Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 4: The Crack (Gulf) Between

Tourists in China are advised about pick-pockets and robbers a lot. Perhaps one could argue that in a country with a huge population, the proportion of petty thieves would also be high, and foreigners stand out and so attract these thieves. However there are some differences between petty thieves in China and petty thieves in North America. From being mugged once and hearing stories of friends getting mugged, people who commit this kind of crime (and shoplifting etc) are mostly teenagers and young adults who are fooling around. In fact the ones who mugged me were positively cheerful. In other words, in most cases their next meal doesn’t depend on the contents of your wallet. Or, perhaps, they have a drug habit that they need to support, but that’s not a question of survival either.

In China, however, many people who rob others are middle-aged men with families. There is an overpass that goes over a highway close to where my mother works, and her colleagues often use this to get to the bus stop on the other side of the highway. Both rails of the overpass are covered by giant advertisement billboards, and so the overpass is like a tunnel with both sides completely shielded from the road below. In the past half a year, there have been several incidents of mugging on the bridge and one woman was mugged three times. When I went to visit my mother during the Lunar New Year holidays, we visited a colleague who was in the hospital because first the men mugged him and then chopped halfway through his knee with a machete. The police have their hands full with “more serious” issues and the people placing the advertisements refused to take them down. So this situation continues. Descriptions of the mugger is that he is alone and not a young man, and the colleague who had his knee chopped open was mugged by several men banded together. It is likely that their wages are not enough or that they weren’t given wages at all. The fact that what partly enables muggers to assault and rob people who use the overpass is advertisement billboards, is, I think, bitterly ironic.

In China, for many thieves it is a question of survival. Capitalism dictates competition, so there are bound to be people who lose, especially if they didn’t have a lot of resources to start with. Due to a combination of circumstances such as their families being in poverty and no money for schooling (university used to be free in China, but hey, profits) , families without reasonably connections, born in the countryside instead of the city, many people have no chance in the Capitalist system at all. There are tons of slums in Chinese cities where migrant workers squat (there will be a separate post about this with some photos), and even when walking around metropolitan areas, you can see men (and very occasionally women) in poor work clothes with a long stick of bamboo. These people, called “棒棒” men (pinyin “bangbang,” pronounced closer to “bongbong”), haul boxes for a living, and many of them just sit waiting for their next job . My co-workers tell me that often these men can’t start a family of their own because their social status and pay are so low that no one would marry them. In North America, we tend to think of art and writing careers as very freelance and hence insecure, but these people don’t even know whether they could get any more work in the same day, and also with less spiritual/intellectual satisfaction to compensate.

Bangbang men waiting at a street corner

Bangbang men waiting for work at a street corner in towntown Chongqing

The Western legal system plus the unions system, at least can ensure that work is paid for. When I was in leaving Beijing in the November of 2010, the taxi I was in passed a protest/riot on a street where factory workers held up standards and flags made from sheets and written on with red paint to look like blood. The taxi driver explained that these protests happen frequently because factory owners do not pay their employees as agreed. It was like a nightmare out of a Victorian novel. Anyway, additionally, in early 2011 I was coming home from grocery shopping and I saw an open manhole. The covers of the manholes all along the sidewalk had been removed, with a threat beside each one etched in white chalk, saying that unless the manager pays workers their dues, they will continue to pry open manholes and make people fall in. Basically, the average Chinese labourer has to turn to terrorism to ensure their survival.

I have been warned that especially during holidays, when advertisements urge consumer behaviour, thieves are particularly active because it is during these times that the gap between the rich and the poor is the most obvious. What bothered me about this warning was that the woman who said this to me was wholeheartedly wishing for my well-being and completely cold about the giant gap between the rich and the poor. Another situation that disturbed me was when workers came into the apartment that my mother is renting to install air conditioning units. The owners of the apartment where also present because the contract stipulates that they pay for this type of installation. The work was taking a very long time, and after a few hours I offered the installation workers some tea. They smiled and refused, and then the owner of the apartment took me aside to tell me never to offer water to “these kinds of people” again, because they might have communicable diseases that I don’t know about. Again, well-intentioned, but only for me. This shows the same attitude of the bystander apathy that started this series of posts, and comes full circle, with an extra layer of class unconsciousness. If taxes can go towards vaccination and universal healthcare instead of being embezzled, then such attitudes would not be so prevalent. Selfish attitudes in the exacerbate existing differences between the rich and the poor, to the point where I cannot offer water to another human being.


