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Social issues and society Social issues and society
by Vieno Vehko
2012-10-30 09:45:47
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China has undergone many social shifts over the centuries. As in many other societies, social status in China has corresponded to the way political and economic resources are distributed. However, with the advent of the Communist Party, occupations that offered coveted resources did not automatically also offer great social esteem. Occupational prestige, until the late 1980s in China, carried with it the prerequisite to fill the position both morally and ethically. Many Chinese friends I know today regret the fact that in China, times and people have changed in terms of work, social status, and commitment to Confucian and socialist ideals. They blame Western society for its pernicious influence.

Today, the modern urban Chinese perception of social hierarchy regarding employment and status has become cynical. Chinese look up to their leaders who hold great administrative power, but in a less respectful way than in the past. Yet most Chinese, young and old alike, still hold great esteem for those in the educated classes, revering the academic knowledge as well as the job opportunities it may bring. Among all classes, the differences between acting with decorum versus acting like a peasant, and behaving ethically versus behaving in an individualistic fashion, are still closely watched. My Chinese friends say that what has changed appears to be the way members of elite social classes, particularly government elites, conduct their lives.

In order to analyze this change, it is necessary to first discuss the concept of face in Chinese society. Face is closely connected to honor: how a person senses his position within his community. This sense ranges from satisfaction to shame, from feeling powerful and/or benevolent, to feeling powerless and/or exploited. The social hierarchy legitimating the foundation of modern Communist China's political elite and other cadres was based upon beliefs about honor, and this honor, in turn, is connected to positive moral attributes of the people holding the power to rule over others. Chinese friends now say that Chinese are losing their personal honor, their face, in order to amass wealth.

In China, face is the public acknowledgement of a person's social standing. The term face thus implies respect, but it can also be linked to admiration. Thus, to respect someone is to honor him. In public, a Chinese might salute a leader, or a child might stand up for a teacher to show respect. To admire someone, however, is more personal, as it implies that this person is also liked and that his character is appreciated. To show admiration for a teacher, for example, a Chinese student might devote herself to that scholar's research project. Thus, Chinese face can be thought to be a combination of both respect and admiration.

The Communist Party has struggled, and continues to struggle, to maintain its face as the leading entity of the country. When the Communists came to power, their leaders promised to be energetic, avoid corruption, and seek out the best for all, rather than allowing individuals to generate private wealth. WWII, the Civil War, and the fall of the QIng Dynasty had all created a sense of moral bankruptcy. In order to lead the country forward, Communist leaders sought to place themselves as both economic and moral heroes, as models of correct behavior.

These Chinese leaders strove to improve labor productivity after the devastation of civil war and invasion by the Japanese. By linking a socialist ethos with communist labor tactics, the leadership set a standard for both job status and work behavior. Chinese citizens perceived the leadership as providing (and controlling) benefits to all. For example, everyone regardless of occupation, received labor insurance, social security, and health care. Everyone got help with travel, residency, and even advice concerning marriage.

The Communist Party still rests upon this foundation of providing this benevolent lifestyle to its people. Moreover, while the economic times have changed, the notion that leaders, especially political elites, should live a morally pure life without reverting to greedy individualists, still lingers. This lasting ideal remains in force because not only the Communist ideology promotes the concept of a selfless, pure servant of the people, but also because this concept is deeply embedded in ancient Confucian thought. Centuries ago, Confucians working under the Chinese emperor set up the notion that the 'superior man' - the educated civil servant - would guide others. Public service was held in high esteem and this concept was transferred to the Communist Party. Via enlightened bureaucrats, good thoughts, good deeds, and people with the highest morals, would lead the country.

The Communists, however, have had to deal with the problem of assessing purity of thought and moral integrity in the workplace. With the idealism of the early years of the founding of the Party, everyone believed that the leaders and cadres served the people diligently and sincerely. But power, whether communist or capitalist or socialist, is a beast that cannot be controlled for any length of time by ideals and visions. In China, the Cultural Revolution can be seen as the apex of power in the Communist Party. It was also a kind of madness in protecting the purity of thought and service, which transformed into an uncontrollable insanity of violence and destruction.

After the Cultural Revolution, everyone, from Party cadres to peasants, had to re-evaluate how their country was run, as well as the motivations and behaviors of those in power. In a positive vein, some policies for those who had suffered terribly, such as the Mongolians and other non-mainstream peoples around China, received special funding and educational policies to try to rebuild their cultural integrity. The government expressed concern about righting any past grievances for all its citizens. Over time, ordinary people of all ethnic backgrounds began examining their leaders. Were their bosses really morally upright, or were they full of greed, fear, and a lust for power? This critical lens indicated the beginning of an internal loss of respect for government leaders, who had, in the past, received the most prestige and face as selfless workers serving their country.

After the Cultural Revolution, the sense of noblesse oblige, stemming from both Confucian and Communist ideals, began to wear thin among the government cadres. The Chinese bureaucracy has eleven levels, and offers less than 2% of the population work. People in this position have a range of power, from great to minor. They also wield guan xi - the ability to make things happen through their connections, and the ability to receive gifts through exchanges. In China, government work is an exclusive, good old boys network, with membership offered to those who had been with the Party from 1949 onwards. Now that this generation is passing away, the children of these families also receive a kind of hereditary membership.  But contempt for these people, as well as open hostility, has appeared among the masses, as people see that their leaders are no longer holding to the ethical standards upon which Communist leadership was based in the past. The positions themselves are still honored, even revered, and those holding the positions may be respected and given face - but significantly, these leaders are not admired. Instead, some Chinese elites are perceived as selfish individuals, greedy, and promoting only the interests that serve their families and their own clique.

