If you’re a foreigner like me who has practically devoted his life to China, you are constantly enraptured in its rich history, culture, and language. But inevitably there are the Chinese idiosyncrasies that so often frustrate foreigners living in the country. People constantly hock loogies in the street. Middle aged men show off their beer bellies by rolling up their shirts all the way to their chest, the infamous “Beijing bikini.” Public spaces are constantly filled with a cacophony of loud voices, completely inconsiderate of anyone who wants peace and quiet. Traffic sometimes feel like a death race, with drivers disregarding the rules of the road, coming dangerously close to pedestrians. And the idea of waiting on line is completely nonexistent. Getting on the subway is a constant clash of bodies as people attempting to leave the train car go head to head with people rushing to get in. At the Beijing South train station, a mob of people pushed, shoved, and elbowed its way up to the ticket counter. One time I even witnessed an all-out fist fight over one guy who brazenly cut the line. It took a policeman to end the bloodletting.
I might sound like just another disgruntled foreigner. But this goes even deeper. In the 2011, a two-year old girl was run over twice, while 18 passersby simply ignored her as she writhed in pain. Chinese author Lijia Zhang wrote that China was a nation of “1.4 billion cold hearts.” “In our culture,” she explains, “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.”
Where does this selfishness in Chinese culture stem from? In her article, Zhang referenced the work of Fei Xiaotong, China’s first sociologist, who described the Chinese people’s moral and ethical characteristics in his book, From the Soil, in the middle of the 20th century. “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 described how the Chinese of that period threw rubbish out of their windows without the slightest public concern. According to Zhang, “things are much the same today.”
While on my most recent flight to Beijing, I sat next to an chatty elderly Chinese woman. We started discussing the topic, and she said that Chinese society lacks su zhi 素质, which translates roughly to manners or etiquette. Before the Cultural Revolution, she explained, Chinese society was guided by the moral lessons of Confucianism, with its emphasis on being a gentleman, respecting one’s elders, and obeying one’s leaders. But during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong put Confucian principles on its head, pitting the Red Guard youth against their parents, the less educated against the educated elite. This chaos tore the social fabric and transformed the society into a survivalist one, a dog-eat-dog world, the vestiges of which are still felt today.
When Deng Xiaoping implemented the Reform and Opening Up policy in 1978, capitalism was added to the mix of the survivalist culture; in order to get rich, you had to compete fiercely, fend for yourself and take care of your own with no regard for rules. This would also explain the rampant corruption among government officials, who use their position to amass wealth for themselves and their family. And nowadays, a third phenomenon has also added itself to the dangerous cocktail of selfishness and competition: the digital age. Many Chinese young people spend the majority of their days glued to WeChat, or taking selfies everywhere, or shopping at the ubiquitous malls around the country. This “me” culture is certainly not unique to China; indeed, we see the same thing happening to the youth in New York to Buenos Aires to London to Brussels to Moscow. But in China it exacerbates the already self-centeredness brought on by the cruelty of the cultural revolution and the competitiveness of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
In other words, China doesn’t just lack common etiquette and basic manners; it lacks a moral compass altogether. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is on the rise in China. There are an estimated 100 million Christians in the world’s most populous country, eclipsing the 87 million members of the Communist Party. China has a dark history with Christianity: The last Christian inspired movement was the Taiping Rebellion from 1850-1864, which claimed 20 million lives and almost toppled the Qing dynasty. But given that shaky history and the Communist Party’s repression of churches, “house churches” are more or less left alone by the state. I went to one church session this summer. It was on the fourth floor of a commercial building in Beijing, and hundreds of young people poured into the room. Across the street were Beijing police officers who surely could have heard the music, the clapping, the worship, and the sermon. But they did nothing. When I asked my friend after the service why they weren’t more discreet he chuckled and said “as long as we’re not preaching the overthrow of the government, we’re safe.”
Perhaps the government realizes that religion, instead of something to be squashed, should be harnessed to form a society with more respect and care for one another. The Chinese government recognizes that this lack of Good Samaritan behavior is a societal problem and is trying to solve it. Billboards around Beijing tout the slogan: “a civilized society begins with you and me.” TV commercials depict a young girl watching her father spit on the street, yell at others, and cut lines, with the narrator warning “parents, it’s your responsibility to teach civilized behavior.” Another shows a middle-aged woman and her daughter helping an old man cross the road. These are subtle ways to help reshape the Chinese psyche, to something more civic-minded and altruistic.
This is also one of the reasons why Xi Jinping has implemented fervent anti-corruption campaign. Of course some explain it as a way to purge the Communist Party of his political opponents. But it can also be a way to re-shape Chinese society away from the corruption and lack of manners. One of my former CCTV colleagues put it another way. Xi Jinping is trying to use rule of law as the basis for moral principles in China. A frequent TV commercial shows a little girl studying, a young man swimming, and an old couple holding hands. The narrator says in a soothing male voice: I will always be by your side. The young girl looks up at the sky. I will always protect you. The young swimmer looks up. You can always trust in me. When I first saw this commercial, I thought it was advertising some religion! But at the end the screen goes black and two characters appear: fa lu 法律. The law. Perhaps the government is trying to use law and order as a “god” to serve as the opiate of the masses. The public campaigns to form a more “civilized society” coupled with Xi Jinping’s slogan of the “China Dream” are attempts to re-sew the social fabric in Chinese society, to re-form social cohesion based on su zhi.
Leland M. Lazarus is a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not represent those of the U.S. government.