When it comes to describing China’s challenges, foreigners (myself included) tend to attack the gov’t side of the issue. While the current system does seem to reinforce a number of practices that limit people power and encourage corruption, it ignores the cultural factors that are in play. I believe the reason for this is that us “old outsiders” worry about being decried as racist.
To some extent these two factors reinforce one another. For instance, the leaders in China have never actually been required to heed the will of the people, and so there is a limited culture of challenging their rule; 0r that the rich have always been privileged in Chinese society over the commoners.
Fortunately, people like Xu Zhiyong and Murong Xuecun are attacking both ends of the problem by focusing in on the idea that a corrupt system relies on corrupt individuals. In a lengthy new essay translated by Tea Leaf Nation (link was broken for me, so here is a cached version), Murong addresses a litany of cultural issues that are holding China back and offers several solutions.
One of his major arguments is that people have become numb to issues like corruption, pollution and food safety. This ambivalence results in declining morals and an “intolerably evil” government. While I think the default setting is numbness, it seems to be fading as we see in the spate of protests against factories in the last year.
Murong later brings out an infamous example from Lu Xun’s story of Ah-Q that shows how the current culture has led to despicable attacks on children and the elderly.
“When he’s beaten by the mayor, Ah Q doesn’t dare strike back, so he goes to hit Wang Hu. When he can’t hit him, he goes after Little D. When he can’t win in that match, he goes to hit Wu Ma. When he can’t match her, he goes after the children in pre-school. This is not simply a joke or fiction, and the increasing number of murdered preschool children in mainland China proves this point.”
But he does offer suggestions in the spirit of the New Citizen’s movement, that the Chinese people must change their ideas when it comes to making sacrifices for the state; especially when one considers how little officials are willing to sacrifice for those they govern. Murong says that the mantra should be, “I am a person first, and then I can be everything else. I am myself first, then I can help with society.”
In the past when I’ve discussed corruption with my co-workers there was often an initial attitude that it was the gov’t’s money to waste. But when I took this line of reasoning, the anger was often palpable. That a gov’t official’s dinner was money not being spent on their children’s education, and that their shiny cars were bought by selling the land out from underneath their parents.
Murong illustrates how backwards the culture is towards corruption by comparing a gov’t official to a janitor, who are similar on the basis that both could be seen as employees. With this he argues that it is a farce when people praise officials simply for doing their jobs. Murong writes,
“If your janitor tells you that he bought a broom for thousands of dollars, then he is embezzling from you. If he takes your money and buys a million-dollar watch, then he is nothing but corrupt. If your cleaner, in the name of cleaning the floor for you, eats in upscale restaurants, drinks expensive Maotai liquor, smokes high-end cigarettes, then you have all the right to think: Would not it be better if someone else is cleaning the floor?”
While some people have argued that these kinds of essays are overly negative, I have had a number of conversations with Chinese friends over the years that have begun with a torrent of similar complaints. For many, it’s not just one area of their lives that are being effected by the gov’t and the culture, it’s starting to feel like everything. They are sick of the scams and the gov’t’s inability to stop them, and they are looking for someone to stand with them against this unjust system.