What is to be done [about China]?

Having survived death by a thousand cuts (finals week), a whirlwind week as a funemployed laowai in Andingmen, and 24 hours of travel, I finally am now tucked back into the cozy New England town called home. The overnight transformation still breaths shifty silence about me, not only eerie as a literal lack of noise but also as an ubiquitous agreement on [non-ironic] harmonious living. This unspoken social contract is borne by the daily litany of “thank you’s” and “excuse me’s” and the ever-confusing “sorry’s”. I was in the gym today drinking from the water fountain. A man came up next to me to wait for his turn (something in itself that is want in China), standing in such a manner that a clear shot to the locker room was slightly obstructed. “Sorry,” he said. For what? For troubling me to take an extra step? I was not sure whether to celebrate this apology as the resurrection of humanity, weep for it being a caricature of charity, or simply sigh bemusedly. Instead, the thought drowned jet lag and resurfaced later after a nap.

But first, my grandmother came over for dinner. Unlike many people of her generation, she is strikingly non-racist. More than that, she seeks only the good in people and cultures, seeing “cultural differences” where others may see a conflict of wrong and right. She is a lovely and brilliant woman who joined the Peace Corps in Nepal when she was in her sixties and continues to operate at a level five. She would probably still put warm milk out on a cold night if there were any neighborhood cats.

As is perfunctory but nonetheless enjoyable, we talked about Chinese society. The usual issues were discussed – plagiarism, cheating, theft, censorship, corruption, and what the West harbors ideologically that China does not – as an Australian classmate has tenderly put it, “Discussing why China isn’t America.” I summed up China’s main issues as sharing the common thread of lacking civic mindedness(缺乏公共意识). Consider the environment. Trashcans and recycling bins stand on every street corner, and yet the streets are littered with trash. The trend is to throw trash on the ground, knowing that a street cleaner will pick it up within the day. And forget recycling and trash being separated – that job is for beggars. If any given individual chose to take a stand, she or he could likely find her/himself in jail. Indeed, there is nothing more dangerous to be in China than an empowered individual. Disheartened, my grandmother asked, what is to be done?

Despite social trend stigmatizing the use of generalizations, and despite intellectual cool-kids’-club scoffing at the ready answer to Grandma’s question, I nonetheless answered her. “Gradual political reform.” I said. I didn’t even couch my response in socially harmonious language (self-imposed 和谐废话 – see paragraph two of Amy Chua’s article). How thrilling.

One liberty that China lacks and that the Western media miraculously fails to point out is the right to civic mindedness. Most societal issues, if not soluble by active civic mindedness, are at least made more manageable as the responsibility can be shouldered by society as a whole instead of by the government. Tocqueville mentioned this in Democracy in America, noting that the decentralization of power allowed for common citizens to take an active role in the bettering of their society, or at least their immediate surroundings. A town primarily composed of farmers ought to be able to fix their own issues of agriculture and commerce, knowing that the state/national government exists as a parent and safety net. National government, state government, local government, and citizens form a gradient whose separation becomes grayer in each descending step. The necessity of democratically-elected local and state governments is in this way indisputable. People are more likely to be satisfied with self-selected and self-imposed laws, and that burden will be lifted from the central government so that the 林林总总 problems that it faces will be rightfully shared with the citizens.

Suggesting that China needs democracy at the local governmental level feels like a cliché at this point, but I’ve always thought clichés exist for a good reason. Beyond tangible political reform, there needs to be an ideology shift, an increased concern for the well-being of one’s surroundings, so that the factory owner will think twice before dumping two tons of ink into the river. There are practical ways of preventing factory owners from thus conducting themselves, or as I prefer to identify them, 当权者, people with power. This includes enforcement of no-dumping laws, though that in itself is an enormous issue (上有政策,下有对策). The tragedy of China’s legal enforcement abilities will not be discussed here. The focal question is how to encourage civic mindedness for the sake of civic mindedness, not for obeying law? (Albeit obeying the law would also be a positive first step.)

