Friday, September 19, 2008

Why Does China Have a Morality Crisis?

In the wake of the Sanlu melamine milk powder crisis, I can't help but recall the “dark-heart milk powder” incident four years ago. In a commentary published in January titled "China Has a Morality Crisis" I wrote:
China’s moral crisis exists not only in marriage, but also in business practices. A representative case is the so-called “dark-heart milk powder” incident. In April 2004, the media exposed an infant food business in Anhui Province that had been selling counterfeit milk powder causing the deaths of 13 babies and permanent illness in 171 others. The incident enraged the entire nation, but unfortunately it was not an isolated case.
Given the public outrage at the time, to be honest I did not expect the same calamity to repeat itself so soon and on an even bigger scale. While I'm glad to see a thorough investigation on China's entire dairy industry is taking place, punishment alone will not be sufficient.

A fundamental question begs to be answered: why is China having such a big scale morality crisis? I am reprinting a few more passages from the aforementioned article on this topic, just to cast a brick in order to attract jade.
The Chinese expression “quede” (缺德) , meaning “short of virtue,” used to be one of the most vicious insults in verbal arguments. Nowadays, the expression seems to have lost its admonishing power and has simply become a portrait of reality. Last year, a Chinese blogger cyber-named “David” attempted to analyze this. In his widely read article “Why have Chinese become ‘quede’ now?” he lists a few representative views on the Chinese moral sphere: all citizens worship money; no more baselines exist for minimal morality; today is the worst time of moral degeneration in China’s history; China should return to its traditional values.

“David” has his own ideas on the reasons behind the moral degeneration: while China imports the Western-style market economy, it fails to establish corresponding ethics, and the traditional Chinese moral principles no longer apply in the completely new economy. He recommends Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” but fails to suggest how to carry out such a theory.

An influential contemporary Confucian, Jiang Qing, has a more appealing proposal. To him the essential problem is the lack of state ideology and a corresponding political system. Since the Cultural Revolution led to the self-destruction of Communism, that once ideological monopoly has lost its past aureole, and common Chinese have been unable to find the ultimate meaning and value for their individual lives.

“The problem isn’t that people don’t follow moral standards; the problem is that there no longer exist moral standards,” says Jiang Qing. He attributes the loss of morality to five decades of atrophy under Communist political power, plus two decades of corrosion under the money and wealth brought by the Western market economy.

After many years of research and various attempts at commitment to promising ideologies, including Christianity and Buddhism, Jiang Qing concludes that Confucianism is the only ideological solution for Chinese people. He and his followers are pushing to restore Confucianism as China’s state ideology. There are signs that China’s national leaders are also increasingly promoting Confucianism, albeit for considerations different from Jiang Qing’s. How far the government is willing to go in this direction remains a big question.
My question remains: to reestablish moral standards that have binding power, does China need a new ideological system, or the rebirth of an old one such as Confucianism? I'm not really a fan of any institutional religions, but it seems to me a healthy society does require some sort of shared ideological system to hold it together.


Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun - I agree that all societies need some kind of binding discourse to help maintain social cohesion. Multicultural communities in particular. China's promotion of the "harmonious" society is very often mocked though, sometimes unfairly I think, by its Western critics.

But are the Chinese really experiencing a "moral crisis"? I think perhaps you are overstating your case on this one.

Many Chinese manufacturers do, it is true, compromise on the quality and safety of their products in order to maximise profits. But the same is true all over the world - even in the developed world where legal systems and regulatory controls are not only more extensive and sophisticated but also more reliably enforced. Was it not a New York judge that, only a few years back, described McDonald's chicken nuggets as "Frankensteinian"? They, like KFC chicken nuggets, contain anti-foaming agents like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. Dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable.

If this isn't bad enough, tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, is also used in the production of McDonald's chicken nuggets - derived from petroleum, TBHQ is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to help preserve "freshness". TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) that the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in America's processed food products: it can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. You wouldn't want any more than that, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can even kill.

In the UK, many scientists are trying to have soy products banned, arguing that it is a carcinogen that is slowly poisoning the population, as it is added to just about every processed food imaginable - everything from breakfast cereals to chocolate bars, and yes, even chicken nuggets. Fermented, or partially fermented soy products are actually quite healthy for you, and may help to reduce the risk of developing certain cancers - such products are attributed to the relatively low per capita breast and prostate cancer rates in East Asia. I'm talking about products like doufu.

