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Aggression in China
by Valerie Sartor
2008-03-04 08:15:10
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“The police said it was a good thing I slept through it,” my Irish friend Daragh in Beijing reported, “Otherwise the robbers might have killed me. It’s quite common in large Chinese cities, actually.”

I stared agape as he spoke to me. Peaceful China was the last place I had ever envisioned being murdered by anyone, much less thieves. But a few weeks later a similar robbery happened to Abby, a twenty four year old American woman who lived in my small northern town. “Robbers climbed up three stories, came through the window by cutting the burglar grates and got into my apartment. They took everything. The police said my deep sleep is what saved my life.”

Aggression among the Chinese is not easily catalogued because it is not easily provoked. In fact, the Chinese are proud of being labeled a peaceful, tolerant nation. Historically their military strategy and their behavioral norms have reflected a pacifist philosophy based on Taoism. “Chinese philosophers admire water because it flows everywhere, peacefully, softly, gracefully – but it has the strength to wear away stone and carve itself through the highest mountains,” explained Dr. Zhou, a Tai Chi instructor in Hohut. “Thus our great military leaders as well as the enlightened man both deflect and avoid conflict. The Tao is not only about acceptance but also focuses on neutralizing discord, maintaining harmony and promoting concord.”

“So why did the police say that my sleeping foreign friends were lucky to keep their lives when they were robbed?” I queried him.

“Because serious crimes create desperate thieves: they know the consequences of their actions. Punishment, if they are caught, is so great that to kill someone means nothing. China has capital punishment laws for rape, murder and also some theft. And even if they were sentenced to life in prison for stealing goods the prisons are so terrible that many people never leave alive.”

Indeed, I’d read that China executes perhaps 10,000 people a year, which, according to the NY Times, is more than all the other countries combined. Clearly the threat of capital punishment kept the majority of the population from becoming violent.

But was that the only reason?

Chinese society until recently has allowed very little freedom to deviate from strict cultural norms. Here people are not only physically but also psychically crowded together, also causing foreigners consternation. The Chinese like to act as a group, while Westerners, especially Americans, hold fast to their individualism. Consequently, the US has a much higher crime rate than China, with more and more loners provoking extreme acts of violence. China is the opposite. Here the extreme crowding can be tolerated if everyone conforms: if they behave, talk, think and feel according to common customs.

Cultural peer pressure is enormous. Channeling and repressing aggression so that is not being constantly triggered remains imperative because open aggression would tear the foundations of society apart. Many of my Chinese friends tell me that they simply disassociate when problems arise, obeying their cultural customs that insist it is bad to create conflict and engage in aggression. This technique often bewilders Western people who watch their Chinese friends either act passively or ignore problems staring them in the face.

“I will do nothing; it is the best way,” softly murmured Mr. Chen when I asked him why he did not seek justice for financial mistreatment by his boss.

“But you must do something!” I argued.

“No, I must make no trouble and stay calm; that is the Chinese Way,” he replied, shaking his head. “It is useless for a knife to cut water.”

Later I asked my younger graduate students what they would do if their wives cheated on them. “Beat her, of course,” several chorused unanimously. “But not kill her, because then we too would be executed by the government. Just beat her very well.” Shocked, I realized that there are no traditional Chinese laws for chivalry.

Even more shocked, last month I watched a public beating of a thief who had not escaped. The spectators had gathered around a young college boy who had tackled the haggard pickpocket while he was running down a wide, crowded thoroughfare. They all began jeering at him and hitting him with whatever came handy: pocketbooks, fists, packages. The bandit cowered as he was publicly mauled. Finally a policeman came and dragged the bloody and bruised man away.

But it is gossip and slander rather than fist fighting that represent the most common form of aggression in the rigid and unyielding Chinese culture. Both women and men delight in gossip. This form of passive-aggressive violence is condoned by societies such as the Chinese and the Native American Hopi where people exist harmoniously albeit tightly together. Slander is both ubiquitous and powerful. I have known a few instances in both cultures when the person under discussion took great pains to leave in order to flee from impact of malicious words.

Truly, the Chinese are just as human as Westerners but their society reflects different strategies towards anger and aggression. They rarely protest when another person cuts in line, bumps into them, or annoys them in ways which Westerners find worthy of public complaint, or even an all out brawl. Instead, the Chinese culture promotes amenities and cordialities no matter what one may be feeling. To show one’s emotions publicly, particularly to display anger, would be tantamount to losing face, losing control.

This emotional dichotomy has caused many cultural misunderstanding between the Chinese and foreigners. Americans and Europeans will unconsciously push and push while developing relationships with others. Many Western men argue, even fight in public to display their masculinity. They are viewed as aggressive by the Chinese hosts. These foreigners are seeking structure and patterns, and they often value results and limits rather than good relationships. In contrast the Chinese are seeking harmony, with decorum and dignity first, clearly valuing human relations over business deals and male bravado.

Last year I watched my boss, a very astute Chinese leader, deal with a serious problem: a foreign teacher who refused to honor his contract. For several days she acted as if nothing was amiss. “I am giving him a chance to assimilate,” she told me. “Perhaps he is ill or misses his homeland.” Her generous attitude reflected the great latitude and stability of the Chinese system: his rebellion and negative personality were handled by pretending that nothing was wrong. Finally, after two weeks of patient waiting and a few meetings with the troubled teacher, my boss acknowledged that action must be taken. She called her vice dean, a portly man, to meet with the teacher and warn him of the consequences his negative behavior. The teacher ignored the vice dean’s warning, perhaps because it was issued so politely. After a few more days the two leaders then calmly escorted the teacher to the airport, put him on a plane and wished him a pleasant journey. Much to my surprise, the confused European left without ever having had an emotional argument with his Chinese employers.

Disputes and the settlement of disputes in China follow reasonably well-established patterns. The patience and good will of the Chinese people, combined with their subtle but vast interpersonal skills, manifest in calm problem solving. My Chinese employer will put up with a lot because she knows the strength of the cultural system is behind her. Likewise a Chinese father will allow his son to take many liberties while young because he knows the family system, rooted in respect for ancestors, will ultimately cause the boy to conform.

With the advent of a more liberal society, open communications with the West and the burgeoning economic freedoms - will China inevitably develop more aggression, crime and violence? Or will the centuries old Chinese traditions that value harmonious relationships merge with modern technological advances? Right now I still feel much safer as a single woman living in North China than I ever did living anywhere in the USA. Only time will tell if that continues to be true.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-03-04 11:33:00
Unfortunately the peaceful behavioral norms and military strategy based on the Tao has long ago been replaced by another ideology based on violence, the survival of the fittest and class struggle. It is called Marxism and it is not home-grown. It was imported from the West. Unlike India who kept its culture based on religion, the Chinese Communist government sicne Mao considers religion poison to the point of eradicating it even from other people's culture to wit Tibet. What you describe may only be the tip of the iceberge. The worst is still to come, if the former Soviet Union where such a ideology was also imported is any indication.

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