On the moral void in contemporary China

Jiong Tu
May 22, 2014

In recent years, there have been many sensational media reports of  extreme ‘immoral’ incidents in China: instances where patients have been  left to die at the hospital when they have been unable to pay money up front; where an injured person was left alone on the road while onlookers watched from afar; where pengci  people pretended to be hit by a passing car and demanded compensation  from the driver for injuries not actually received; where Good  Samaritans that help others have been extorted by the very person being helped; where money donated by the public has been embezzled  by corrupt officials. These incidents have aroused wide discussions on  state media, internet forums and in people’s daily life. They are  perceived by many as being the external manifestation of moral degeneration.

Scholars too have questioned whether anomy has come to China. Some have concluded that there is indeed a moral crisis in post-Mao China. Others set out to research the changing moral landscape in the country. Yan Yunxiang’s research into  the extortion of Good Samaritans shows the tensions between two moral  systems of the helper young people and the extortionist elderly people,  which reflect the changing behaviour, norms, values, and moral reasoning  involved in China’s modernization process. Liu Xin  suggests that China in the past decades has gone through an unusual  path of development comprising ‘traditional’, ‘revolutionary’ and  ‘modern’ elements, which led to the ‘arbitrary combination of cultural  forms’ in people’s daily practice. Oxfeld  similarly finds that people in the Chinese village she studied may draw  upon ideas from the old society, the collective era, and the present  when making judgements in any given case to suit the changing context. Steinmüller  notes that everyday ethics in rural China is characterised by an  increased sense of moral challenge and uncertainty, and people are often  caught between the moral frameworks of capitalism, Maoism, and the  Chinese tradition.

These academic discussions of moral crisis, moral arbitrariness,  moral uncertainty or moral diversification at least agree on one thing:  contemporary Chinese society lacks a coherent moral framework shared by  various sections of society. Since the market reforms of the late 1970s,  the enormous social, economic and political changes in China have  reframed what is moral and what is immoral. The socialist values that  used to guide people in the collective era gradually lost their  attraction and have been replaced by economic considerations and  individualistic ethics. The transitional society sees the fusion and  synthesis of various cultural and social elements: traditional values,  socialist morality, neoliberalism, etc. These values are confirmed,  contested, and transformed in people’s daily life, but also produce many  uncertainties and ambiguities.


Here I would trace the moral issue to the social system arrangement  which has not got enough attention in the above analysis. I would argue  that people do not lack kindness, but that the social arrangements do  not provide them with reliable channels to express their affection and  care. Take a well-known recent incident as an example. In early 2013 a migrant worker was left to die  under a bridge, a spot used by many migrant workers to camp at night in  Henan Province. The migrant worker had been ill for almost a month. A  few days before his death, people had called the ambulance. The  emergency doctor came and examined him, found his symptoms were normal,  but asked him to go to the hospital for further checks. The patient  refused. The doctor discovered the patient had not eaten for two days.  She took some money out of her own pocket, asking another migrant worker  to buy some food and drink for him. The ambulance then left him without  giving any treatment. The worker died a few days later.

In the case of this migrant worker, people did not lack kindness: the  doctor from the ambulance gave some money out of her own pocket; the  other migrant workers helped to call the ambulance and sent food and  drink to the patient; even peddlers and local residents nearby had  donated clothes and food to help. However, all these small acts of  philanthropy could not save him. The doctor could not take the patient  to hospital because of strict rules that require patients to pay money  up front; the other migrant workers were unable to pay the high medical  fees; the official rescue shelter (jiuzhu zhan) was called but did not accept him. The system ultimately failed to save him.

People’s fragmented kindnesses may help the occasional cases reported  by the media, but not the many unreported cases. Sometimes even the  affective responses from the public could not mobilise enough resources  or a timely response from the official organisations that should take  responsibility in the first place.

Besides, the current social system and institutions constrain  people’s altruistic behaviours. A doctor who saves a life may find him  or herself being fined by the hospital because the actions failed to  generate profit or caused economic loss for the hospital. People dare  not help strangers as they face the possibility of being extorted. The  public refrain from donating to official charities because they do not  believe their donation will go to people in need. The social system  cannot effectively protect people’s kindness from being exploited. There  is a lack of reliable channels for people to express kindness. Many  people thus refrain from lending a helping hand out of a need for  self-protection.

