Much western commentary about contemporary China focuses narrowly on its spectacular economic rise, the putative strategic threat (to the US rather than us) they pose, or the Communist Party’s adaptation of the liberal Benthamite Panopticon prison to the age of mass electronic surveillance.
That is to ignore the subject which China’s President Xi Jinping and many Chinese people obsessively talk about: that Chinese society has lost its moral compass and that ‘it’ (meaning the ruling Party in Xi’s case) needs to restore it if the China Dream is to have spiritual content. That may explain the greater official tolerance of Buddhism and Daoism in recent years.1
Restoration now begins at prestigious primary schools where the school day starts with pupils bowing to their teachers, who bow in return to establish mutual respect, while older children study the Four Books and Five Classics which constitute Confucianism. Xi has also extended his restoration campaign to calls for greater public civility and the eradication of meretricious contaminants (many of them foreign) from the media and arts.2
A sense of moral decay is nothing new in, or unique to, China, for even 2,500 years ago Confucius lamented the lost values of the golden age of Duke Zhou and there have been subsequent moral panics. In 1934 the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek launched a New Life Movement to counter Bolshevism and foreign influences with traditional Chinese values, refracted through his Methodism, and updated for the modern age.
There are also those who look back nostalgically to the moral simplicities of the Mao era, when married couples could not conceive because they did not know how to have sex and rare cases of homosexuality were punished as ‘hooliganism’ since the condition did not officially exist.
The frenetic pace of social change since the economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era in the 1980s accounts for this sense of moral disruption, especially since Mao had already systematically eliminated China’s traditional moral codes in favour of the most absolute imposition of collectivism known to mankind. The individual became nothing more than “a rustless screw of the revolutionary machine”.
That governed how state and society construed the human self. When a distinguished American psychiatrist visited China in the 1970s, he was told by his hosts at a prestigious medical school that there was no mental illness, for only capitalism engendered alienation and depression, a line the three psychiatrists he met docilely endorsed until they plucked up the courage to visit his hotel room later that night.3
Nowadays, there is a boom in people training as counselors and psychotherapists in big cities, where the self-help sections of bookshops are also overflowing. Since some of the courses last a weekend, the aim is probably not to practice, but to discover something about one’s own inner life – though acquiring a dog or reading a decent novel would probably do the trick too.4
The loss of that moral compass can also be seen in the loosening of sexual mores. Take something as innocuous as a kiss. During the Cultural Revolution a group of Red Guards alighted upon a lone couple in an empty stadium, for even the unisex overalls could not deter human passions. They accused the man of rape and shot him dead. A kind of public puritanism lingered long after that nightmare had concluded, as one can see from the mass outrage when a film magazine put a still of the prince kissing Cinderella on its cover in 1979.5
Nowadays, there are 200 lubricator and vibrator shops in Beijing alone, and in the countryside it is not unknown for even elderly villagers to welcome the riches which their prostitute daughters repatriate from their working stints in the big cities. Internet pornography and sexual services sites are ubiquitous.
Today’s moral crisis involves a highly cut-throat capitalist society (within a notionally socialist system) with the ancillary evils of corrupted Party officials, food safety scandals, rampant divorce rates, and pervasive mistrust on the part of people too frightened of being arrested or scammed to aid a child or stranger in distress on the streets. The property owning middle classes have also effectively quarantined off the migrant rural poor, something also seen in capitalist Western societies.
Of these social evils, the food safety scandals are arguably as bad as the official corruption – though that is existential for the Party – since they involve thousands of people in myriad conscious acts of moral myopia.
A huge number of people, and multiple companies, were involved in the Sanlu scandal, in which baby formula and frozen ice cream were deliberately contaminated with melamine, affecting 53,000 children in a few weeks. Another firm used leather waste, including old shoes, as fake colloidal additives to set or stabilize foods. When asked whether they cared about people eating them, the producers said “So what? They are strangers, and we do not know them at all”. Everyone in the locality of the factory knew about the old shoes, and would never eat these foodstuffs.6
Yet despite these dismal tales, altruism is far from dead in contemporary China. Charities and philanthropy are increasingly common (after being banned unless they were Party controlled). When Sichuan suffered a terrible earthquake in 2008, some quarter of a million people, many of them born in the 1980s, rushed there to offer relief, including a company director who turned up with sixty bulldozers.
Nowadays, most westerners would scoff at any politician who embarked on a campaign of moral restoration, partly because the media would immediately highlight any instances of hypocrisy – an option clearly not available to journalists in China unless the Party had identified the target for tabloid or TV denunciation.
Whether the traditional values which Xi frequently extols can be successfully fused with the advanced technological society of AI and robots that he is also bringing about remains to be seen. But we in the West would have a much better understanding of China if we looked deeper than the surface talk of bombers landing on pop-up islands or how many crabs China imports from Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, to the shifting morality of this huge part of our fellow humanity.