What’s wrong with China? Hint: it’s not the government

After living here for more than 9 months, I have come to a most repugnant conclusion. It pains me to even think about it for I am a Chinese person who has often defended the traditions, institutions, values and dignity of the Children of Heaven. But the truth is often painful at first. I realize now that much of the problems in Chinese society, and a plethora of problems there are, are not from the Chinese government (not a surprise to me since I am a long time China watcher suspicious of the anti government rhetoric of the west).  What is surprising is that the myriad problems within Chinese society comes from the behavior, values and the beliefs of its people, a people that with all their traditions of wisdom behave in the most atrocious, despicable manner towards each other today. In a sense, I’d always expected this but were perhaps too proud to admit it and needed first hand experience for verification. Now I cannot escape that basic truth.

I once remember long ago watching a documentary in the US. A Chinese man said that the problems with China is that the nation has so many “low quality people”. I remember feeling palpably shaken and offended. Angry even at these words. Surely this is racist propaganda from the west permeating a gullible if not corrupt Chinese mind. I will detail my opinions formed from my experiences and they may be offensive at first to many overseas Chinese and even some mainland Chinese but ultimately I hope for us, all of us, to reflect on the veracity of my reasons. I sincerely hope that my experiences are only representative of Beijing or other northern cities and places. Indeed, in my experience, people from the more developed South are better which you’d expect as the South is far more developed and better educated than the North. Two disclaimers:  This is not to say that the media in the west isn’t racist against the Chinese. It most certainly is. In fact, Asians in general I believe are some of the most discriminated against groups in the US. Also I sincerely hope that people will put this in context, not seeing it as a rant but as social criticism and thus not react to it instinctively but as food for reflection.

The Chinese people especially in the north, display selfishness, rudeness, greed, ignorance, and pettiness the likes I have never seen before. There are too many examples from my own experience to give an illustration of all their deficiencies. But for those who are in China and who can speak passable Chinese, I’d like to offer you one experiment so that the point my be partially illustrated to yourself. Ask a sample of Chinese women what their hobbies and interests are. Take note how many of them say “shopping” and “sleeping” just to get a taste of what they are like.

Granted, this kind of shallowness shouldn’t be a demonstration of any kind of deep defect on the Chinese population of course. It’s just shallowness, partially excused by the fact that capitalism is so new to Chinese. But it is a surface of an iceberg and it is indicative of deeper problems with modern China and its people.

In my experience, many Chinese are quick to blame their government for all the problems in their society such as air pollution, traffic, corruption etc. These are all real problems. Moreover these are problems faced by almost all of the world’s developing economies and many of the developed ones too. But what is interesting in the Chinese case is that the Chinese people often do the blaming based on rumor and from an ignorant conception of themselves and the rest of the world. Take one example. I know someone in Beijing who is the CEO of a large international company. Though I can’t be sure because I don’t know him that well, he seems otherwise a gentle and kind man but he displays a kind of ignorance and hypocrisy that is common in the Chinese people. When I told him I was an American, the first thing he mentioned to me was how much he admired the American government and how defective his own government is. I was instantly curious. Why was he so approving of American style governance? What made the US government so much better in his eyes? What has the Chinese government done to deserve such opprobrium? He mentioned that the Chinese government has done little to narrow the wealth gap and made the air less polluted in Beijing.

Then I asked him what car he drives. He said he just bought a very large American style SUV. He also plans to buy an even bigger SUV and moreover already owns several other luxury cars. Surely he is aware and ashamed of his contributions to the bad air quality in Beijing? Doesn’t seem to me like he is even aware of his behavior as a contributing factor. I also asked how many houses he has. He has three. Three large houses. Again, he doesn’t seem to be aware that his behavior and that of those in his tax bracket are contributing in buying up property they don’t even use but as a mark of mere patrician vanity to the fact that so many Chinese, i.e., the 99% beneath his economic class can’t afford houses in China.

He is part of the problem. I choose this example not because it is so exceptional (rather it is typical) but it is so representative of larger problems. If the government had made stricter controls on vehicles, many Chinese like him would complain that this was “totalitarianism” in preventing people from their “right” to own a large American SUV. Indeed, the government already taxes some luxury and gas consuming vehicles so that they cost twice as much as they do in the US but that is not preventing Chinese from buying them whenever they get a chance. In Shanghai, it’s even worse. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a Maserati or a Lamborgini, cars which get even worse mileage per gallon than American SUVs. There’s no doubt in my mind that the people sitting behind the wheels of these vehicles bitch and moan all the time about how ineffective their government is at preventing air pollution completely oblivious to the fact that they are a large part of the problem. Of course, to them, the problem of bad air quality is the government’s fault never the Chinese people’s ridiculous need for ostentatious displays to garner social approval.  In many Chinese people’s minds, the Chinese public is never the problem. They are the solution.  And changes to the government is just the antidote to all of China’s ills. It’s difficult to run a large country with such an ignorant and uneducated population and the “solutions” many propose will make things far worse. The government has to balance growth with environmental protection and in my opinion, it has done that better than any country in history, certainly better than the US and England during comparable times of development. When will Chinese people start buying less cars, stop littering, start recycling and in general doing their share to clean up the environment, an environment they have degraded?

