China’s moral deficit generates growing debate

August 29, 2013 by Timothy Beardson

There is a very real moral deficit in contemporary China which has generated a series of illuminating statements by Chinese academics and intellectuals. It seems to be proportionately more important than similar problems in other countries.

Let us look at the evidence. One area is the much reported and serial abuse of food safety. The examples are many and include adulterated milk powder for babies, poisonous colourings in pork and recycling of used cooking oil. It is not the fact that this happens that is worrying but the number of occasions that are reported compared even to the size and population of China.

This spring 900 people were arrested for selling tainted meat. Even when the incidents are publicised they are found to be still being repeated by other offenders for years afterwards. The fact that people are made ill and sometimes die is no deterrent from this activity. One third of non-prescription drugs are estimated to be fake.

The case of a two-year old girl being run over in Guangdong in 2011 raised national concern. The driver drove away, three people walked past the child in the road and then a second vehicle hit her. After a further six minutes a total of 18 people had passed the child without stopping. Only then did an elderly garbage collector pick the child up and call for help. In a Global Times survey, 80 per cent of those polled said that this “reflected the decline of morals in China”. Referring to this event, Chu Huaizhi, a professor at the Law School of Peking University, observed that “Before we can establish a law to reward Good Samaritans and punish the heartless ones, we need to make sure our society is credible and its people can be honest.”

There is a pervasive culture of plagiarism in Chinese academia. The President of Shandong University, Xu Xianming, said “it happens because of the lack of integrity in our society”. In 2008-9, 200 Chinese commercial pilots were found to have lied about their qualifications.

Jiang Xueqin, the deputy principal at Peking University High School, acknowledges that the gaokao, the national university entrance examination, is based on learning facts by rote and “robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood”. However he believes there is no realistic alternative given Chinese people’s “complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions”.

A socialist obsession with major engineering projects – such as dams – has had a damaging impact on China’s ecology and yet there is an institutional disdain for alternative opinion. Indeed ‘reservoir-induced seismicity’ probably contributed to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Much of the infrastructure is poorly maintained and necessary funding is often diverted. The sprint for modernity is cutting a lot of corners.

A 2009 survey showed that the public’s most trusted occupations are farmers, religious workers and prostitutes. Way down the list are politicians, scientists, directors and teachers.

One essay by Zhu Yuan in China Daily suggested that the subsequent lack of accountability for the evil wrought in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has contributed towards the ethical deficit in Chinese society today and concludes “when everyone wants to cut corners, the morals of an entire society are undermined”.

It is often said in China that the moral shortcomings in society stem directly from the transformational upheaval in the Cultural Revolution. However drastic events were during that time – and they were appalling – we should nonetheless note that this issue has a long history. It cannot be blamed alone on the Cultural Revolution or even on the arrival of Communism in the 1949 revolutionary victory.

Communist Party ideology rejecting much of what came before could be blamed as a contributory factor, as could the Cultural Revolution, which it sponsored. However we need to recognise that there were deep problems evident in the ethical base of China even in the nineteenth century.

Lu Xun, China’s pre-eminent writer in the last 150 years, wrote before the First World War that one of the features missing from contemporary society at that time was honesty. He blamed the lack of honesty and integrity on China’s history of foreign rule – the Mongols and the Manchu. He was essentially arguing that prolonged foreign rule over China had scarred the national psychology. Hegel made similar observations in the nineteenth century that “friend deceives friend and no one resents the attempt at deception on the part of another”.

Y C Wang, the twentieth century Chinese intellectual, noted the rise of an “amoralised elite” after 1900 and particularly blames Western education, the lack of ethical and classical teaching and urbanisation. One point about urbanisation in the late nineteenth century – where the educated and important did not inhabit or retire to the countryside but remained in the cities – was that it allowed income inequality and ignorance and insouciance of rural affairs. There are ample echoes of these themes today when China demonstrates in some respects a two-class society: town and country. Certainly there is enough to justify questioning China’s heavy emphasis on fostering urbanisation rather than improving life in the countryside.

Whether we look at poisoned food, pollution of air, soil and water, plagiarism or negligence, there is an endemic culture of conscious sub-optimal action throughout China and there is the consequent need for a systematic inculcation of higher standards of behaviour.

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