A young couple kneeling in the rain, begging for money to help get their mother into the hospital, because they can’t afford it on their own. They may be trying to swindle money, but they might not be.

Thankfully not everyone thinks in this way. A family friend, whom I met in a dinner once, was the one who got me thinking about these problems. He said that when he is interviewing for his company, he would put forth a situation to the candidate. Suppose that you were on a bus, and as the bus pulled into a stop, a man grabbed another person’s mobile phone and ran out the door. If you were standing beside the door, would you try to stop the thief? (And yes, this often happens – in China people get their cell phones wrenched out of their hands in broad daylight)

When my mother heard this, she said that of course I would try to stop the thief, given what I did after I was mugged. I was thinking along the same lines, but then the man said that the answer they were looking for would be that you would let the thief go, and not because you were afraid of bodily harm. Rather, you should have a social outlook that appreciates the kind of life some Chinese people lead if they would be willing to risk bodily harm and imprisonment just to steal one mobile phone.

This response made be start to think about not measuring the whole world by the same yardstick, and that social justice should be relative. In China, as many tourists know, you need to haggle to save money, and many items are overpriced. However, since I was presented with this hypothetical situation, I’ve stopped haggling. I am a foreigner in China and compared to most peddlers, I am wealthy. Items they are selling may be overpriced, but now I consider the overprice amount to be a donation. Another matter is contraband items. Being pounded on proper citations and intellectual property all my schooling life, I naturally saw contraband items and products snuck out of factories as violations of this code of ethics. But then, why should women in sweatshops work so that CEOs reap profits? Who decided that manual labour is worth less than management work? While in Nanning, I started buying summer clothes from a man who worked in a factory making export clothes, and I didn’t bargain. He was risking his life sneaking them out of the factory, and I’m not the one to judge how much his life is worth.

The thieves and petty criminals of China are still, however, operating alone. I believe that affecting lasting social change requires that the majority of social stratifications work together. I’m not a history expert, but in the French Revolution, there were different assemblies; the working class, peasants, the middle classes, and intellectuals all wanted change, both men and women, and combined they could shake the monarchy and aristocracy. However, because of the dual system of Communism and Capitalism in China, it is only a very small portion of people who are unsatisfied. The leaders in government are secure based on lipservicing Communist ideas. Many people in the lower classes are probably too caught up in getting their next job to be worried about national social security, and many of them might not be able to read or write well enough to broadcast their own message. People in the middle class believe they have a chance in Capitalism and don’t want to risk their upward trajectory by being noisy. In addition, there is still some Confucian values governing Chinese society, which is that people generally trust and obey their superiors.*

Any anger that would motivate social change is displaced. In Part 2, I described cultural theories regarding the media being a lie. And also in my post about The Mummy 3, I described it as an outlet for Western fears of the rising East. I am not saying that all media is propaganda, but media, art, and literature does serve as social outlets for both positive and negative feelings. One thing I have noticed in China is the number of highly biased television shows about World War II, and I feel that 15 years ago there were more shows about ancient Chinese history instead. Most of these WWII series have stock Japanese villains, and often shows that try to be objective are taken off-air or heavily criticised.** This trend bothers me, because I feel it is deliberate to feed into anti-Japanese sentiments (which I mentioned in the post about Code Geass). Of course Japan did cause enormous harm to China in WWII, however these anti-Japanese sentiments has even caused some Chinese people to feel that Japan deserved the deaths and damage in last year’s earthquake, which is overboard even for in-group favouritism.

I didn’t make the connection between the media and social ills in China until a student made the connection for me. Right now I am teaching English, and one student monitor (sort of like a class president) wanted to discuss how I could communicate better with the students. He was talking about why many students in the class don’t have a good learning attitude, which is because they know, deep down, that even if they study hard they would probably not get a good job in the future. He then said that any dissatisfaction with the job market and the social system is diffused by issues like the Fishing Island dispute with Japan, which creates unity at the expense of outgroup hatred and turns negative feelings towards someone else. The more I think about this, the more disturbed I become. This is almost exactly like the faked wars that Eurasia has with other nations in George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.*** [4 June 2012 edit: Li Jun, a Chinese student, was recently brutally murdered in Montreal, and the Chinese government seems to be encouraging its citizens to think that this was a racist crime. It really doesn’t seem so. I grant the head tax and other discriminatory policies in Canada’s history, but they have nothing to do with a psychotic killer on the loose right now. Since this IS June 4, it’s most likely another example of distracting citizens from the conditions of China itself].