Meanwhile, the other highly respected class of people, the scholars, are still respected and even admired in China. This is because academics and academic titles are perceived as still having great value among the majority of citizens. Confucian ethics has always promoted education as the key to living correctly as well as becoming a success in life. Yet intellectuals and scholars make up less than 5% of Chinese society; few will ever attain this occupation in reality. Scholars offer the Chinese public a view of how to behave correctly, they are modern in outlook (hopefully) and they are preservers of culture and thought. Moreover, in China, most academics make very low salaries, so they are perceived as less inclined toward corruption and more able to live a morally upright life. But with western exchanges, even scholars can lose face, as small scandals concerning the validity of Chinese research have caused questions.

China also has a new, enthusiastic, merchant class, wedged among the cadres, scholars and ordinary workers and peasants. Salaries, and with them, jobs, have radically shifted in China within the last few decades. The gap between those with incredible sums of money and those who are indigent, has widened. Beijing is said, for example, to have more millionaires than any other city in the world. For Chinese striving to survive, the ancient and deep seated ambivalence toward the merchant class is slowly receding. In the past, the Communist Party, like ancient Confucian scholars, did not favor merchants. Until 1987, the idea of amassing income and assessing one's neighbors by monetary standards was relatively unknown. This may come as a surprise to foreign guests, who routinely queried within minutes of a conversation: "How much money do you make? How much did that (jacket, car, book) cost?

In fact, it is still bad manners for academics and party bureaucrats to bring up the subject of money. They aren't expected to be wealthy, after all. But they are secure, hopefully. Unsurprisingly, young people, extremely talented young Chinese, will say that they prefer the 'security' of a state/government job over the risks of trying of start up their own businesses. There are reasons for this lack of enthusiasm for free market employment. First, despite the fact that a few entrepreneurial Chinese have become spectacularly wealthy, these people are very few indeed. I would surmise that they also are well connected to people in power - government elites. Second, despite the lowering of socialist benefits, most Chinese would prefer to have jobs that offered them some semblance of security - a pension, partial health care, etc. Finally, business wealth has not replaced the hidden gift economy, the web of guan xi wheelings and dealings that allow government people bonuses, special vacations abroad (all expenses paid). There are also all sorts of relationships with others in their coterie that offer rewards of all kinds, from business deals to sensual evenings in discreet places. 

Inevitably, some of these indiscreet 'rewards' have come into the public eye. My Chinese friends bemoan the fact that the post-1980s have resulted in major economic reforms that have also negatively revamped socialist dedication among cadres and elites. The new ideology is dedicated to the individual rather than to the state; many blame the West. They state that moral worth of a man, in which he will be judged and given face, has been altered, due to capitalist economics, which has caused all social strata to become greedy and self-serving. Many Chinese in government jobs, the most coveted positions for acquiring face, do not exhibit the behavior and commitment to core Communist values that derived from socialist and Confucian ethos. These leaders are still the highest in the social order, but they are no longer admired. They are certainly still feared, for these people wield great power, and now they are wealthy as well. Many elites and cadres are resented, especially if they or their families are caught in some financial or sexual scandal. Some Chinese envy them - for having power and a more materially advantageous lifestyle. But to gain respect based on envy or intimidation has created a cynical Chinese public. Is the West to blame for that as well?

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Emanuel Paparella2012-10-30 10:24:16
Interesting article but what seems to be overlooked in this analysis is that Socialist and Communist ideology are also a Western phenomenon imported to China, a Western reaction to a dehumanizing sort of capitalism parading as respect for the individual and democracy in tandem with an anti-religion attitude seen as inimical to the Communist ideology. But the emperor remains naked. If the average Chinese is utterly confused in identifying Confucianism and traditional values, inevitable Communism and inevitable Capitalism associated to inevitable progress, with no good example offered by an “enlightened” West that has still to enlighten itself, well should he be.

How it will all come out, only history will tell. One thing is sure: we all live now in a global village and the sooner we accept the fact that as a human race we are all interdependent and no nation can save itself on its own, the better it will be for everybody concerned.

Leah Sellers2012-10-30 22:02:40
Honorable Vieno,
Good article with some good insights, but, without being disrespectful, I must concur almost in totality with Brother Emanuel's assertions.
Humanity - All of Us - must save Ourselves - UpLIft OurSelves and Grow-Up to Understand that MOrals and Ethics are Universal, and should be Universally held by All Peoples of the World above and beyond racial, tribal, political, economic, religious,social and geographical divisions created by Humankind based upon more primal, reptilian brain impulses and instincts.
WE are All in This Together. WE are One Anothers Savior/Creators and/or Demon/Destroyers. We can no longer run away to UnDiscovered continents to avoid One Another or Capitalize off of One Another as The Others.
WE have over populated Our beautiful blue-green gemstone of a Planet. And so We must find Ways and the Means to Cooperate and Build Bridges Toward One Another in order to find and Create Balance and Harmony with and amongst One Another.
There is Competition that is Healthy and Competition that annihilates.
When Fear of One Another abounds or the Need to Devour One Another due to the false Need of avariciously wanting more and more for Self aggrandisement - We are not Balanced - We are not Harmonious - and WE will revert to Our more Primitive forms and BeCome Individual and Collective Devourers. Destroyers of OurSelves and of Civilizations.
WE are the Choosers of Our Future Global Pathways and Ways of Life and Living.
What a grand and glorious Enterprise this Can Be for All INvolved (and Evolved).

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