eminent climate scientists argue that the role of CO2 in climate change is negligible. Their names are listed in the World Climate Declaration.

In book form, a rigorous argument against CO2-driven climate change was put forward in * Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate (S. Fred Singer, 2021). "Over 400 Scientific Papers Published In 2020 Support A Skeptical Position On Climate Alarm": That is the title of an online web page.

What should the Confucian elite do when scientists are divided in this way?

Perhaps there is a good reason that there is very little talk about climate change in China.

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“ “[Barbaric state] is one that either tyrannizes its people out of incompetence or indifference, fails to offer basic services to its people, leaving them in great suffering; moreover, it threatens the well-being of other people or completely disregards its duty to other people such as the duty to protect a shared environment” (p. 185).” Isn’t that an apt definition of the US?

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I thought as I was reading it in the post that it very much so describes the United States.

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This was precisely my reaction to that quote.

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The only country (in that context) that Bai mentions is North Korea.

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Bai strikes me as second-rate, at least in the international theory you summarize - which is decidedly not the Chinese leadership's view, by the way.

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“barbarians”

Since the May Fourth Movement, the prevailing mindset in China is to perceive the West as having more civilised values than the Chinese traditional ones.

The May Fourth Movement emerged in 1919.

Its spirit is still very much alive, especially among the ruling class of PRC.

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A sidetrack: the traditional "western" political system has two elements – in politics (which is theoretically egalitarian nowadays) and in bureaucracy (which is ideally based in meritocracy and hierarchy). The bureaucratic element was, as far as I know, heavily influenced by Chinese confucianism when it was introduced by the socalled civil service reform movement in the mid 19th century. The idea is that the political element decide about the Whats, and the bureaucratic about the Hows. Of ccourse it is not that clearcut, in reality there is much haggling.

But it seems that it is not the bureaucratic element that is breeding inequality but the politic. Political families and political cliental networks seem more common than bureaucratic dito. How can one explain that?

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Yes, the imperial examination system did inspire the civil service exams in the West. In France first, iirc. Too bad no such exam was mandated for Western politicians too, as challenging as making a good one would be.

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Examinations weren't needed when, and where, politicians represented their constituencies. Of course, they have rarely done that – the Scandinavian countries were perhaps exceptions, with famers represented by farmers, workers by workers etc, up to the postwar era. But when they are not, when "politician" is a profession like all the others, selling services for money, I don't think examination will help any.

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I take your point, because you sound European. In America, the appalling lack of basic science and history knowledge on embarrassing daily display in the US Congress makes me think it could at least weed out the biggest idiots.

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Oh, Europeans are the same shit. We practice austerity, cuts, trickle-down, New Public Management and other idiocies, and now also warmongering. That is, our politicians do. We have stopped believing in them – but sadly there are no alternatives. Alternatives have to be created, and that takes lots of time.

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When I encountered these ideas, the first article that came to mind was 'The Self-Awareness Problem of 20th Century Chinese Intellectuals—A Foreign Scholar's Perspective' (the title was translated by me, and the article is in Chinese) by Thomas A. Metzger. For those who read Chinese, you can find it here: https://www.aisixiang.com/data/13841.html

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Professor Tongdong Bai’s argument comes across as a thinly-disguised apologia for the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party and as a contribution to the CCP’s attempts to instrumentalise Confucian philosophy in its ideological war against fake, bourgeois, ‘Western’ concepts of democracy.

Why the latter is fake, and why the CCP is communist in name only, is revealed in the following two luminous quotes, the first from Lenin, the second from Marx:

“An abstract or formal conception of the question of equality in general and of national equality in particular is in the very nature of bourgeois democracy. Under the guise of the equality of individuals in general, bourgeois democracy proclaims the formal, legal equality of the property owner and the proletarian, the exploiter and exploited, thereby grossly deceiving the oppressed classes. Claiming to uphold the supposedly absolute equality of individuals, the bourgeoisie transforms the idea of equality, which itself reflects the relations of commodity production, into a tool in the struggle against the abolition of classes. The real meaning of the demand for equality consists in its being a demand for the abolition of classes.” (The first of twelve ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’ presented by VI Lenin to the second congress of the Communist International in 1920).

Why the ‘idea of equality… reflects the relations of commodity production’ is explained in this from Karl Marx:

“the concept of human equality…acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion… only in a society where the commodity-form is the universal form of the product of labour, hence the dominant social relation is the relation between men as possessors of commodities.” (Capital Vol 1, p152 Penguin edition).

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Readers unfamiliar with China's bureaucracy may be interested to know that, to reach the interview stage of their civil service examinations, an IQ of 140 is required, more than enough for a PhD in theoretical physics.

China is governed by geniuses, guided by the volunteers in the Communist Party of China.

A moral elite overseeing an intellectual elite, you could say.

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Intelligence is good, perhaps even necessary, but it really only indicates how powerful or fast one’s brain are. I have known not particularly quick thinking people show wisdom while brilliant people show such a lack of wisdom as to be stupid. How you use what you have is the important thing.

I would ask first for wisdom, an education geared towards the effective use of it, personal humility including the ability of admitting error paired with the strength of personal convictions, and compassion for others.

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You and Mencius are on the same page.

I wish people would study Chinese governance. It's amazing.

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My favorite label for Chinese govt is "performance legitimacy." I forgot who coined it, but it fits. Really, it's just the 3,000-year-old idea of the Mandate of Heaven: perform for the people, or be overthrown.

And the government system of "promotion from above" has nepotistic temptations checked by at least requiring evidence of competence and improvement in the candidate's performance review. It beats the hell out of "all soapbox-talkers welcome."

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High IQ cannot be the only, or even the most important criterion, for political leadership. One might end with psychopaths selected to rule (which indeed we do observe).

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Having made no mention of "high IQ" in my comment, but rather of promotion by performance review, I'm unable to make much sense of your comment. Performance review measures precisely the non-psycopathic benefits to society under a candidate's term in office at his/her current level.

That being said, requiring a minimum level of literacy in the disciplines central to governance - without making it "the only" or "the most important" criterion - would surely weed out a depressing swathe of dunderheaded "leaders" elected to govern in the US and, from what I can see, the UK at least.

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I have always distrusted the IQ concept since I was tested at twenty and told I belonged to the 4 highest percentages of those who had passed high school. Probably I was good at what they measured, but they didn't measure everything.

I think the IQ concept is a recipe for what in Swedish is called "subject idiots", i.e. people who are good at their profession (or some other speciality) but hopeless outside it. Where there are peaks there are valleys, as the management guru Peter Drucker said.

The Chinese are extremely good at economic growth – perhaps because they have understood that laissez-faire is not a good programme, but that care from the government has always been required for that. But that doesn't need genius to understand, we understood it quite well in Europe/North America too, until the 1970s.

Are their bureaucrats good at other things? For example, they seem still to believe in 20th century European city planning, with place for cars everywhere and within-city distances multiplying far beyond population growth. This doesn't seem intelligent to me.

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As you mentioned according to his own definition the ideal Confusion state is liberal Republic. People don't have the capacity to come with good policy but have the capacity to figure if the ruling class is doing a good job. Outside of perhaps Switzerland that's how all the modern Republics are governed.

Also I never understood the argument behind a meritocratic government. Like why would I assume just because you're smarter than me, that means that you will act in my interest. I doubt there much evidence of higher IQ people being that much more benevolent than the average person.

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