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An unpopular argument – it’s not just the government

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.


8 Comments

  1. Hannah says:

    Good review, glad you made the connection between MRXC and Xu Zhiyong. I like to think they represent a trend. While they represent one extreme in Chinese socio-political rhetoric, I think their views overall are precisely moderate: citizens and system both should shoulder responsibility. Let’s hope that this view spreads, though it’s got to be tough to go up against the 为人民服务 (“we service the people”) slogan that dominates the discourse.

    On negativity: this hits close to home for me. When I first came to China on a study abroad program, I often felt like I was the only one who hadn’t swallowed the liberal-arts poison of “negative comments about another culture = misunderstanding = racism.” (nothing on lib arts education, mine was very valuable and I loved college. I just take issue with the dialectic style that tends to permeate lib arts institutions of being quick to label people as racists). When I pointed out something bad about China, other students were quick to say “it’s just a cultural difference” and leave it at that — as if I were a bad person for thinking that there are universal ethics, and to point out how different countries handle their ethics differently was an inherently bad/wrong thing to think.

    Whether commentary on a person/society/culture/system is positive or negative is *not that important.* What is more important is if it is done critically or not — if the comment shows that someone has considered all sides of the situation. When I saw that someone commented on Murong’s speech and said that it was basically just “China-bashing”, I saw this comment as a trained response to negative cultural criticism. Bad things happen everywhere, sure. But not all bad things happen everywhere to equal extents. MuRong has a responsibility to try to improve his society. If he wants to be negative, that’s fine, because in the long run, he’s doing so in order to motivate people to change China for the better.

  2. Kev says:

    Cheating, cheating and more cheating. China is a nation of cheats. They cheat foreigners, they cheat each other and they cheat themselves. My Chinese GF mentioned to me that, to the majority of Chinese, “the grass is greener” elsewhere. I paused and then replied. “Yes. So they get their own “grass”, spray it with green paint and sell it, claiming that it is from “elsewhere”. She marveled that in such a short time, I was able to have such an astute understanding. Only in China have I seen people encouraged to cheat so openly. Honesty, integrity, caring and the virtues taught to us by our parents are condemned as being traits of weakness. I do not see China becoming a force for good in the world and I do not blame their government. China has the government it deserves. The only reason that China is “up” is because the rest of the world is “down”. Once the rest of the world pulls itself together, China will return to the sad game it’s been playing for the last millennium.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      At the present time, China is cheating at Badminton in the Olympics by playing poorly. Apparently the Chinese players have already qualified for the next round so do not wish to expend energy. They (and Korean and Indonesian players) have been booed and have been reprimanded by the referee. Maybe they will be disqualfied as their poor play to quickly lose the match and conserve energy for more important matches is against the Olympic spirit of the Games. Did this happen in 2008? I don’t remember it but then again, I don’t suppose CCTV would show it. Are they showing it now? What is their take on it? Sad game indeed, to quote Kev’s final comment.

  3. Kev says:

    Just a side note. I don’t know anything about what’s happening in the Olympics. Ironic, isn’t it.

  4. Dave says:

    You realise your argument is essential Maoist – life an culture must be changes and it must be changed through mass activity? So I agree with you…

    • Tom says:

      I don’t know if you can say that Mao patented social change. I would also say that I am in no way encouraging “mass activity” in the sense that Mao encouraged it. Mao’s mass movements typically involved the creation of enemy groups, which were then targeted by the masses for abuse. As we have seen, these movements failed time and again to address the real issues and served as distractions from Mao’s problematic leadership.

      • Dave says:

        Tom, that is certainly part of the Maoist practice but only part. Rebecca E Karl’s history shows all the contradictions and problems of the Maoist approach but also its emancipatory elements, whilst Badiou philosophical work on the GPCR is a must read. ( In this sense many of the best rebels in the world today are ‘post-Maoist’ such as the EZLN. They have learnt from the failure of Maoism by being faithful to elements of Maoism)
        What is interesting is, and Wang Hui has identified this, is how the current coalition between neo-liberals and CPC authoritarians uses the fear of mass activity to continue hold back mass movements and those allow the continual accumulation of capital.
        But I would be interested to see what you thing the ‘real issues’ are….

  5. I hope that it’s possible for China to address it’s own problems in a way that fits their own culture and history. The idea that governors should live to serve the people and not at their expense is already to be found in Confucius. One of the reasons I’m interested to see China is that I’ve lived in a democracy my whole life and I’m interested to see how a different government operates. For the moment I can only see the problems with democracy — to me it seems to accent dissension amongst the populace (it encourages factions) and it makes it difficult for the government to be effective (because policies change as often as the governors).

    So I guess I’m saying that I hope the solution to China’s problems isn’t to become exactly like America!

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