So, because of the combined factors of most people being happy with the system and unhappiness being diverted elsewhere, I think social change in China is still a long way off, unfortunately. I believe that Deng Xiaoping said something like, the country can be improved if we enable a portion of the population to get rich first. And perhaps this is true to a certain extent; because of the hierarchy of needs means that people usually have to have their basic needs met before they worry about lofty morals. Perhaps this is all just growing pains. What I am worried about, though, is that a portion of people getting rich first won’t necessarily instigate a trickle-down model.


The problem has probably just become more pressing again. I am living in Chongqing, which as recently seen the Wang Lijun incident. Wang, the right hand man of the municipal governor, Bo Xilai, turned on him and sought asylum (perhaps) in the American consulate, and was later shipped off to have a “vacation-style health treatment” (wtf…) because the top brass said he was stressed and had a breakdown. Nothing is confirmed yet, but Wang supposedly had evidence showing that Bo was involved in corruption and had criminal ties or something. Bo Xilai was a darling of the CPC because of his crackdown on local gangs and initiating massive municipal developments, however he seems to be a throwback to earlier Communist ways of government, like being the centre of a quasi cult of personality, taking the law into his own hands, and trying to shove “red culture” into people’s lives (red culture = Communist ideals and the expressive culture and paraphernalia to this end – apparently he sent quotes from Mao in a text message to Chongqing residents, though I don’t remember whether I received one ). Correct me for not being terribly well-versed in politics, but I believe that Bo leans towards the “New Left” in China, which see China as too capitalist and widening existing disparities, and therefore needing to be restored to a “true” Communist road, where the state plays a bigger role in regulating the market. But, due to Wang’s betrayal casting a shadow on Bo, what seemed like a plan that works wonders in Chongqing is now in doubt.

service poster

“Lei Feng-style service policy” – Lei Feng is a Communist folk hero known for his self-sacrifice

From everything I have posted, the conclusion would be that I also support the New Left. I certainly don’t believe in Capitalism because I have seen it create mass inequity on a global scale. Capitalism only works well, I think, if the playing field is level to start with, however it is never level. Communism has also proven faulty because people are not just a community but also individuals with individual ambitions and desires, and there are limits on how one can expect people to think about others and not oneself, as evidenced by letting a girl getting run over twice.

From a certain point of view I do support the New Left. I think a couple of years ago, Jackie Chan was lambasted for saying that Chinese people aren’t ready for democracy. From a certain point of view, I agree. Take my students for example: in the literature class I teach for second-year university students, I have them write an essay before the midterm and another one after. The way I organize the class is that next week’s literature will be handed out the week before, so students can come to class with some basic knowledge, and also essays on a particular literary work is handed in at the beginning of class so the papers can be the students’ own thoughts and not a repeat of what was said in class. Last term I gave my students the option of choosing what to write on without signing up, ie if they get next week’s literature, read it, and become interested, they would write their essay and hand it in at the beginning of class. To me this would be equivalent to democracy**** – in any given week, the students would choose their essay based on what they have read and make an informed decision about writing their essay or not. The reason I used this model was that it has worked in classes I took at both the graduate and undergraduate level.; invariably a few students would find that week’s topic interesting enough to hand in work on it, and if many students waited until the last minute, it wasn’t a huge number. However it failed terribly last term because none of the students read anything before class and almost every single student waited until the last week before the midterm to hand in their essays. Because of this, I could not give feedback before the midterm in terms of writing long papers, and if they were dissatisfied with their grade they had less chance to redo their work, and I had 40 papers to grade in one week with 40 midterms to look forward to the week after.

