Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 2: Turning Right on a Left Signal*

* for an explanation of the title, see this article in the New York Times.

One reason I decided to return to China temporarily is that there is a certain energy in China that seems absent from Canada. Other Canadian acquaintances have said that this energy comes from the fact that China is still developing whereas most of the “developed” countries have done exactly that, finished developing, so there’s little to strive for, and this feeling of stasis enters the attitude of each citizen. And to be stereotypical about Canadians, we tend to be more distant, to hold back, don’t take sides and often just don’t bother. In China, though, there’s a kind of metallic vehemence in the air. You can practically feel that everyone on the street is striving for something and believe they deserve it. For someone who has gone through long periods of feeling undeserving, I was hoping being in China might give me a bit of a backbone.

But as my friend commented in my post on misconceptions about China, issues like Sanlu Milk Company putting too much melamine into milk comes from precisely from this atmosphere of self-centred entitlement. After Den Xiaoping opened China up economically, there has been a sense that everyone’s lives ought to get better in the new system, and so many people are doing whatever it takes to get ahead.

Going back to Lijia Zhang’s The Guardian article, it seems to be true that Chinese people are mostly brought up to be very good to people they know and distant from people they don’t know. For example, my mother took a job as a director of a research centre in China, and her the administration is responsible for finding her a suitable apartment, buying her a car, and even paying for her gas and assigning her a chauffeur. However, the chauffeur would never think to stop and let people cross the road, despite being a decent guy. In some ways this can be seen as an improvement, after the Orwellian world of the cultural revolution where children were given extra points for denouncing their families, and seems almost like a warped kind of individualism. However it does make the average Chinese person more myopic than the average North American. Added together with the sense of entitlement, this means that most people are unwilling to think about the repercussions of their actions beyond the good it could do for themselves and their own.

I have thought about this question a lot, and one day I realized that it wasn’t Communism that was the problem, as most people in Western countries seem to think it is. Leaving aside the Chinese government’s Maoist version of Communism for a moment, nothing in Communism suggests that a person should risk danger to others for the sake of his or her own gain. In fact that sounds more like Capitalism. Being capitalist means that accruing personal capital eclipses all else, and supposedly this would motivate people into genuine competition and then the “best” would come out on top. I think the current problem in China shows a failure of Capitalism more than it shows a failure of Communism, since this kind of motivation, carried too far, would make people do terrible things for profit, and even if the best does emerge sometime in the future, all the exposed failures along the way would have killed many more babies. In addition, foreign media such as movies and TV shows still subtly show how being rich could improve one’s material life and that this is desirable.

I bounced this idea off my mother and she offered a very helpful amendment. She said that the current state of affairs in China was the combination of both Communism and Capitalism. Before Communism established itself, China still operated by traditional Confucian ethics and Buddhism. The Communist party, believe that religion is the opium of the masses, supplanted it (destroying the “Four Olds”:
Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas)and became a kind of religion, with values such as self-sacrifice and goals such as a classless society (and getting signed at the local party leader’s office when getting married and getting a little red book as a wedding gift…). However, the Chinese government became aware that it also needed to operate on a Capitalist economic system if it were to survive as an international entity, such as having a free market. Recently Cuba has also gone this route after holding out for so long. If older Communist values and procedures went against this Capitalist system, then they could not stay, and the other general values of Communism like self-sacrifice and public service are suspect by association. The problem is not that China is Capitalist but that it is Capitalist after Communism destroyed many traditional values from philosophy and religion that would have provided a check to the evils of Capitalism.

As an analogy, a European parallel to exploiting vast numbers of people for profit would be the slave trade. One might say that traditional Christian values didn’t prevent the slave trade from happening, however against this there is the idea that by the time that the slave trade began in earnest, the Western world had shifted to a predominantly capitalist one already. And also, Christian values was instrumental in appealing for the end of the slave trade as well. Currently in China there isn’t an established moral system like Christianity that people can default to, and new ideas of global humanism haven’t yet taken root. Hence each man for his own and social myopia, because there is no deep-seated moral structure left.

The worst part about this alliance between Communism and Capitalism in China is that Chinese communism isn’t a dictatorship anymore, but a hegemony. This means that it doesn’t make you follow extreme laws and enforce extreme punishments, but adjust itself to incorporate opposition to make opposition difficult. Insofar as Capitalism is the opposite of Communism, then yes, Chinese Communism has already incorporated Capitalism into its modus operandi. What happened in Libya and Egypt probably won’t happen in China anytime soon because in Libya and Egypt there was a dominant system that was seen as oppressive, and there were no other viable option than to start a revolution, and there was very little to lose and a lot to gain. In China, however, both Communism and Capitalism are operating, so there is no one dominant system. I believe that people in general try to avoid conflict unless they have to defend themselves, so if they feel that they can get ahead with opportunities in the Capitalist market, this keeps them docile enough not to start a revolution against the Communist government. However, due to hegemony, Capitalism isn’t so much another really another option outside Communism but under Communist control. Only people in China may not realize this and thus they are exactly as the stereotype accuses Asian North Americans of, of being model minorities, only model minorities in their own country.

With Communist ideals out the window and nothing left from before Communism, Chinese society is a world of tooth and claw. Embezzlement, funding scams and shoddy production all have their roots in placing personal material wealth before all other objectives in a Capitalist system that suddenly promises a more luxurious life. This is probably the mentality of most middle and upper-class people, and to a certain extent also the poor and disenfranchised. They have realized that a harmonious (和谐)Communist society, which the government tries to broadcast, isn’t true. There is profit, and competition, and those who lose, and they would rather trust that the Capitalist system will make them winners. From a year of cultural studies, however, I know that there is a cultural theory that the media lies to consumers, insinuating, for example, that your worth can be raised by cosmetics or having a better car. The problem with China, I think, is that both systems are lying to its citizens. China is in the period of rejecting one lie, but rejecting one lie means buying into another one.

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