It is a fact that China is changing every day. Sometimes it is changing so fast that people may need to pause and think about how it has been rising, and how it may continue its rise.
Overseas Chinese, in particular, are often surprised by the developments and changes China has made since their previous visits. I was even more than surprised to realize that my hometown, a little city in southern China with a small population, has been troubled by an increasingly serious traffic jam issue. I realized that excessive economic development may bring about negative consequences to the city and its citizens, particularly when there is a gap between economic achievements and public moral education.
During my visit home, I happened to be involved in a conversation with some of my neighbors about how younger generations are (and should be) educated in our time. Some were complaining about how disappointed they were when they saw young students rushing into grocery stores, grabbing all kinds of snacks, and dumping packaging and plastic bags everywhere right after school ended. The others, speaking ironically, claimed that littering could not do any serious harm to society, since it creates jobs for vulnerable social groups. They further questioned what those aged, unemployed laborers could expect from society. Quite often, these laborers are undereducated or new immigrants from rural areas — they barely know anything about making a living in the cities. My neighbors were talking about this as if this was only a joke, an example of black humor. The disappointing part is that the after-school littering is still going on every day, and people seem to be okay or at least not very much concerned about that.
What is happening in a small southern Chinese city does not necessarily represent what is going on in China as a whole. In fact, progress has been made in the field of public moral education, but there is still a lot to do. Nevertheless, the conversation, and the joke in particular, did hit me hard in some ways.
A rising China should be concerned about its national moral education, which Beijing obviously understands. The tricky part, however, is that while the schools instruct and emphasize to the young students that littering is not right, some of them still throw garbage to the ground naturally without feeling any guilt. If the education system is not solely to blame, then it must be that family circumstances somehow contribute to the problem. Parents are children’s first teachers in life, and children sometimes simply repeat what their parents do, even their inadvertent actions. This is the process that China must go through: Without the evolution of every single family and the growing and maturing of its citizens through systematic national education, the rise of China cannot be sustained.
An American friend once told me about his understanding of the rise of China, particularly when we talked about how China had successfully become the world’s second largest economy. He argued that the most striking thing about China emerging as a real great power would not be how economically powerful it would be or how strong a military it would have, but how much potential China would release from its people. That was an absolutely appropriate and pertinent argument, since it clearly points out the internal driving force for China’s continuous rise. In the big picture, the rise of China will not be easily disturbed or even sabotaged from the outside. Instead, the future of China lays in China itself, or more specifically, its people. By changing the younger generation, we can change the future.