SINOGRAPH 'Confusionists', Mao and urban morality
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - It is hard to understand and reconcile the appeal of Maoist thought and its communist drive in China with the freewheeling turbo-capitalism one sees in the same country nowadays. The simple - and certainly true - answer is that people miss the egalitarian spirit even though they do not pine for the poverty and social and political duress of the past.
Perhaps there is also a more complicated element to the picture. In the early 1980s, China launched a campaign against "spiritual pollution". It was aimed at rooting out the Western values seeping through society that were considered the ultimate cause of the Wall of Democracy movement in Xidan. A couple of years before, those demonstrations asked for political and economic reforms. The institutionally materialistic Communist Party saw correctly
that a "spiritual" element needed to be addressed while China was in the process of implementing economic reforms.
The cure, one can say now, was wrong - incoming Western values were helping rather than thwarting economic reforms - but the analysis was right. A huge change was occurring in the Chinese mindset and that had to be addressed as the real root of all evils.
Something similar may be happening today. In the past two decades, popular movements have sprung up out of nowhere, trying to pull China off the path of reforms. In the 1990s, there was the Falun Gong, maintaining that modern science and modern medicine were of no use. Another movement saw recently disgraced Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai as its standard bearer, and stated that state-owned enterprises did better economically than private ones. Both claims had little to do with empirical findings. Modern medicine has proven time and again to work better than old qi gong (a breathing exercise) practices; private companies, rather than state ones, have for decades driven Chinese and world development.
That many people are willing to believe things which are so factually untenable seems to point at a larger problem in Chinese society and in this present value system: the fall of the old values, be they Confucian or communist, and the lack of new ones, be they Western or "neo-Chinese".
This fall of the old values and lack of new ones is not simply a spiritual issue. It has deep, practical roots. In 1988, Beijing had about 8 million people, which was double the 4 million people living there when the Communists took power in 1949. But within a Chinese population of some 1.2 billion people in 1988, this number represented a smaller percentage than the Pekinese of 1949, when China had some 500 million people. Now, 25 years, a generation, later, the total population of China is still a few million short of the 1.4 billion mark, but the Chinese capital boasts a real population of over 24 million, three times the number in 1988. That is, in 25 years urbanization has made huge strides, and it will continue to do so.
In 1988, the official percentage of the nation's population living in urban areas was 25.81%; in 2012, it was 52.6%. The urbanization rate was 1.02% per year starting from the beginning of the economic reforms in the late 1970s. After 2000, the rate increased to 1.36% a year. More than the number, the quality of life in urban areas has changed. In 1988, Beijing had very few shops, a dozen or so of restaurants, and half a dozen hotels; no karaoke, no massage parlors, and no bars. Now Beijing glitters like any other large city in the world - or even more so.
In a few words, cities are becoming crowded, and countryside is becoming empty. This is not just a shift in numbers; it is a dramatic change in China's social fabric and moral values. Western society may believe in the idea that God sees into our hearts and thus we have to behave, but for centuries that idea had its "enforcers" in priests who advised and coaxed people to keep their behavior in line with the commonly accepted values.
The old Chinese society believed in respecting the legacy of the ancestors and projecting a good name to one's progeny, and thus people behaved accordingly. But there were "enforcers" in traditional family and social relations, which were stronger in the countryside, where until 25 years ago some 75% of the Chinese population resided. Family and village ties kept people in line with widely accepted values. The communist revolution undermined the old Confucian values and tried to substitute them with rashly enforced new communist values.
The failures of that revolution have undermined the belief in communist values but there is no new value system to substitute for the old. New Western values have de facto arrived through movies, literature, and opening up; but they are not officially supported and are resisted by common people who often do not understand them. Moreover, which Western values should be adopted? Should it be, for example, those from liberal Holland or the ones from conservative southern Italy? However, more than the issue of values, it is important to consider the structure that can "enforce" them.
The ongoing movement of people to large and small cities is changing the pattern and structure of Chinese society. It seems far more important than the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s or the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. Those movements battled ideas and values that were deeply ingrained in society, but they did not dramatically change the social structure. Families, villages, and relations were still there at the end of the movements and actually helped people physically and psychologically survive those disasters.
