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Finding China’s Moral Compass

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China Power

Finding China’s Moral Compass

A debate is raging about morality in China. The government’s new TV guidance is unlikely to help much.

The tragic case of Wang Yue, the 2-year-old girl who was run over twice and ignored by more than a dozen passers-by as she lay dying in the street, has prompted much international comment. It has also led to much soul-searching among Chinese.

Fellow China Power blogger Mu Chunshan pointed to an opinion poll by three Beijing universities last week that showed 78 percent of people were concerned that if they helped an elderly person or child that they would be falsely accused of being the cause of the problem, and so were more inclined to walk on by rather than help. He speculates that this kind of reluctance to help strangers is due in part to a notorious 2006 case in which a young man was sued by the family of an elderly person he tried to help.

Chinese writer Lijia Zhang, author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China, is more scathing in a piece that ran in The Guardian this week, arguing China is facing a moral crisis.

‘People are enjoying, and sometimes abusing, the vast personal freedoms that didn't exist before,’ she writes. ‘To start with, it is now safe to be “naughty.” Back in the early 1980s, when I worked at a rocket factory in Nanjing, one of my colleagues, a married man, was caught having an affair with an unmarried woman. He was given a three-year sentence in a labour camp and the girl was disgraced. In today's society, having extramarital affairs or keeping an ernai – second wife or concubine – is as common as “cow hair,” as the Chinese would say.’

So, what should be done? And what role can the government play? Zhang says that since the 2006 case, there’s been talk about introducing a law that imposes a ‘duty of rescue’ as apparently exists in many European countries. ‘I am all for it, because that’s probably the only way to propel action for a people who do not see a moral obligation in rescuing others.’

If she’s right, then it’s a sad state of affairs when people have to be compelled to do the right thing, rather than feeling compelled because it seems right. After all, do we want to live in a society where people don’t rob or kill because it’s the wrong thing to do, or just because it’s illegal?

Laws are no replacement for a society’s moral compass. And neither is a new set of media regulations introduced by the Chinese government. Wang Yue’s case may not have been the reason behind this week’s announcement that entertainment TV shows will be replaced by morality-building programming – the debate about morality in China long predates this case. But the plans certainly take on an increased significance with Wang’s death.

According to Reuters:

‘China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television starting next year will restrict shows that “record the dark and gloomy side of society,” the Southern Metropolis Daily said.

‘“For every satellite TV station, no more than two entertainment programs can be aired during prime time from 7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every night,” the paper said, citing a directive from the national broadcasting watchdog. Instead, the newspaper said, the extra time slots would be filled with programs that “promote harmony, health and mainstream culture.”’

With a growing number of people getting their information, and indeed entertainment, from the Internet, such proposals seem a little old fashioned to put it kindly. Less kind would be to point out that if the government can’t see that TV shows are a symptom and not the cause of society’s excess and shortcomings, then it has no hope of ensuring that in future, people don’t just walk by a child dying in the street.