It’s becomes painfully obvious to me how something like the Great Leap Forward could happen in China where millions starved. When a society is built on so many layers of superficiality, bullshit and hypocrisy, and passing off responsibility to others, getting at the truth to solve real problems becomes impossible.

They are blind to their own behavior and moreover show an incredible naivete of America. Perhaps it’s because of too many rap videos or other stupid sitcom shows or even western propaganda of the western lifestyle and the “American dream” (which has always been just that, a dream) but many Chinese people see that lifestyle or at least popular images of that lifestyle in the media and probably think that that is the norm in the US. They then automatically attribute that “success” to the wondrous perfection of the US government.  Rather than the real cause for America’s wealth (or at least that of its corporations and its 1%), such as the availability of resources (often obtained through aggressive and morally if not legally illicit means), of American willingness to accept new ideas, of the long hard battle by its citizens for the rule of law, etc, it is the structure of its government that is the attributed cause in many Chinese people’s minds.

I often tell people here that the US is just as economically polarized as China. I also tell them that corruption is a serious problem in the US (of course, it’s “de facto” corruption but isn’t that just as bad?) and that the president and the congress in both parties are essentially completely controlled by the corporations and the 1/10th of 1 percent, their financial lifeline, and that the US was once even more polluted than China is today. Despite the fact that all this is supported with a wealth of empirical evidence, it usually elicits incredulous stares; surely no place on earth is as polluted/corrupt/inefficient/poor as China?  They are completely ignorant of all the injustices that happen in the US. Again, their ignorance runs in so many directions it’s hard to keep track.

Moreover, it’s incredible how little people know how to behave among others. Basic etiquette that all civilized societies must have (such as not cutting in line) often show little practice in China. People are routinely run down by cars running red lights. I have been hit by a car simply walking in a parking lot quite recently because the driver was oblivious to what was going on as he backed his car out of the stall, displaying no consideration for pedestrians. Luckily it was just a minor bump without any injury but many people are not so fortunate and are hit by idiotic drivers with little regard for other people’s (and perhaps their own) lives. I can’t emphasize how often this occurs and how even more incredibly, this kind of behavior is not met with any more serious reactions from others who stand by. Much of what passes as unacceptable behavior in other countries are accepted without anyone doing anything to curtail it.

The traffic problems here also stem from incredible ignorance and selfishness. People run red lights, pedestrians cross whenever they feel like it not realizing that this endangers others and moreover causes huge traffic inefficiency. The government has recently spent millions putting up fences near roads and center dividers and putting crossing guards (which in China is meant to guide adults and not children to cross the road like it is in the west) and enforcing the existent rules of the road often in ingenious ways. This is the right way to go. But I feel incredibly sympathetic to their plight of fighting such behavior in that the behavior that these improvements are fighting against is a tide of ignorance, a tide composed of a billion selfish and ignorant people all of whom thinking that they are an exception to any rule. A lack of insight that one’s own behavior has ramifications and multiplier effects within society also contributes. For example, many Chinese people reason very linearly, rationalizing their behavior by thinking that since they are not hurting anyone by crossing the road (or running a red light) they should be allowed to do it. They don’t think in nuanced and comprehensive ways. They don’t take into account that when they do things like cross in traffic, others see it and are thus encouraged to follow in like manner. This then encourages drivers to behave in dangerous ways such as weave through jay walking pedestrians and so on. The end result is a vicious cycle ending in dangers which can all be avoided.

I believe that the problem just illustrated is analogous to other problems such as corruption and many other things which plague modern China. When you have social pressure and ignorance of consequences of one’s action that all encourage things like bribes, you have at the end of a long spiraling chain which descend into the depths of a very deep shit hole. The implicit Chinese social system of guanxi puts enormous pressures to fulfill social obligations that can turn venal and it is this pressure at the root of so my corrupt practices in China today. It becomes so obvious to an outsider like myself. It is the responsibility of its citizens to take notice and change these problematic practices and values.

Public health is also a huge problem that at its very root, stems not from governmental incompetence or malfeasance but mostly from public ignorance, selfishness and superstition. People routinely spit, blow snot rockets, have their children urinate and make bowl movements, and puke on the street completely unaware of the serious health hazards this posses. Things like SARS and H7N9 and many routine flus are spread quickly in China because people’s lack of personal hygiene and responsible behavior. Hepatitis is common in China. People complain about the air quality all the time but smoking causes far more health issues than smog but so many people smoke in public that it is a far bigger threat to public safety. The common sight  of someone worrying about the air then lighting up a cigarette would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that their cigarette contributes to the decline of health in others.

The ignorance and hypocrisy is merely the tip of the iceberg when detailing what is wrong today with many Chinese people. There is also incredible dishonesty. Much more so than even in American society in my opinion. In talking with many Chinese, they are well aware of this social problem (how could they not be?) but are quick to blame the fact that there are so many people in their country making it very competitive and the fact that most people receive poor education. All that may very well be the case but I have been to many countries where the people are even poorer and less educated and I don’t always have to count my change in worrying about being short changed in those countries.