But unfermented soy, according to scientists in both the UK and the US, "virtually destroys all zinc in the body; and zinc is critical for optimal development and functioning of the brain, nervous system and immune system."

In the US, an estimated 25% of North American babies receive infant formula made from processed soybeans. I suggest you visit the following sites to see how potentially harmful such infant formulas are:

There are many other such sites.

I haven't mentioned pesticides and fertilisers yet, and I won't, as I think you get my point: per capita cancer rates continue to climb, because processed "foods" are highly profitable, even though many may require the addition of as many as 30 chemicals or more!

Question then: is there a moral "crisis" in the United States? Canada? France? Britain? Australia? In all developed countries of the word, because manufacturers knowingly add poisons to our food, and because government regulators allow them to do so? Because the health of entire industries, and therefore of entire nation states, is what is at stake? Invading and occupying developing countries to rob them of their oil, is that not a clear sign of moral decay?

Remember, China is a developing country. It ranks 81 on the UN Human Development Index, compared to Australia which ranks 3, and the US, which ranks 10. Of course China is going to have more problems, and its ability to monitor and to regulate the safety of consumer products will not be as effective as it is in the developed West.

The Chinese are generally NO LESS depraved morally than are the general populations of all other countries in the world. To imagine otherwise is just plain wishful thinking on the part of those who want to see China fail. All of these smug reports about how callous Chinese manufacturers are are produced with the aim of convincing us that the Chinese political system is inadequate, that its people would be better off if the CCP was to give up its monopoly on political power, and to hand the country over to a form of polical economy modelled on that of Westminster. The success of the one-party system poses a real ideological threat to Western capital, because now vital players in the global economy no longer need to play entirely by World Bank and IMF (ie. America's) rules. China, to some extent, is shaping its own rules, and not all of them are and will be to the liking of all Western enterprises.

In order to slow down and impede China's growing influence in the world arena, it is necessary for its competitors to exaggerate its flaws, especially when it comes to human rights issues and food/product safety.

During the recent Olympics the West's media made a rediculously BIG issue out of Bejing's air quality - so much so that one could have been forgiven for thinking that the air was so bad in China, that nobody could possibly live to over 30 years of age. The UK's Independent for exampe, described Beijing's air as a "post-apocalyptic-like smogosphere that hangs almost permanently over the Chinese capital.”

Oddly enough, the IOC said that Beijing's air quality was acceptable under WHO standards, and keep in mind that the life expectancy for the average Beijinger and Sydney-sider is about the same, around 80 years of age.

Reporting on China is so biased, it's not even funny anymore. Whenever the Chinese government is mentioned, it’s more often than not referred to as the “ruling Communist Party” or the “Communist regime”. The word "government" is rarely mentioned, giving one the impression that only when China adopts a form of political economy thst allows two huge parties dominated by the SAME private money to compete for an average of less than 20% of the population's vote to form government, will China ever be able to call its rulers a “government”.

When referring to any Chinese media, our wonderfully professional and unbiased journalists always throw in the “state controlled” or “state run” descriptors. The Chinese media, by contrast, (at least not in any of their English-language editions) never report our newspaper and television conglomerates the way they really are - “George Bush, elected by only 20% of the population” or “the Sydney Morning Herald, Corporate mouthpiece for Murdoch”.

It won't be too much longer before we hear all about the next food product scare to hit China. It will be blown up and packaged as yet more evidence of China's inherent inferiority - problems that are "built into its DNA", as John Pomfret likes to say - his use of the DNA metaphor is just soooooo telling, don't you think?

Mark Anthony Jones

Xujun said...

Mark, thanks for the long comment. First, if you've read my other posts, you know I dislike China-bashing. However, I think it is important that those of us who wish the best for China not single-mindedly oppose all criticisms. There is a great deal of constructive criticism, and this should be recognized. And don't forget the historical lesson: In 1957, in the "hundred flower blooming" campaign, there were both constructive criticism and malicious attacks, but what Mao did was boil all of them into one hot pot, turning the campaign around to the anti-rightist tragedy. (You are not Mao, I know. :-))

Now let me come back to the particular point. On this matter, your comparison of China to other countries really doesn't make much sense. That other countries have similar problems (though your examples are substantially different in degree), does not prove the crisis does not exist in China. The crisis I cited is relative to China's own history. The immoral business practices have not been on such a grand scale since 1949. I believe there is now indeed a vacuum in ideology among the Chinese because the Cultural Revolution destroyed their belief in Communism. Yet, to date, another ideology has not emerged to guide people. That is the issue I am trying to raise, the milk is just one of the latest symptoms.