In short, I believe that for democracy to work there needs to be a certain level of personal responsibility. For people to get what they want means that they have to think clearly about what they want and do research in order to make an informed decision. This is not only the case with political voting, but also in arranged vs. self-selected marriages, getting slotted into a university based on your grade vs. applying for universities yourself, etc. I don’t think Chinese people are ready for a democracy because I don’t think that most of the population wants to take this kind of personal responsibility and do the necessary work. I am definitely not saying that this is an innate quality of Chinese people as a race or anything like that – factors that create this kind of laxity might include having too much pressure heaped on young people growing up due to the competitive nature of university entrance exams, and so they have learned to take breaks and cut corners when they can instead of being proactive and seeking more work to do. If there was suddenly a multi-party system in China and people over 18 were suddenly asked to vote, most people wouldn’t know what to do or care enough to do the work of choosing whom they support. ***** Last year, when a professor from Australia visited the college I was working at, the Foreign Affairs staff took this teacher, me, and the only other foreign teacher out to dinner. I don’t even remember what we were talking about before, but at some point the head foreign affairs staff said to the Australian teacher, “Chinese people don’t really want democracy, you know.” There was a slightly awkward pause after this, where I made a face and stopped eating, and then the other foreign teacher quickly stepped in to say that yes, China seems really capitalist now, and everyone hurriedly started talking about earning money instead.

There has been the following argument about China: Should people like Bo Xilai succeed in restoring “true socialism”? Is the gap between rich and poor because historically the state has interfered too much in what should be people’s private decisions, or is the gap between rich and poor due to not enough state regulation? I think it is both. Problems in China may be due to too much state regulation where the regulation is aimed at personal gain for those already in power, and not enough regulation where the regulation is aimed at actually raising the living standards of average citizens. Here I do not support the New Left, because the New Left believes that state regulation will be regulation of the latter kind, whereas I believe that any more regulation would just be more of the former; from failures of Communism, one cannot expect all of the CPC to maintain selfless regulations, much less expect that citizens in China would follow suit . The double bind is that the alternative may just create an even bigger mess, because it is not just the government that is corrupt; businesses also embezzle and cut corners and commit nepotism, often without any qualms, and without state regulation these instances would remain unchecked by any laws.

I am not a political scientist, so perhaps my answer is too naïve. I support government regulation for the short term but to me that is not the end, only a transition. I believe that China needs to stay with one-party rule for some time, at least for the next couple of generations. However this party’s scope of influence of this party should gradually shrink until the citizens are comfortable in an environment where they are expected to make informed decisions about personal choice of all kinds, not just political ones. For example, currently there is a Party representative in every major organization that oversees operations and makes sure this organization follows the Party’s regulations. My mother works in a herbal research institute, and even in a scientific unit such as this, there is a Party representative. Perhaps replacing this Party representative and voting an employee to do the same job would go towards democracy. This would also be a training ground for people to become more proactive about their decisions. I think it is easier to skip out on national votes because the nation seems so big and the government so far away, and it’s hard to imagine how their decisions would impact one’s life, so this becomes an excuse not to vote. However, if it’s on a small scale and closer to one’s work, it might make people care more.

One problem I see with China’s political system is that many people in positions of government are appointed and not elected, so often the government really has no ties or feelings of responsibility towards the people they govern, and that reduces whatever qualms they may have about cutting a portion of disaster relief for the people into their own pockets or something like that. Recently I heard on the radio that a wave of university students are going into the countryside to help manage towns and villages. These students are usually called “村官,” literally “countryside official.” Most people in China would applaud the students for doing this, since they would be enduring much poorer conditions than they are used to in cities. However, this also means that the person governing the village or town isn’t one of its citizens. Even when there is an election, there isn’t really any choice. One student told me that when she went to vote, she was instructed who to vote for, since that candidate already has major political backing.

When all organizations and communities, from small to large, can elect members to be management, perhaps then the one party can allow factions to properly define themselves as factions while still being part of the party (i.e. agree with the central party on most but not all regulations), and let the elected representatives affiliate themselves with whichever faction they believe best. Next rounds of voting will determine whether the voter base agrees with the representative’s affiliation, or whether they choose another representative who chooses a different affiliation. This perhaps needs to go on for a couple of decades while the factions actually gradually split from the one party to form their own parties, with their own distinct platforms. From what I know, it looks like there’s already two factions on the rise within the central government, the Shanghai Clique and the Tuanpai, the former seen as more elitist and the latter more populist. It seems that Shanghai Clique would like to see the economy in China grow at whatever the cost, whereas the Tuanpai are more hesitant and wants to see benefit for everyone before they allow steps for economic growth to be taken. Neither is always the “right” direction – though I would have to say that currently the Tuanpai would make more sense. In a democracy, the voting would decide which ideology prevails over which areas of the country and when, however since voting is moot there is no such balancing effect.

