Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Social Pressure, or Humanity? - Letter from Shanghai

by Anonymous

Introduction: I received this letter
last week from an English reader in Shanghai. I'm posting it with permission, because he has some very interesting points. Either you agree or disagree with him, I'd love to hear your thoughts. – Xujun

Hi Xujun,

I came across your blog today and am interested in your ideas. In the blog post "Heroism, or Humanity?" you talk about the response of the Chinese people to the Sichuan earthquake. You noted that this was dramatically different to the responses to previous natural disasters and how it seemed to be based more on humanity than the Chinese concept of heroism. I found this very interesting and would like to share my thoughts.

One thing I can add is that, in China, there was enormous social pressure on people to support the earthquake victims. I am not sure whether this feeling existed in previous cases (e.g. Tangshan earthquake), but from your writing, I suppose not. Whether this is a good thing or not is an interesting moral question, but I want to look at why / how it happened rather than the ethics of it.

(slight sidetrack here, but will be relevant eventually, I promise!)

My own personal feeling is that culture is less a reflection of the psychology of a people and more a response to the environment in which they find themselves. For example, I am not at all sure that the low-level Nazi prison guards during the Holocaust or the Japanese soldiers at Nanjing are so different from us. In most cases, before and afterwards they lived normal lives. Is it plausible that so many people simultaneously changed from normal to abnormal and then later changed back? I don't think so. More likely the environment changed and they changed in response. The famous Milgram experiment supports this view.

I haven't read any of your writings, but it seems you view the Cultural Revolution somewhat similarly. There were no fixed groups of victims and victimizers, but people moved between groups depending on circumstance.

This also works in less dramatic ways. The concept of "guanxi" is often said to be a core part of Chinese culture - especially business culture. However, my belief is that this is not due to some fundamental characteristic of the Chinese, but is just a response to the fact that the legal system in China makes it hard to enforce your rights. If you do business with someone and they cheat you, it is much harder to sue them successfully in China than in the US. As a result, business people rely more on the relationships and personal knowledge than on the law to protect themselves. Recently, the legal system has begun to improve in some areas of China, like Shanghai, and people tell me that guanxi are far less important in Shanghai than in certain other areas. I guess the decline in the importance of guanxi will continue as the legal system in China improves.

Which environmental forces affect culture or behavior? In modern societies, I think the social forces have the most powerful effect. Most people like to belong to a group. Even so-called rebels normally conform within their group. People who truly differ from their peers are often treated with suspicion or contempt. Although some people might say the group thinking is stronger in China than the US, I am not sure this is true. Look at the response of the US to 9/11 and the run up to the Iraq War. I was in the UK at that time and the new there clearly showed that it was unlikely Iraq had weapons of mass destruction - hence you had one million people protesting against the war in London before it started. Meanwhile, in the US such news was suppressed and very, very few people opposed the war. In other words, I think people everywhere feel and mostly respond to the pressures to join groups. This effect will tend to be greater the more uncertain and risky the environment. Being part of a group is a safe choice, opposing the majority is risky.

I think a lot of the stress people felt during the cultural revolution was because the "right" groups to belong to kept changing. People tried to fit in with the dominant group to be safe, but then the political wind changed, and they were in the subjugated group and had to try to change again. Therefore, it was very difficult to find any safety of security.

(back to the point)

OK. So what does this have to do with the Sichuan response. Let us look at the difference between the Tangshan earthquake and the Sichuan earthquake. If I am right, the difference in public response should be attributable to a different environment.

In 1976 the cultural revolution was just ending and, I suppose, Chinese people felt very insecure. They had seen others (and maybe themselves) suffer for not being part of the dominant group and did not want that to happen again. I do not know much about the situation after the Tangshan quake, but I do know that the government tried to suppress information about it. Most people probably interpreted this to mean that the government did not want them to make a big deal about the earthquake, so they didn't. I am sure they felt sad, but they did not act because it might be dangerous - who knows if people trying to support the earthquake victims would be seen as next target for the cultural revolution? The social pressures forced people to look away.

Now the Sichuan case is very different. The Chinese government's response was very open. Coverage of the earthquake has been constantly on the TVs and there was even a three day mourning period where no other news was shown. Supporting the earthquake victims is seen as a duty. Instead of the social pressure working against contribution, it works for it. In order to be part of the group you must contribute. For example, around where I live, people collect money from neighbours and then post the amount donated by people in the apartment buildings. So people can see who has donated how much. If you do not donate, you lose face. In some companies, I have heard contributions are compulsory. Even as a foreigner, I can feel a strong social pressure to contribute, and I am sure it is more powerful for the Chinese themselves.

So I guess my point of view is this: there is no fundamental difference between Chinese people now than in 1976, but the environment is very different. I am sure many people then felt sadness for the victims at Tangshan, but there were strong social pressures not to organize support for them. Now, the opposite is true. Even those you may not want to help the victims are under pressure to do so. I would be wary of using the comparison between Tangshan and Sichuan to deduce some change in the humanity of the Chinese because powerful social pressures are working in opposite directions. I think the response to Tangshan dramatically underestimates the compassion felt and the response to Sichuan may actually overestimate it.

Of course I have only been in China a couple of years, so I do not have the same depth of understanding that you do. Therefore, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

– Anonymous

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