Now there is no open battle against any old value or idea, but there is a combined effect of an invasion of ideas (Western ones) coming from abroad that are largely alien to the traditional Chinese value system and the systematic destruction of the enforcing agents of the old value system.
Old families and rural communities are broken as people move to the cities. Here migrants do not find the old values and have no sentinel of the old values either. There is also physical evidence of what is going on. Old cities and ancient villages have been torn down since the early 1990s to build new cities with Western appearances. Those cities were not destroyed and rebuilt in Mao's times - proof of how ineffective, though cruel, his revolution was.
In this situation, a few Chinese tried to convert to Western values, but conversion was hardly perfect, as no clear standard could be observed and the Western models were ill understood. Others tried to adapt by attempting to keep a balance between new and old. And others thought - and still think - that a way to keep one's sanity is to hark back to the past, like the Falun Gong or the neo-Maoists.
In a way, neo-Maoists and wholesale "Westernizers" are each other's mirror image. Both project themselves out of the present time, which is a time of transition in which prudence should be the by-word. Some want to flee to the past, while others simply want to run abroad, dreaming that China is no longer China. Curiously, some of the Westernizers are still strongly superstitious, believing in the old and certainly non-Western predictions of the Yi Jing, just as their inverses among the neo-Maoists are often not very materialistic and conversely very superstitious.
The problem is of values and also of "enforcers". There is no nostalgia for fathers who were absolute masters of the family or for janitors who held the spare keys to the apartment block and your room. However, it goes well beyond this. The huge apartment buildings, where people move in and out easily, break down many possibilities for social restraint. Moreover, nobody knows what is an "appropriate" social restraint: not too much, not too little.
With no neighbors or neighborhood, everybody is anonymous and has no group of friends. People come from different places and different backgrounds to live in the same building, and they do not share the same mindset to start with.
Cities are jungles were people can lose themselves in every way. Many have double, triple lives; second, third jobs; and second, third, and fourth families. Society has still not clearly judged whether this is right or wrong. Before and beyond the legal sanction of this or that behavior, there is no social or ethical sanction or reward for having two lovers or no lover, and there is no standard. Is it right or wrong?
According to the Confucian value system, a mistress, like a concubine, is acceptable. But according to the communists it is wrong, and according to some loose transplantation of Western values a woman can also have many lovers. Is it all okay? Is it all wrong? Who is watching anyway? Where do you draw a line? Or should a line be drawn at all? There are no clear, accepted answers.
What about privacy, a concept alien to China or to southern Europe (still part of the Western world)? Chinese now believe privacy is worth having, but should privacy mean keeping secrets from the husband or the wife? Should it imply that I can have a party at home and my neighbors should not complain? In more than a way this moral confusion is the hotbed of what Chas Freeman calls "cadre capitalism",  a system where no one is really clear where the official ends and the entrepreneur starts. The system had a positive impact in Chinese development, but it is becoming more and more a hurdle to further development, as it hampers true private enterprises and deeply corrupts the bureaucracy by making it more and more inefficient.
On the personal scale, this is a lot of freedom, but for many it also means that a moral compass has been lost to determine what is right and what is wrong? Too much freedom does not make people gods able to do whatever they want. It brings an emptiness of the soul, searching for something substantial that can't be found in the constant whirl of "fun" sold in bars, restaurants, karaoke joints, massage parlors, etc - the new earthly paradises on offer in China now. A return to the past communist or Confucian values is impossible, and the understanding of Western values is vague, but something has to happen.
The party sees this and worries. It knows that an old or new style of "spiritual pollution" is a basic problem for China. However, a new compass can't be a simple propaganda exercise. One must wait for the dust to settle, in this case for the urbanization process to come to an end in 10-15 years. Then a new community will start to emerge, and from that, new social norms will naturally develop, drawing from what seems to answer the current needs best. In the meantime, Chinese society will be very confused, and in this confusion a lot of people will try to push the party to stop progress and go back to a life and a world where people knew how to behave.
1. See Chas Freeman, Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org