For example, when I got my current apartment, I was told that it was a two bedroom apartment. That’s what was sold to me. When I moved in, I found one of the doors to a bedroom locked. I was then told completely casually by the rental agent that the family wants to use that room for storage and that I was not allowed to use it, initial promises and the lease be damned. Unfortunately for them, and unlike most Chinese people, I actually care about truth and justice and threatened to sue them. I called the cops and had a locksmith sent to my house and open the lock. Of course, since the lease clearly stipulates that the whole apartment was mine to use, they knew they didn’t have a chance in court and would lose and would have to pay my lawyer fees and storage fees; they capitulated and now I have complete use of the whole apartment. Most Chinese people have put their tails between their legs and caved under the demands of the landlord not wanting to stir up “trouble” and moreover thinking their behavior “civilized” when it is just cowardly and shortsighted. They would have swallowed their flickering sense of resentment and injustice and merely complained to their friends while doing absolutely nothing about it.

Again, this kind of dishonesty is so common in China that people are now use to it and it happens because people don’t give a damn. Lies are told as if they were greetings. There is no sense of civic responsibility either for their own behavior or in dealing with others. It happens everywhere in Beijing at least and all the time. Everyone that I know living in China has many stories just like this. Again, the police (who even gone to the great lengths of giving the senior mother of the landlord a severe tongue lashing for the behavior of her family)  and the legal system, i.e., the representatives of authority and the “despotic” government, were the good guys protecting my rights while the despicable behavior are from ordinary Chinese citizens. In the US, consumer rights came at the end of long, hard battles by citizens who cared about justice. Many sacrifices were made. I am doubtful that the Chinese people today are willing to make those sacrifices and moreover, I am more worried that their lack of civic responsibility will be masked by rationalizations that attribute spurious causes such as blaming the government for problems of their own deficiencies. Much of the formal institutions to protect people’s rights are already in place in China. But how will they be put in practice if people don’t have the wisdom, personal responsibility and the sense of justice to carry out actions? They need to be exercised by a competent public to work. They don’t work by magic.

That’s not to say the government is perfect. They should have instituted many measures much earlier. But the thing is, they admit this. Take a look at the speech given by Xi and Li at the 18th congress to see such candid admissions. They take personal responsibility. In the end, I believe that at least the central PRC government is not only one of the most competent but also most moral governments in the world. It’s not just what they have done but what they have had to go against. To lift half a billion of the world’s poorest and most ignorant people from abject poverty is nothing short of miraculous. Despite the large economic inequalities that exists in China today, I believe that the positives of living a minimally decent life far outweighs the negatives of extreme inequality (perhaps that’s just my Rawlsian intuitions kicking in). In the US, the rise of inequality has not been coupled with a rise in pulling people out of poverty. In fact the opposite has happened over the last 40 years.

Also, while the Chinese government is an embodiment of a deliberative democracy, it stops short of allowing full freedom of expression and transparency. But after living here, I no longer have the faith in the Chinese people (as I once did) to be responsible with that freedom. I now quite firmly believe that that will take more time for Chinese people to be able to handle living in a fully deliberative and modern democratic state for that kind of state requires a level of wisdom and civic responsibility that the Chinese people do not currently possess. The Chinese government is right to gradually step in that direction instead jumping straight in by giving everyone full freedom of expression. It’s impossible to build a fully deliberative democracy when such large percentages of its population are concerned with nothing more than money, sleeping and shopping and shy away from any kind of deep reflection and sincere debate about issues that really matter. If the Chinese people spent as much time and energy learning about the world and publicly deliberating the problems that plague their society as they do playing video games, text messaging, watching vapid American sitcoms and shopping for trendy brands, China would already be a completely advanced country and moreover a genuinely democratic one. What’s stopping them is not their government but themselves.

The problems with China are many but they are often embodied within its people. I can’t emphasize how normal the above behavior is. You see it almost everyday. You see people obnoxiously honking their horns for minutes at someone blocking the road with their obnoxious SUVs then proceed to block the road with their own obnoxious SUVs. At one time, Chinese people looked down on foreign others as barbarians, people who did not have the social refinement, education, and virtues of the Chinese. But now it is the Chinese people who must learn to be civilized. It will take time. I have no doubt that eventually they will move in that direction but like all developed nations, it took great changes within society, within individuals, to effect change. It starts with taking personal responsibility. The last message to the Chinese people I’d like to give is that if you want to see what the causes of those problems that face you are, take a look in the mirror and you have its source.

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2 responses to “What’s wrong with China? Hint: it’s not the government

  • Why are Chinese people of such low quality? | Sinobserver

    […] is a follow up to my previous post. I have been thinking about this for some time now and want to ask the why question. I have heard […]

  • Debra

    I am an overseas chinese and also grew up believing in a great and mighty China. That’s what my parents fed me. Whenever we felt discriminated against by the local people, we would remind ourselves that we are Chinese, one of the oldest civilisations. It is disheartening to see the realty (even from afar), the grass is always greener, nothing is as it seems etc 😦
    Enjoyed your essay though.

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