On the other hand, you raised a good question whether such immoral practice is common in all capitalist countries; in other words, whether it is an inherit nature of capitalism.

Matthew said...

It is a disappointing problem (quality control) that China has been facing since I arrived three years ago.

Part of the reason why it doesn't go away is that outrage doesn't seem to last here (unless you're talking about foreign imperialists). When was the last time you heard about outraged people suffering after the Sichuan earthquake?

The other problem is the lack of responsibility, which has been exacerbated by the increased wealth in many areas (not just in China either). No one will take responsibility for actions. If a student fails, it's the teacher's fault. If a product is defective, it's the customer's fault. Somewhere along the line the concept of "face" has been skewed.

As a side note, out of 150 grad students, very few could tell me anything about Confucius.

alfaeco said...

I think the morality crisis in China is a product of the social and polytical system.

One problem. The result of a society turned upside down by reform in a country led by a party that has shifted from wealth repudiation to wealth creation.

The country is ruled by law and not implement rule of law. That does not help either. Laws are enacted to push government or local officials interest, or not enforced or simply ignored when they become an obstacle for their objectives.

No independent judiciary, even lawyers are at risk when defending someone they run in conflict with the interest of local officials or ruling party.

Judges not truly independent, and sometimes even incompetent.

Let not speak about freedom of information... or others..

The Guanxi, is a defense system against the arbitrariness of the powers that be. Also lacking an independent arbitration and conflict resolution system, the only recourse if grouping together for self defence, enforcing agreements and fighting cheaters.
But as a legal system is patch, opaque, uneficient and prone to collusion between business and officials.... that lead to corruption.

The legitimacy lackings of the CCP, justification of its grip on power after all the ideological contortions they had to go through lately does not help.

What to believe now? Someone wrote a graffiti on a wall "Marx is dead, Lenin is dead, even Mao is dead,... and I am not felling myself quite well lately"

Back to Confucius? All this to get back to the straight jacket of Confucius system!
Looks more like an act of desperation than anything else.

Do not think I am too pessimistic. Thinks have improved in the legal system in China. New laws and more important.... enforcement. But much is to be done yet.

But while the party do not accept a real rule of law an independent juridical system, free flow of information, real accountability, there will be problems.

The question is. Are they able to accept it? And if not. Why not?

Anonymous said...

I feel that the Sanlu incident is a moral crisis and a legal system crisis. So fat, China has been walking on only one leg (the economic growth). I'm not so sure if Confucianism would become the other leg to help establish the balance. But one crucial thing is an independent judiciary system, which seems to have been lacking in the traditional Chinese society also.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Xujun - thanks for your detailed response.

I wasn't trying to suggest that it is wrong to offer thoughtful criticisms of China. I don't believe that a moral "crisis" exists though. This I think, is an overstatement.

If a moral "crisis" does exist in China, then how should we describe the moral situation in countries like the United States for example, or Britain or Australia? Surely we would have to then conclude they China's "crisis" is not as severe by comparison.

I agree that faith in the emerging market economy has resulted in the collapse of China's Communist binding discourse, thus creating an ideological vacuum, but I don't think this has resulted in a moral "crisis."

As I wrote in my book, "Flowing Waters Never Stale", the cult of Mao, which was originally initiated by the government for political purposes during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, has now been revived by the poor, who seem to have appropriated the Chairman’s image for their own purposes. His face, I have noticed, can often be found hanging from car mirrors, his head used as money boxes, his smile on watch faces. People cling to his image for good luck, just as Buddhists for centuries have decorated their homes with statues of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, or of Chan Chu the money frog.

The economic reforms unleashed by Deng swept aside the social values endorsed by Mao, creating a moral vacuum, and as the political scientist Lin Zhimin has pointed out, China’s leaders, recognising the dangers of this vacuum in belief, ‘have continued to portray their policies in the language of socialism and communism, even when the terms used no longer bear much connection with their original meanings.’ Various religions and folk beliefs are now able to openly compete for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, each one attempting to satisfy the population’s need to have something to believe in.