As Tocqueville said, the answer may lie in decentralization of power. When people feel the pressure of self-responsibility, only then will they cease to see themselves as the children of Mama Hu Jintao and Baba Wen Jiabao and instead as contributing members of society. So next time someone delivers the disgusting diatribe that “China is not ready for democracy, there are too many domestic problems!” feel free to enlighten this friend of the utility of democratically-elected local governments, and we can all hope that Tocqueville was right.

And then there is the nebulous but potent force of culture – cultural lack of civic-mindedness – which my American-born-Chinese friend has pointed out is a valid trend even in overseas Chinese. Decentralization may have the effect of empowering individuals, but in China’s case it is more likely that, because of cultural influences, it will empower the group instead; that is, the group of farmers, the group of female senior citizens, the group of a county – but that is another discussion in itself. Cultural influences in this regard are certainly the most interesting aspect of the issue, and also the one that I am least equipped to address. Perhaps a more enlightened friend has comments?

So, Grandma, there is your answer: increased civic mindedness, to be sparked by decentralized power and democratically-elected local governments. China is trying this out, in various places, but conservatively so. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of Deng Xiaoping’s book and magnify successful cases of policy implementation. I will refrain from criticism of the current regime, and finish with a Roseanne Cash quote, “The key to change is to let go of fear.” How many fears, indeed.

This entry was published on January 20, 2011 at 10:06 am. It’s filed under China, China politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

11 thoughts on “What is to be done [about China]?

  1. Very interesting subject matter, Hannah. I like your analysis of the relationship between democracy and civic mindedness. One way I try to tackle "why one thing is not like another thing", is to go back historically and see what factors caused two places to develop along different paths. I wonder WHY we developed into a civic-minded democratic state and China has not (yet…?). I am certainly not a history buff, but I wonder what role, perhaps significant, that religion played/plays in developing a sense of civic mindedness, or just in general a sense of "doing something because it is the right (ethical) thing to do". Not to say that religious people are ethical or atheists are unethical, but the American society as a whole has strong religious affiliations. Perhaps a history/religion buff could weigh in here?

  2. Very interesting indeed. Rachel makes a good point about the impact of religion or other social constructs on culture. I wonder how Confucian relationships affect the sort of rapid/gradual social change that may or may not occur in China. If people in America are invested in a democracy, where Christian values are supported by our norms and laws, then the government and people of China must be influenced by traditional Confucian values. It seems gradual change would be the only type of change then, because socio-cultural values do not die overnight. Another thought I had was that because of the Chinese government's restrictive nature- in terms of education and the flow of information- rapid change is almost impossible at the present. I am thinking of the ban of social networking site "Twitter" by the Egyptian government just today. The government cracked down on access to the site because of the potential revolutionary power of the online community using this site. China has very strict controls and the effects are twofold. For one, information is restricted, and therefore people will be less knowledgeable about the consequences of their actions, or the state in which they live (the state being both literal/spatial and figurative). It is easier to understand why a person might throw trash on the ground if they lack information regarding the consequences of their action- both personal and more environmental/global. Secondly, the restrictions placed on the flow and speed of information transmission means that the revolutionary power, or the power of the people to cause widespread changes, are lessened by their reduced perspective and access. There are over a billion people in China, but communication is restricted, and therefore reform is restricted.While these thoughts are a tad off-topic from your points on Tocqueville's decentralization of power, I believe there to be a strong connection. But how to go about decentralizing power without a complete upheaval of the system? All I can picture are floodgates opening as people in various regions of China are given better access to information, and more choice over their personal and public lives (still, I am of the West, and therefore have limited perspective on the issue as well…).

  3. Good stuff Hannah, this is the kind of writing about China I'm always looking to read but never seem to be able to find. Keep it up!@Rachel – I am no religious scholar, but I think you've definitely got a point that religion has played a part in shaping China's understanding of "civic duty." The project of Confucian philosophy was to create a society in which the duties of every individual at every stratum of society were clearly delineated. Thus, it is simply "not the place" of a working-class or above person to sort trash, because trash is strictly the province of the poor. Likewise, for a common person to become invested in the machinations of state constitutes a transgression in societal status. The affairs of state should be left to those who have been groomed from an early age for politics. Where the former example seems ridiculous and frustrating – the city has become littered with trash precisely because all 20 million inhabitants do not feel it is their duty to keep it clean – the latter example holds some allure, especially to anyone who believes that the tragedy of the commons is truly tragic. I think another big area in which civic-mindedness could be cultivated is within education. From what I gather, there is no emphasis on cooperation or encouragement of self-reflective attitudes in Chinese schooling. I think some basic changes to the way education is administered in China would produce the kinds of minds that would advocate and push for democracy. Perhaps that is exactly why Chinese education remains the way it is.

