Tuesday, October 25, 2011

少管閒事、瓦上霜

The story of Yue Yue, the Chinese toddler who was struck on the road, then summarily ignored by 18 passers-by before being hit again by another vehicle, has brought to a head an issue that I've been pondering about for a while. It reflects the real problem in China today, which is one of ethics.

In Chinese society today, there is a lack of concern for the fate of others. This is paralleled by an absence of a civic culture, a certain sense of public-spiritedness. Instead, it's all about "me, my, mine" and what I want. We desperately need something different.

Forced public action is not the way -- that's just coercion, and is ultimately ineffective. (This is why Communism rings so hollow today). Instead, we must change hearts and minds, awakening people's loving-kindness and come together to exercise compassion for others. Only that kind of normative transformation, undertaken freely and with good will, is sustainable in the long-run, and can permanently alter society for the better.

Otherwise, what we're left with is this barren landscape entirely bereft of humanity. Yet (ironically) this has been a historical problem with Chinese people. The critiques of this abdication of responsibility for other human beings became quite sharp in the modern era -- for instance, in the literature touching on issues of social justice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But the major difference is that at least in the past, we had certain traditional obligations to others -- to our parents, our siblings, our other relatives -- that kept us from being completely selfish prigs. We knew how to look beyond ourselves. There were also proper ways of behaving toward others in society. Today, it seems egocentricism reigns, and self-enrichment is the only watchword.

We can blame the people involved, but a serious part of the problem is related to governance. If a government fundamentally does not respect the rights of individuals and believes they can simply be trampled and tossed aside, how can we expect it to effectively inculcate positive social values? If the government itself is just fine when millions of people are displaced and their homes demolished; or when people should be squashed for the sake of "development," any admonition to act differently rings hollow. If the government treats people as resources to be pushed around and moved however the center sees fit; if it places no value on the lives of Chinese; if it doesn't care about individuals, but always views things in the lens of "the mass of people," then how can it possibly promote sensitive actions at the personal level?

If the government's position is that fundamentally, human lives don't matter all that much, and can be sacrificed for other objectives however the Party sees fit, is it a surprise that all levels of society see this and fall into the same ranks that disrespect and denigrate human lives?

So now it falls upon social organizations to teach and to share how we might care for others. But perhaps this will actually be a more effective program, because any action necessarily becomes a voluntary effort. And therein lies the strength of such a social movement: people choose to act benevolently. They now consciously strive to be more generous, expansive, broad-minded and compassionate. And that act of choosing is important, because it means the issue has been considered and is now being acted upon. It takes place in a "mindful" way, which is a crucial step in learning to care for others, and then applying these principles in real life.

From the Guardian:

少管閒事

"The fundamental problem, in my view, lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

各人自掃門前雪,莫管他家瓦上霜

Fei Xiaotong, China's first sociologist, described Chinese people's moral and ethical characteristics in his book, From the Soil, in the middle of the last century. He pointed out that selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of the Chinese. "When we think of selfishness, we think of the proverb 'Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbour's roof,'" wrote Fei. He offered the example of how the Chinese of that period threw rubbish out of their windows without the slightest public concern. Things are much the same today.

...

China's moral crisis doesn't just manifest itself in personal life but also in business practice and many other areas. The high-profile "poisoned milk powder" case and the scandal of using "gutter oil" as cooking oil have shocked and disgusted people around the world. Last year an article, "Why have Chinese lost their sense of morality?", in which the author tried to find an explanation, was widely read. He reasoned that China has introduced the concept of a market economy from the west but failed to import the corresponding ethics, while the traditional moral principles of China no longer fit the market economy model.

There's a lot of sense in that. I believe that the lack of a value system is also deepening the moral crisis. Before Mao, the indifference towards others once so accurately described by Fei existed but was mitigated by a traditional moral and religious system. That system was then almost destroyed by the communists, especially during the 10 mad years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Nowadays communism, the ideology that dominated Chinese people's lives like a religion, has also more or less collapsed. As a result, there's a spiritual vacuum that cannot be filled by the mere opportunity of money-making."

URLs:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/22/china-nation-cold-hearts
http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2011/10/18/would-good-samaritan-law-have-helped-little-girl/

Note: This is the Chinese government that also jails lawyers who wish to help people and declares them subversive. Are we really surprised? http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/10/24/2470019/china-cuts-access-to-lawyer-who.html

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