November 17, 2009

Who is to Blame for Materialism and Status Obsession Among Young Chinese?

Author: Cheng, Yung-nien(郑永年, Yǒngnián Zhèng, Yung-nien Cheng). Professor and Director of East Asian Institute at National University of Singapore.


Recently a moral verdict from one Wuhan college female student shocked the Chinese sensibility. "The White Haired Girl should just marry landlord Shiren Huang [cruel and a rapist]." She announced in public, "As long as the man has money, age gap is of little importance." This bold declaration led to heated debates in both traditional media and on the World Wide Web. Since moral decline has persisted for many years in China, it is understandable that many who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs would seize this opportunity to comment and criticize. Their stances, however, have been surprisingly alike: that is, the younger generation disgusts them, and they claim young Chinese are beyond salvation.

It has been a long-standing practice among the Chinese that, rather than examining ourselves, we always blame others, especially the next generation. Whenever an event takes place that does not conform to the traditional moral values, sanctimonious prudes come out and propound on fancy theories of ethics, as if these people were themselves the representation and embodiment of righteousness. Intentionally or unintentionally, their accusations frequently neglect to mention one central question: who should be responsible for the current moral decay? The young clearly are not the guilty party because they are only what their childhood experiences shape them to be. No. The blame must be laid squarely at the door of their elders.

Moral values are not inborn. Rather, they are the result of social intermingling and indoctrination. While no one can deny the widespread money worship and moral nihilism plaguing the post 80s and 90s generation, most of whom born after China's open policy, it is equally important to recognize that young people are products of their upbringing. In other words, their worship of money and power [to the exclusion of all else] is only a direct consequence of the environment in which they grew up.

Money/power worship and moral nihilism are not new phenomena. In fact, they are as old as China's reforms. Before the open policy, China espoused "communism in poverty," characterized by extremely low living standards of its citizens. Even though from today's point of view people during those times stood on higher moral ground, that level of morality was not sustainable simply because poverty disagrees with human nature. Consequently, as soon as the reforms were initiated, Chinese people eagerly sought the roads to wealth. Pauperism had long ago given rise to a desire for change, so the reforms encountered no resistance. Money swiftly replaced traditional moral values after people discovered that they could do whatever they wanted as long as they were rich, ultimately resulting in money-worship.

After tasting the initial fruits of prosperity, the Chinese quickly latched onto the concept of "self-interest" as their new guiding principle, a concept which at its core is solely about money. The foundation of Chinese society quickly transitioned from ideology (or morality) to self-interest, and in this process, many official policies of the central government played out crucial roles. The most prominent among the said policies was the doctrine of GDP. For a long time, economic growth became the only important factor when evaluating the performance of officials at any level. The GDP doctrine became so highly institutionalized that the Chinese government's efforts to reduce its influence met with little success. This failure in itself points to the deeply-entrenched materialism across the Chinese governing body. (It should be noted that the GDP doctrine seeks to gratify the current generation at the expense of the interests of future generations).

Widespread and pervasive corruption is a further manifestation that morality is disintegrating. The extent of venality has reached such a level that whether in China or abroad, the first thing coming to mind in any discussion of Chinese politics is corruption. Each decade, the amount of graft money exponentially increases: tens of thousands in 1980s, several millions in 1990s, and billions today. Power easily transforms to money and wealth via corruption. As witnesses to these "successes," the younger generation really has no reason to disdain power. To make matters worse, the government historically also bore the burden of education and role models. Since it is thoroughly rotten, its many rich officials become the most convincing argument in favor of elimination of morality. Haven't there been quite a few children already who professed life-long ambitions of becoming corrupt officials?

Power and money each drove the deterioration of ethics, and facile interchange between the two further accelerated the process. Young Chinese believe that as long as they attain or merely get close to one of the two, they will have made themselves worthy.

China's overall social and economical structure essentially forces young people to forgo conscience for money and power. In a highly mobile society, each individual becomes the fundamental unit of morality. But for this individual to exercise morals, the society must give him/her hope. By definition, once a society reaches a certain level of ethical standards, its citizen should be able to realize personal ambitions through a reasonable amount of efforts. And when this hope is lost, or rather when a person cannot achieve his dreams despite of hard work, then the concept of morality disappears entirely. In many ways, China's young people are currently in such a morass.

For example the housing problem. The ancients rightly associated "home ownership" with morality [like Maslow's pyramid]. Really, what concerns will people have for ethics if their basic living space cannot be guaranteed? In a short time span of 20 years or so, unfortunately, China's housing policy has very effectively dashed any hopes that the young have for this "space". Due to the lack of any effective long-term strategy concerning housing and real estate, these two have fallen under the control of the powerful and the rich. Presently soaring home prices mean that most of the young people have no way to ethically get a decent apartment. As a result, they naturally gravitate toward money and power, which have just become survival tools.

Another example is the education failure. Studies have revealed that college graduates make the same amount of money as the uneducated migrant workers. In some cases, they even make less. Though discrepancy in earnings have occurred in the past, they were different in nature because they arose due to human control and manipulation. Similar situations today can only be attributed to flaws in the education system. Of course everyone is still entitled to education. This is a basic human right. But when the educated are at the same or lower income levels as the uneducated, morality amounts to nothing but empty talk. Again, the education is something that the young have no control over.

In fact, more and more signs show that the younger generation face mounting difficulties. China's reforms initially created an open system full of hopes, but because of the current domination by a variety of vested interests, the society has in essence become less open. Steely control used to kill hopes; ironically now that culprit is being replaced by "freedom." Yes, young people might be free, but they no longer have any opportunities. From time to time there will be those who forge a way via legitimate means combined with unscrupulous Machiavellianism. On the whole, however, many are in despair.

Given all these factors, does it even make sense for young people to talk about morality anymore? The government places a lot of emphasis on this subject. Everywhere one turns, there is someone preaching about morality, but those talks are worthless. The reason is simple: what the young people read in textbooks and what they perceive in reality are too disparate. The insurmountable divide between lofty ideals and daily struggles leads to cynicism, further reinforcing moral nihilism. To a large extent, the younger generation is happy yet tragic. They live in a free and materialistic society, but this society lacks any meaningful values and ethical guidance. Even more tragic is the older generation, because they and their corrupt society helped to mold the younger generation, undermining both themselves and their children.

It is good to make people aware of the moral decline, but we must also realize that these social phenomena are not just consequences of a lacking in ethics. Rather, they should always be viewed within the broader social and institutional context. A problem like this determines whether a nation and an ethnicity can survive and continue to develop. Accusations and condemnation of the younger generation alone is useless, because morality can only come from hope for the future--what needs to be done is to build a society that gives hope. Now whose responsibility would that be?

This is an editorial piece by Yung-nien Cheng, Professor and Director of East Asian Institute.


Related post(s)
The Truth Behind "Changsha Students Who Drowned Trying to Save Children"
Fake Police Academy in Existence for Nearly 4 Years and Still Going Strong
Chongqing Rich Kid Receives Death Penalty for Killing Schoolmate

No comments:

Post a Comment

Veggie Discourse - Blogged