  4. (My original comment was lost, but here are its best hits…)I like the idea of Tocqueville's decentralization as a means of increasing civic-mindedness. I think when common people are giving low-level opportunities for participation in government and society, they take them very seriously (e.g. low-level mayors/party members, and that old people's neighborhood guard). Poignantly, I think in America we may be losing the intimacy of decentralization. More and more, we're concerned with national, federal policy to solve issues: health care, the economy, etc. The concern of local politics–in the mind of constituents–does not extend far beyond education and zoning. The days of farmer villages are gone, and I think examples of real civic participation remain few (the town hall democracy of Vermont being the only one that comes to mind).I, too, have also considered the issue of religious influence in China. China is something of a religious vacuum, where connection to past traditions was severed violently. All old culture and its living representatives were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and I think what remains today is either folk wisdom or incomplete reconstruction. I think Western religion has profoundly influenced our modern civic-mindedness in the West. Many Christian denominations encourage a culture of participation and democracy in the organization of their congregations. But besides this, I think there is a more basic influence: compassion and respect for and between strangers. In the past, authoritarian governments always feared the influence of religions that promise reward or escape in a hereafter. This promotes the impermanence and unimportance of riches and power in this world, undermining earthly authority. Thus there is a philosophy of equality beyond societal station. If we truly respected all other human beings, could we stand to litter knowing someone like us would have to bend to pick it up? Could we stand by while other interest groups (ethnic minorities, economic class, religious groups) are disenfranchised without fear for our own security? In China, however, the life of a stranger is of less worth than that of a member of one's own social group. This is the "potent cultural force" Hannah mentions. There is a lack of mutual respect between strangers. And so Hannah's water fountain experience is absent from China. It is a chicken or egg question: Will culture change and civic-mindedness spread, or vice versa?CULTURE has been the subject of bitter debate for modern China. The May Fourth Movement (1919), Cultural Revolution (1960s-70s), and the Culture Fever (1980s) have all reflected the question with which they wrestle: to what degree is the progress of China in the modern world hindered by anachronistic or self-defeating cultural traditions?

  5. Nice to read something that's not on the extreme side of things. Though a gradual change is more than likely the best (or, at least most realistic) path China will take, I think an important thing to think about is what the 80后90后 generation will grow up to be. I hear several things, some say there is a surrmounting unrest in China that will one day 爆发 and erupt into some sort of billion-person country-wide revolt, but then I hear about how people's lives are getting better, that the young generation doesn't remember the political troubles of their parents, where Christianity is blossoming and so on, such that things will be pretty chill later on, and much more 'harmonious' than not (but different from now, nonetheless).I guess what I'm saying is, is civic-mindedness a part of the 'normalization' of society, where things become more firm and reliable, and is China on a path that leads to more (societal) stability? China is a lot of different things now, but what will it become?

  6. Rachel, I was always a fan of the religious explanation of a cause, rather than result, of a culture. We are all capable of forming concepts (and yes, I think man formed religion and its facets), so incidentally the west was left with a power centre apart from the state, which has its own set of rules. China was left with one basic hierarchy, two at most (family and state, though I think most of that was fused together over time and in the Cultural Revolution). If the state wanted to say to the people to put their recycling in the recycling bin, it would become part of the social order.As for plagiarism, theft, and general cheating- I am actually a believer that the change will really catch on the business level, as money will always drive change. There's a big story right now about the Chinese IT company Huawei filing suit in the Illinois District Court to prevent a foreign merger between former partner Motorola and Siemens as the former has various trade secrets from its business with Huawei. not having blood on their own hands, the company clearly wants to use the respected American legal system to enforce contract and corporate rules. When you come to the world to play ball, you eventually figure out a way to play ball to your advantage. On western-style business education in China:, I would like to hear a good discussion, which is starting here, on whether FACE will help or hurt China's assimilation. It is so important that one feel proud of themself in a way that is in accord with group values, in the Chinese perspective. They hate being told what to do in the world but on the other hand can't bear to see themselves (as China's societal identity transcends public and private sectors) publically shamed for selling posionous products or loosing large corporate cases. This is also from the US State Dept travel notice on China, note the section on crime involving contracts with Chiense companies, beginning with "If it sounds too good to be true…