But for the government to allow multiple parties to exist is a long way off, because as I said in Part I there is no outright resistance to the system because most people are not yet directly affected, and can go on earning their money and living their lives, and so while what the Foreign Affairs member said last year was terrible, it’s true. As I said, I’m not remotely a political science person, and for part II I feel like I’m going out of my league. “If you can’t be a part of the solution, be a part of the problem,” a classmate in high school said, and I agree that pointing out problems can be as important as giving solutions, however I feel bad making 4 posts about China pointing out problems not offering any solutions. By all means, leave comments and suggest some solutions, or if I got anything wrong then please correct me.

* Discussing the hierarchy in China merits its own post, but just a few brief examples:
a) Numerous television shows are about when Communism was still an underground movement, and whenever an operative runs into some insurmountable problem in their spying work for the Party, their superior will tell them, “Put your trust in the Party and everything will be all right.” In fact, lately there has been a lot of broadcasts on the radio about “learning from Lei Feng,” who is a popular Communist folk hero known for his self-sacrifice. A student told me that her Marxist Studies professor said that people are encouraged to sacrifice themselves without a second thought because it makes it easier for higher-ranked officials to rule over them.
b) Last November I was on a work-holiday organized by the university I am working in, and we went to Hainan, the Chinese Hawai’i. The Chinese colleagues who went also bought boxes of fruits for their superiors as gifts, and I commented that it was nice to bring gifts and I ought to think of this more often. A colleague commented (a little sardonically) that “this kind of behaviour is generally expected but not reciprocated.”
c) In China one generally does things one’s superior dictates, even outside of work matters, and sees this as part of one’s duty. In the West there is no such idea. I am working as part of a joint program between Chinese universities and Canadian universities, and so I am acquainted with people both in Canada and in China regarding my job. Anyway, the management on the Canadian side started a separate school for children, the opening of which I was invited to. The Chinese management side was also invited. It was a small prep school kind of place and there was no coat check, only cupboards for students. When the gentleman on the Chinese management side saw that I was there, he asked me to hold his coat for the entire opening ceremony because he didn’t want to put it into the cupboard. In the beginning I was rather offended by this, but then I realized that he didn’t mean to offend me; he gave me his coat quite naturally. I asked one of the school staff to take care of the coat, seeing as they were taking other people’s coats, but then it was just the poor girl was holding it instead of me. So I just put it into a cupboard and then told the gentleman later. He didn’t seem offended by the fact that I didn’t want to hold his coat, and explained that he didn’t want to lose his phone. I’m still not sure whether I handled this situation very well, though. Should I have just hung on to the coat? Suggestions?

**Two that I can think of are first, Towards the Republic (TV series), with a really good University of Heidelberg page here, and second, Nanjing Nanjing (feature film, also called The City of Life and Death). The former tries in part to revision Li Hongzhang, an advisor in the Qing court, who has been decapitated by Chinese history as selling China out to Japan and other imperial powers. The latter was lambasted for rationalizing the Rape of Nanking and making a Japanese Imperial officer an actual 3-dimensional character with feelings.

*** Strangely, this book is not censored in China, and there are numerous translations. I have no idea why it isn’t, since if I were the Party censor this is the first one I would go for. Maybe Chinese literary scholars back in the day read it as an attack on Capitalist nations. This is beside the point, but I am finding exclusively Communist readings of literature a little annoying – a student wrote (copied) an essay about how Moby Dick was supposed to be a metaphor against Capitalism.

**** Frankly, I think of Capitalism as a kind of democracy, because if one defines democracy as freedom of individuals, one of the fundamental freedoms individuals would like is deciding how to earn money, deciding how much money to earn, and how to spend it. For example, you own a business privately and you use your decisions to run this business instead of interference from another source, and when you have profits you can choose to buy a clock that doesn’t have Mao’s face on it (and conversely if you do want to look at Mao’s face you can buy the other one). Socialism is probably seen as opposing Capitalism because it makes public good the goal and uses this as a reason for the state to participate in what Capitalism sees as personal decisions; for example, the government requires you to part with a certain amount of money out of your business profits and give it to other people as taxes, where it is not necessarily your personal decision to do so, and so this portion of your profits cannot go towards buying that clock you want so much, whether it bears Mao’s face or not.

***** Contrawise, maintaining morals and being considerate of others in the face of the temptation of personal gain also takes a sense of personal responsibility and, I think, entails hard work of a spiritual kind, and so an open capitalist market in China plus not wanting responsibility and work may be factors contributing to rampant corruption and so forth.


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