According to official figures, Buddhism alone now claims over 100 million followers. Islam, the second most popular religion, has 20.3 million followers, Protestantism 16 million, Catholicism 5 million and Daoism 3 million. These five religious movements alone now claim a combined total of roughly 144 million followers, or eleven percent of the population. According to the political scientist Hongyi Harry Lai, in his paper on "The Religious Revival in China", folk religions are now thought to attract around nineteen percent of the total population, ‘resulting in a marked rise’ in the number of new shrines and temples being built throughout the rural countryside.

The economic and social changes that have swept through China since the late 1970s have combined to create considerable social stresses and raptures, dislocating millions, with many losing their free health care and guaranteed incomes. Religion, as Lai points out, ‘meets the population’s need for psychological comfort,’ helping them to cope more easily with their rapidly modernising world – a world, to paraphrase Marx, where all that is solid can, and often does, melt into air.

The ideological vacuum has resulted in the revival of religion, as people search for something to believe in, but I'm not convinced that it has resulted in a moral "crisis'. Market reforms and political decentralisation have combined to create more opportunities for corruption, and capitalism does encourage greed, which if unchecked through adequate regulatory measures, often results in the manufacturing of dangerous products in the interests of maximising profits. But such problems represent only one side of the China story. There is a causal relationship between greater economic freedom and the country's evolving system of law, which increasingly regulates the behaviour of individuals, influencing profoundly their moral values. I just spent five years living in China, and throughout this time I certainly witnessed a growing general level of tolerance for difference. Traditionalists and New Age moral puritans may not like the increasing sexual liberalisation of their society, and in China (including the Tibetan Autonomous Region) they're the most vocal whingers - they're the ones who are always harping on about the lack of morals. The Dalai Lama certainly falls into this category, basing most of his fear-mongering on hearsay he gets from other traditionalists still living within the borders of the TAR.

Where is the empirically-verifiable evidence to show that a "crisis" exists? You need quantitative evidence to demonstrate that a crisis exists, not just a good collection of qualitative sources.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

Anonymous said...

I agree with MAJ that many Chinese have already turned to the religions. In fact the number may even be higher than the 200 million since there are many Chinese who hedge their bets and believe in a little of everything, but not committed to anyone.

However, there is always a danger that a particular religious movement becomes a power that challenges the government and society as a whole. Do we want to see more of Falungong?

I am not sure the lack of a dominant ideology is a bad thing at all. The last 30 years of China is a repudiation of the revolutionary ideologies of the first 30 years of the communist rule. I think we Chinese are quite allergic to at this kind of political ideologies.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

Wuming - I agree with you. The market is currenty the dominant ideological force in China, just as it is in most other countries. Through advertising and consumption, popular culture, which is commercialised culture, has become so deeply rooted in Chinese social life, as Yue Daiyun has pointed out in her essay on "Public Culture in China Today", that is now "the main force and system in constructing the ideology of the present."

Religion in China, as elsewhere throughout the world, being a part of popular culture, exists largely in a commodified form, and is thus part of the country’s commercial culture. Witness the proliferation in China of both Buddhist and Christian kitsch over the past ten to fifteen years, as well as the growing wealth of both temples and churches, and mosques too for that matter.

An ideological vacuum exists nevertheless, in that the central government seems hesitant to endorse one - which is understandable, because there are obvious dangers that come with the full endorsement and promotion of a nationalist ideology, or a religious-based one.

The idea of creating a "harmonious society" is the closest the central government has come to producing a binding discourse. I recognise it as such, as it is quite similar in many ways to the promotion of multiculturalism here in Australia - the product of the Hawke/Keating Labor governments.

Rocking Offkey said...

The problem, as MAJ describes, is an extremely hypocritical society, not necessary a "crisis". And it is a stratified society. True, many people still think often in turns of socialist value, even among the young. But this actually often creates a disillusion and disadvantage in social dealings. When you talk about "market" in developed economies, you will also think of law, and rule of law that comes with it, but in emerging markets, as in China, it rarely register. In stead, the thinking is often bipolar.

Mr. MacKnight said...

Perhaps I am too simple-minded, but . . . it seems to me that the question is rather simple. What are the risks, compared to the possible profits? If the profits outweigh the risks, many people will choose to do wrong for their own benefit. If on the other hand the risks are very high, only a few people will break the law. It's all a matter of government regulation and law enforcement.

This applies equally to McDonalds, Wall Street, Fannie Mae, and Chinese milk.

Anonymous said...

"while China imports the Western-style market economy, it fails to establish corresponding ethics, and the traditional Chinese moral principles no longer apply in the completely new economy."
may I know what you means for 'traditional Chinese moral principles'?