Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 3: The BMW and the Bicycle

[Sorry for the long delay from Part 2 to Part 3. I did have a 1-month holiday during Lunar New Year but I mostly slept through that.]

So I said in my post on misconceptions about China that many people of the older generation aren’t that materialist, and that is true. Most people in China still don’t have a lot of money and so they learn not to be wasteful. In fact many people in China are in poverty, and this isn’t even in the remote mountain regions or anything. My mother has a friend in Canada whose mother is living in the same Chinese city as my mother now, and my mother found that that the old woman and her husband are getting less than 2000 RMB ($300) per month. With pork costing up to 15 RMB per pound and chicken even more expensive, the old couple can only afford to eat meat once a week. They have three children, the youngest of whom is in Canada, the second one is working but somehow still expect his parents to chip in money for his condo, and the eldest is rich but gives most of his money to his wife, who plays mahjong all day.

In the last post I mentioned that part of the problem in China is the new Capitalist system plus having foreign media (or foreign-style media) suggesting that material wealth is important. Most TV shows do not try to convey a get rich philosophy, but there are undertones running throughout. TV series are mostly about middle class citizens living in tastefully decorated houses or condos, with at least one family car. This seems like average in the West, however for most people in China it is an unreachable material standard.

For middle and upper-middle class single women in China, a potential boyfriend is out of the question unless he is able to provide a home and a car. However, the huge population in China means that real estate prices are soaring, not to mention the state of the traffic. Apparently $1000/square metre is an average price for condos in China. If a new graduate earns somewhere around 3000 RMB a month (which would be about $500/month, and this would be a pretty high salary for new grads), lives with their parents to save money, and buys nothing for themselves, they would have enough money to buy a 2-bedroom condo of 80 square metres in 13 or 14 years. Of course, as they advance in their career they would earn more, but if most men would like to get married and settle before 30 years old, this seems rather impossible. (see this link for details on purchasing homes in China)

Having a home and a car is one expectation for young male professionals, and another expectation is encapsulated in the saying “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” This phrase surfaced on a popular Chinese dating show called Feichengwurao (which in English is called “You Are the One,” but it is a Chinese 4-character idiom that translates to “if you’re not sincere, don’t bother me”). Briefly, in this show, several men are brought in every episode to introduce themselves to 24 women, who stay across a number of episodes until they need to leave for other aspects of their lives or until they find a match, and usually if they do find a match the couple win a cruise or holiday package. Through a series of introductory videos about the male candidates and questions from the hosts, the women stand behind their own podiums and decide whether to keep their podium light on, expressing continuing interest in the male candidate, or switch their lights off, if they decide he’s not the one. The women’s contact information are shown on screen when they are introduced, and the men’s contact information also shown at the end if they leave without a match. It’s a show that many people love to hate, since the (lack of) values that get tossed around can be deliciously frustrating.

In most episodes, only one or two men are successful in finding a partner (if any), and most men with even a slightly negative record would leave with no lights left on. For example, in one episode the introductory video featured a friend who said “he likes to flirt,” and all the girls immediately turned off their lights. One episode I remember particularly well was from last year, which featured a young man who returned to China after working for several years in Japan. He seemed to do quite well until one of the hosts asked what criteria he has in a girlfriend, and he said that he would like his girlfriend to be reasonably thrifty. For example, ordering just enough food for a meal and not leaving uneaten food wasted*. The reason is that when he had first gone to Japan, he had very little money and starved quite a lot of the time. At this request, the remaining women turned off their lights. One said apologetically that it was difficult for her to know how much she would like to eat and so she always orders a lot, and sorry, she can’t change this habit.

Perhaps the other women thought that he would try to control minute aspects of their lives or that he wouldn’t spend enough money on them or something. When I saw this, I was extremely indignant because I didn’t think that this man’s request was at all unreasonable. In Canada I would never think to contact someone on a game show, much less a dating one, but I was so indignant that I emailed the man assuring him that it’s not his fault, that people who have lived abroad often don’t have the same values as those who have lived in China, and asking how he found Japan’s society different from China’s. He replied saying that life in Japan is rather different, for example there is no requirement for a house and a car for a relationship, and “personally, I don’t like the materialism that comes with the development of the Chinese economy.”

