Do not Laugh or Despair!

marina thorborg

‘They’re just acting the way they do back home, no respect for law or rules. They’re just doing what their leaders do’, said about tourists from mainland China not only by the author, David C. Shak, but also by quoting other sources. However, before democratization in Taiwan in the 1990s their tourists were in many cases not allowed on safaris in East Africa, because they did not follow rules. Against strict regulations they left their jeeps and were attacked and sometimes killed by lions. Eventually modernization and democratization in Taiwan led to changed behavior and hopefully less lion attacks.

The ‘clash of civilizations’ analyzed by Samuel Huntington, though heavily criticized by Amartya Sen, contrasted stereotyped cultures against each other. Schak in his work, however, contrasts traditional rural life and urban modern cosmopolitan living. The author notes, for example, that when the state under the Qing government (1644–1911) mismanaged road maintenance the attitude of not caring seeped down to the people. Hence objects in the public space were all fair game, for example, every single brick disappeared from a wall encircling a cemetery for foreigners, when it was found out nobody guarded it.

‘Country bumpkins’ or ‘just down the trees’ have been the usual way for town folks to describe the new arrivals from the villages in many countries during their early industrialization and urbanization periods. Add to this ridicule the different appearances and behavior where hierarchies of different kinds decided village norms and rules. Bereft of the insider norms of the village the urbanites tended to equalize behavior towards unknown others. This happened more so and quicker when Taiwan democratized in the 1990s, while in China this is happening in the most modern areas, but so far only there. As Schak shows China is not yet a country with rule of law only rule by law, meaning some are above the law. Hence it is difficult to teach subjects in such a system to follow the law when its leaders are above it. This may explain why according to the author mainland Chinese tourists everywhere seem to be avoided by visitors from other cultures particularly from the democratic West where a minimum of consideration for others has crept into general behavior, such as not dominating by very high noise levels particularly at night, jumping queues, littering and spitting everywhere, leaving restaurant dinner tables looking like a war zone or according to Hong Kong accounts razing the hotel room for all things not nailed to the wall!

Post-Industrial Contra Industrial Values

Ronald Inglehart, conducting World Value Surveys, distinguished between post-industrial values stressing self-fulfillment, treating others as equals and a high level of trust, against industrial values emphasizing survival and a low level of trust. Through China’s rapid economic development new groups merged with the urban, middle class and can afford to travel. Still according to a Gallup survey conducted in China in 2011 71 per cent of those questioned saw themselves as ‘striving’, 17 as ‘suffering’ and only 12 as ‘thriving’. Hence almost 90 per cent saw survival as a main value where strangers are to be either avoided, distrusted or competed with.

During my first research trip, travelling on my own in China January to April 1973, I often encountered soldiers jumping queues and pushing to get first into buses, spitting and worse. Posters depicting decent, public behavior were already then prominently displayed. However, these admonishments from above did not appear to be very effective in genuinely changing conduct. Living in Hong Kong watching mainlanders almost running down old ladies with yokes I sometimes asked if they did not see the lady. Typical answers were, ‘If I had seen a policeman I would have stopped’ or ‘Now I´m in Hong Kong and I´m not afraid of repercussions so I don´t care’.

According to Schak the transformation in Taiwan in the 1990s to a heightened conduct of civility emerged after some, widely publicized media campaigns on civility and the intensive work of a rapidly growing civil society with both religious, environmental, and humanitarian NGO in the lead.

This is confirming Robert Putnam’s research in his groundbreaking book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italyfrom 1993 (Princeton: Princeton University Press). He traced the origins of democracy in Northern Italy back to about 1300 CE with the growth of civil society with people creating a dense network of civic, voluntary associations leading to solidarity and trust, this social capital being the building blocks for development of democracy.

In response to increased criticism from abroad the Chinese state issued manuals for good behavior about, for example, how wide smiles to give to foreigners – too wide smiles too flattering, too little of it created a negative impression. Before the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 intensive movements were in motion for displaying civilized, public manners. However, the public was not trusted to participate by watching the public olympic parade neither from windows nor balconies but only on TV!

Famines, Disaster Relief and Distrust

The author has totally forgotten to mention the worst man-made starvation in the world described in detail by Jasper Becker (Hungry Ghosts Mao’s Secret Famine, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998, p. 272) and in 2012 by Yang Jisheng (Tombstone The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, p. 430). According to the authors Chinese sources recorded at least 43–6 million deaths of starvation while 50–60 million famine deaths were referred to at internal meetings with senior party officials. The impact of this totally man-made famine led, if anything, to a loss of trust in the state and particularly in the communist party, whose cadres did not starve to death but on the contrary feasted amid the starving, while soldiers guarded full grain silos. China exported in 1958–60 up to nine million tons of grain. One million tons of grain is estimated to save four million lives annually (Marina Thorborg, Two steps forward, one backward: The CCP’s policy Toward women, in Willy Wo-Lap Lam (ed.), Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party, Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2018, 266–82). Distrust, cynicism, and total despair towards the system would be natural outcomes for many famine survivors.

The Cultural Revolution, 1966–9, which killed 1,5 million people amid chaos and random torture of ‘class enemies’ – especially teachers by students in Red Guard units – did as well lead to distrust of society, neighbors and the system.

After these devastating experiences it is still a wonder that after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 people spontaneously rushed in to help with everything they had or could. A genuine desire to help others in need was overwhelming the authorities. However, some widely spread examples when helpful outsiders spontaneously assisted victims turned sour when the victims accused their saviors. This warned the public of the dangers of getting involved with strangers in need, of being taken advantage of!

The ‘Elephant’s’ Curve of Globalization

A change in society towards greater equality, respect for human rights and equal treatment by the state of different groups, either by generation, age, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation seemed to reinforce a long-term trend towards greater civility. However, the economist, Branco Milanovic, in his 2016 book Global Inequality A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) sees inequality widening and diminishing in cycles affected by malign and benign forces. His famous ‘elephant’ curve describing the increase of the one per cent superrich and the loss of jobs and income of the lower middle class in developed countries can be used to explain both the election of Trump and the rise of populism in Europe. The other side of the coin is the growing middle classes in East- and Southeast Asia to where the jobs migrated through globalization. China is part of this picture with a growing middle class that happily can travel and display its newfound wealth with a big noisy unruly bang to the world! Milanovic’s ‘elephant’ curve is slowly turning into a ‘mammoth’ curve demonstrating increasing globalization, hence more Chinese will meet the outside world and hopefully practice already given advice.

China does not need outside advice for civil behavior at home and abroad. This was already given over two millennia ago in the Confucian Analects: ‘Chung-kung asked about perfect virtue. The master said: ‘It is when you go abroad to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting in a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself’ (James Legge, The Four Books, Confucian Analects, Book XII, Yen Yuan, Chapter II, italics James Legge).