  7. I hate to be that guy that gets too personal with his comment,but I just want to put in my two Asian-American cents. These problemsthat Hannah mentions, which for the sake of neutrality I’d rather calldifferences, are present in the U.S. as well. A lot of the experienceof growing up with other Asian Americans was not much different fromsome of the behavior described above. Imagine being seven years oldsitting in a restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown squinting out of adusty, dirt-stained window at the old men and women throwing elbows tobeat the rush to the cheap produce, pushing and shoving as pedestriansspill over into oncoming traffic. Maybe an old man walks by, gruntingand spitting mucus on the ground. You sit hoping that your waiter'slook of disapproval is not an indication that he did the same to yourfood just because your dad asked for extra napkins. Maybe you try tosmile at other children you see in the street who, by appearance,could easily be your blood brothers and sisters, but they either giveyou blank faces or scowls. After awhile, you just stop trying. This isnot to say that these are the only things happening in thisneighborhood. I mean, it's not a zoo, but as you might imagine, socialcourtesy is a precious commodity in a world like this. But this worldis still America, and though America is still riddled with inequalityissues, I think it still allots these people the same basicfundamental rights and privileges, and consequently, the same civilresponsibilities as everybody else, but cultural upbringing tells themnot to preoccupy themselves with this kind of responsibility.When you're between the ages of zero and fifteen and this socialbehavior is a constant influence on your everyday life, your mentalcapacity to look for the root causes of these social differences arenonexistent. It's much easier to accept than to question, and you seethe dynamics of this culture just as a way of life. When you'rewalking down a crowded street and someone throws you an elbow, youlearn to just keep throwing it back until someone teaches you better.But if no one is there to teach, to inform, to change, then historyrepeats itself and culture grows on culture. It doesn’t matter if thegovernment empowers its people by showing respect, gaining trust, andencouraging responsibility. The far-reaching and inexorable effects ofChinese culture are too strong to be derailed by change in government.Maybe some think that the transition to American culture is easier ifyou just don't transition. I just think that being Chinese in Americahas taught me that the dynamics of cultural behavior have thepotential to remain fundamentally unchanged for generations, no matterwhat government that culture is living under.There's my two cents. Is that enough to buy jiaozi?

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Hannah! My father is one of those "China is not ready for democracy!" Chinese people. I used to be a believer in this theory, but the more I understand the society, government, and culture, the more I realize that China's overly cautious methods in "readying" the country for democracy does very little for the mindsets of Chinese people. As I am commenting on your post in Taiwan, I wonder if 文明 has correlation to democracy. Taiwan is kind of like a democratic version of China, and Taiwanese people are 文明 to the tenth degree. Anyhow, glad you're enjoying your time back at home! Gym! And common courtesy! 🙂

  9. Have. You. Seen. This? I hope to God your VPN is in working condition. In my Trans-national Chinese-ness class, this is causing quite the commotion.

  10. Great post, and as you put it, this is an underlying issue that hasn’t been fully discussed. When talking about civic duty it’s interesting to consider Fei Xiaotong’s description of Suzhou in the 1940’s, where people dumped garbage into the river fully knowing that their neighbors washed their clothes and vegetables in the same water.
    As you’ve pointed out as well, the answer to problems like these in China is almost always more regulation, which is fruitless and removes the responsibility from the individuals affected. I see this time an again in the hospital. When someone is smoking, it is the job of the hospital cleaning staff to tell them to stop, so the doctors say nothing, the admin says nothing, the guards say nothing, and the fellow patients say nothing, it’s none of their business. However no one considers the fact that cleaning staff are so far down in the social hierarchy that they don’t dare ask the smoker to stop.

  11. Pingback: A Disheartening Statement Regarding the Yueyue Incident | ChinaB

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