(English translation is below the Chinese.)
A few days ago, a friend sent me an email in which she said her teacher, a Chinese, recently expressed that she thinks Chinese society is unstable and Chinese people are becoming less and less moral. My friend said that they both wanted to know my views toward this issue (because I’m currently studying Chinese sociology). Below is my response. (I’m sharing these thoughts in order to elicit others’ views, so please share yours at the bottom.)
Actually, this issue is coincidentally a topic that I’ve been pondering every day this week. Every day, I’ve seen people nonchalantly throw trash on the street, people drive cars wildly (ignoring pedestrians’ safety and rights), lots of abandoned stray cats, and people in public areas treat others very coldly; the sense of responsibility here is relatively weak. You both say Chinese people are lacking morality; I say that they lack a sense of responsibility for greater society or citizen consciousness. Either way, the topic is the same.
This sort of attitude also exists in America, but I believe that the proportion of Americans lacking citizen consciousness is comparatively less. Why is this problem relatively serious in China? Based on conversations with some Chinese friends in the past few days as well as my own reflection, I think that there are at least three possibilities to explain this problem. Below are the three “theories”. (The first two are expressed by Chinese people, and the final one is my own hypothesis.)
1) Authoritarian system hypothesis. China is a one-party political system, and it’s been like this for 60 years. Social projects, social problems, economic issues, etc. all completely rely on the government’s leadership or decisions. Several generations of Chinese people have already become used to this social order. Moreover, their way of thinking has been heavily influenced; so much so that they think anything related to the public realm -- whether it’s public venues, public problems, public policy, etc. – all need the government to resolve. Common people are simply observers or followers. This thinking is not only passed from one generation to the next, it is also embodied in the system – i.e., in school, Chinese children primarily learn how to listen to the opinions or orders of their elders or experts. The result is that Chinese people often lack a sense of responsibility for society. In their eyes, “citizen” consciousness is a relatively meaningless notion, because in the political system, they don’t have the rights of citizens. Thus, when someone says “citizen consciousness” in China, for many people, it goes in one ear and out the other.
2) Democracy hypothesis. This theory is related to the last. But this theory focuses on the viewpoint of the government rather than common people. The main argument is that politicians in China don’t have to think about the needs of the people because they don’t have to think about elections. Currently, economic development is the priority of the government. The citizen consciousness of the people is far less significant than economic development, to such an extent that the government worries that if they promote the strengthening of citizen consciousness, people might opposed some public policy – perhaps even doubt the current one-party system.
3) Cultural hypothesis. In the past 20 years, China has transformed from an agricultural nation into an industrialized one. This change has occurred really quickly, so much so that culture has not been able to adapt to the new societal circumstances and demands. There are primarily two parts to this theory. First, in traditional Chinese culture, a person’s sense of responsibility is limited to their social circle – i.e., family, relatives, and people from their village. But in the past 20 years, under new economic circumstances, a lot of farmers have migrated to the cities for work, pursuing a better future, supporting their family. Cities quickly became denser, and in this environment, people living in the city need to have a sense of responsibility for the greater society. Otherwise, when they run into people on the street every day, they will pay no attention to others’ rights. This sort of consciousness – caring about others’ rights – is not simple. It requires a person to think deeply: respecting strangers so that strangers respect me, and everybody mutually respecting one another can lead to a peaceful society – that is to say, a situation in which everyone’s common interests are realized. So “the self’s behavior” and “a peaceful society” are pretty far from one another; at the least, they have three steps that separate them. This train of thought must be cultivated, but in regards to this thinking, China’s education system still needs improvement.
Second, because of the economic environment and employment market created by fast economic development, competition is fierce. As a result, people aren’t only used to paying little attention to others – the first aspect – they focus more on their own competiveness and future, otherwise they might not be able survive. From this perspective, other people are obstacles. They are hindering one from realizing their work and life goals. Under these circumstances, citizen consciousness or a sense of responsibility for society will forever remain in second place.