This year a crowd of economists and social spectators have started to wonder aloud if 2012 will be the year China’s system collapses (to be fair, this is an annual tradition). This time they are pointing to mass incidents, economic troubles, growing evidence of corruption, a Grand Canyon sized gap between rich and poor, and scandals that seem to rock the country on a bi-weekly basis. These are challenges China has overcome before, but on a much smaller scale and without having to contend with the openness of Weibo. Some might go so far as to say that what has already been set in motion makes it impossible to avoid such a catastrophe.
However, there is a single problem underlying many of China’s greatest woes: Mistrust.
Over the next few days we’ll be exploring some of the ways in which trust has disappeared from Chinese society, what the costs of this mistrust are, and how it can be restored. And, if China wants to continue its massive economic growth, trust must be restored.
Trust between strangers
The other day my co-worker was in a tizzy as she entered the office. The night before, she had forgotten her cell phone in the office and couldn’t tell her husband to pick up their son. For the next 30 minutes she approached strangers in the subway station to ask them if she could use their phone to make one quick call. She was even going to give them a few RMB for their troubles. She is well off and dresses as such, but without the audacity of China’s nouveau riche. Yet not one of the hundreds of people who passed her were willing to help.
While this is in no way a shocking example, it hit my co-worker quite deeply. After all, she is a Nanjing native, and remembers a time when the city was much smaller and a sense of trust still existed. She told me that people today seem much colder than before, and took her own experience as evidence of that fact.
This feeling of distrust is fueled by rapid urbanization, and is in no way unique to China (as Stan Abrams points out in this excellent post). However, nowhere on Earth is changing as quickly as China and that has a profound effect on how people view strangers. There is something deeply unsettling about not knowing your neighbors.
Additionally, I’ve heard many people, both foreign and Chinese, discuss the ways in which the Cultural Revolution destroyed the trust between strangers. This sad era was just one of many crackdowns that led to persecution on a massive scale which saw neighbors and friends turn on one another. I remember a Chinese-American friend in the US whose mother would scold her for talking to classmates that weren’t “true friends,” even 30 years after the nightmare was over and 10,000 miles away. During the Cultural Revolution her mother’s father had been locked in a classroom for days by the local Red Guard unit. Shortly after that she was adopted by an uncle in an effort to help her escape the label of “class enemy.”
While I would say that a more general kind of trust has returned to the countryside, there is still little trust when it comes to exposing one’s politics. There are some lessons learned in childhood that are impossible to forget.
All of this is not to say that there is no trust in China’s urban centers; I regularly see contradictory evidence. For example: on buses in Chengdu, passengers often get on the bus in the back, then hand their bus passes forward, often worth nearly 100RMB, to complete strangers without the slightest worry as to whether or not the pass will be returned (it almost always is). Instead, what is important is that people feel that there is no trust.
I believe this stems from the greater trust issues that are so pervasive in modern China. After all if you can’t trust larger social institutions, how can you trust a stranger?
Next we’ll be exploring the trust deficit between individuals and businesses.