It was Chinese New Year after that and we didn’t keep in touch, but this exchange left a deep impression on me. Last week I heard that because one woman on the show said “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle” to a male candidate, this comment prompted the Chinese government to make plans to adjust the ratio of different programs for every channel, since it believes that there are too many programs currently that exhibit this lack of sound moral value. Instead it should replace them with more “cultured” programs like history and art and music.

I have to say that I do approve of government-regulated media to a certain extent, because I feel like a lot of North American television are programs to fill gaps between commercials instead of the other way around, and many shows pander to the lowest denominator. The philosophy of the place of cultural programming, from media programs to even community centre sports classes, in China is different from the West, I think partly because of the Capitalist profit-driven system. In the West, I feel that cultural programming is based on enjoyment and taking a break from the pressures of work, so what is made depends on what people would enjoy. However, in China cultural production has mostly been based on a philosophy of self-improvement, so what is made depends on what people can learn from it or how it can affect their behaviour and thoughts in positive ways.

One can get into all kinds of arguments about government-controlled media and democracy and so forth, but I just want to focus on whether the government controlling the media would actually help. And I do not believe that changing programs on television will make Chinese society that much more morally upstanding. Although I do believe that cultural production is very important, I also believe that cultural production needs the right social environment to affect change. In another words, if government-sponsored “morally sound” programming is the only thing in society that teaches positive values, most people would just forget about it. Bringing back traditional Chinese values on television is all very well and good, however the social pressure to succeed, marry, earn money and live a rich material life will ultimately swamp morals built during a one-hour program.

I don’t have any neat solutions for this problem. I would like to think that cultural production like art and literature have the power to change people, but sometimes I think they just change with politics and economy and are radical only when it’s a bit more permissible to do so. As one friend said to me, there’s no point trying to build a better image for China, because if they clean up their democracy and socioeconomic issues, a better image would already be there. I believe it was Deng Xiaoping who justified opening up China for international trade by saying that he wants a portion of the Chinese people to get rich first, and hopefully that would trickle down to everyone else. Maybe this is true and morality works this way too; I certainly cannot expect animal abuse to stop in China when the owners live like animals – there is a hierarchy of needs there. Perhaps morality is higher above survival**, and like the incident with the Foshan girl being run over twice, if morality impedes survival in the long run then one cannot afford to be moral.

The problem, then, is what “survival” means. For most middle class people in China, survival means living the good life, or else they are failures and haven’t survived in a more metaphorical sense. This is weird in a system that purports to be Communist, because every occupation is supposed to be just as valid as any other occupation, and as long as each person makes an effort they should be considered equally with everyone else. However in a Capitalist system it is how much profit each individual makes that determines their worth, and so the massive instability in Chinese society might come from one system changing into another in a very short time. I hope that these are growing pains that the country will overcome.

* A part of Chinese food culture is that people rarely pay for only themselves or split the bill, unless it’s like a work lunch in the canteen or something. Each social meal usually has a host who is expected to pay for everything, and she/he is usually expected to order more food than is needed to show generosity. Apparently recently there’s been a trend of leaving some food uneaten, either to show the host that he was indeed very generous or to show that the guests are rich and can afford to leave food uneaten or both, so this is what the man on the show was reacting against.

** Some psychologists explain altruism by saying that it comes from group behaviour where saving someone else of your own species creates a better chance of species survival even if you die, so in some ways it’s still utilitarian. I think my Psych major totally darkened my view of humanity.

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2 thoughts on “Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 3: The BMW and the Bicycle

  1. When I went to Beijing, one of the things I remember was the translators telling us that for Chinese men it is really important for them to have an apartment. If they don’t have that they needed to say goodbye to finding a wife. I found the culture so different just between Hong Kong and mainland China.

    • Absolutely…when I was in Hong Kong last year, it felt like I was in a totally different country. So in some ways I still think of it as a separate country.

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