The state’s retreat from welfare provision and social security since  the market reforms further exposes people to risks and uncertainties.  Individual self-responsibility is taking the place of social solidarity.  While I was doing fieldwork in China, ordinary people frequently  referred to the change in social solidarity since the Mao era. They  recounted that ‘back in the day’ if a thief was found in the market,  everyone would help to catch him. Nowadays, people witness theft  happening but dare not speak out in fear of revenge. While criminals  work collaboratively in groups, people are alone and isolated. Well  organized gangster groups even penetrate into areas such as medical  dispute. Yinao  (medical disturbance) gangs (employed by patient families) threaten  hospitals and attack doctors to push for more compensation in cases of  malpractice. When law enforcement agencies and the judicial system could  not provide people with prompt protection and an effective channel to  solve disputes, many people (e.g. patient families) took the law into  their own hands even at the expense of others’ interests (e.g. doctors).  The market place, the social system, and commercialised public  institutions allow few opportunities for ordinary people to articulate  altruism outside their own family and acquaintance circles. Society as a  whole is like the market, where morality is frequently compromised by  uppermost economic considerations.


The moral issue in contemporary Chinese society, I would argue, is  fundamentally a moral problem of the government. Traditionally,  Confucianism persuaded the ruler to embody certain moral actions and to  set an example to the people. The communist leaders in the collective  era embodied not only political and administrative power, but also moral  authority to think and serve the people. In the market  era, however, the party-state cannot provide an effective moral  framework for people on a day-to-day basis, although it has always tried  to find new moral narratives. The moral language of the party-state  continually commits itself to providing public services and improving  people’s livelihoods. The official discourse puts the party and its  cadres in place to ‘represent’ advanced productive forces, advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the people.  The party is presented as the vanguard of Chinese modernity and  morality. Indeed, the central government is portrayed and conceived by  many people as willing to continue its commitment to serve the people.  But the dismal local reality makes people widely criticise local  authorities. Public discourse reveals a bifurcation between perceptions  of central and local government. High  levels of satisfaction are generally expressed in respect of the  central government, but that satisfaction and trust decline  progressively in respect of lower levels of government.

In the pursuit of economic reform, local government frequently  withdraws itself from public service provision and from the moral  centre. The corrupt image of local officials makes the authorities lack credibility. As the traditional saying indicates, ‘the beam at the top is crooked, the beam at the bottom will also crook’ (shangliang buzheng xialiang wai).  People watch rules being skirted and laws being violated by the  officials. Many feel that it is pointless to stick to moral behaviour.  The bad example at the top enables corrupted behaviours extended to the  bottom. Ordinary people compare their income earned through hard work  with the large amount of ‘grey’ income of their leaders. The sense of  injustice encourages people at the bottom to use immoral means for  self-gain. What endangers Chinese society and the government’s  legitimacy today is the immorality in officialdom. The officials, as the  embodiment of state power, do not live up to the moral role, and are  not respected by the people. When they employ moral rhetoric to justify  their power and release vigorous moral codes for people below, it  deviates from people’s actual life experience and many are not willing  to follow the official rules.

Besides, the central government and state-controlled media attribute  blame for morally suspect actions to the individual professionals,  officials or local administrative agencies. It draws attention away from  systemic issues that discourage altruistic behaviour and the  government’s retreat from responsibility. However, the corrupted local  image may finally endanger the moral authority of the centre. The  mismatch between the centre and the local makes the state unable to  operate as a cohesive, consistent and unitary whole. Local government is  perceived as corrupt; the central government is distant and  inaccessible; people have low confidence in state organizations and laws  to protect them and to prevent their kindness from being exploited.  Resentment thus permeates and endangers the moral legitimacy of  authority. Moreover, when government attributes social problems to the  moral failure of individuals, it responds to moral issues by releasing a  variety of rules and codes on professional behaviours, obligations, and  punishment for corruption. Moral governance therefore easily becomes  abstract moral codes and rules for people to follow, but it ignores the  fundamental importance of morality as a practice that is carried out by  people in everyday situation. The lack of effective moral regulation in  post-reform China means that people’s daily activities are easily  exposed to the anomic consequences of profit-seeking and unconstrained  desires. State efforts have not tackled institutional and systemic  factors that produce moral ambivalence at the grassroots: the  commercialisation of public service institutions, opaque systems, the  absence of civil society organizations to check and balance immoral  behaviours, the lack of surveillance in the polity, etc., all of which  need much more social transformation than the simple containment of  individual behaviours.


All by
Jiong Tu