China’s Achilles Heel

Is there an Achilles heel to the Chinese miracle?  Western soothsayers talk a lot about a possible credit implosion, a housing bubble, political unrest in the region, and the increasing inequality of income distribution when assessing the risks facing China.  But while these risks are certainly real, I believe the greatest risk facing China in the coming decade is much more fundamental.  The greatest risk, I believe, is the widespread reluctance to accept the need for process.

Merriam-Webster defines process as “a series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result.”  And they are critical to the successful functioning of any organization, be it a business, a philanthropic organization, or a country.

The key is the emphasis on the ‘actions’, not the outcome.  Process is all about the way in which the optimal or best outcome is achieved with consistency.  It may not yield the perfect outcome in each and every instance, but it will, if structured properly, predictably yield the best overall solution over time.

As I have frequently noted, however, many Chinese have an aversion to process, or at least fail to accept the need for it.  They are focused almost exclusively on the immediate outcome at hand and sometimes care little about how that outcome is achieved.

The most apparent manifestation of this tendency is in the way people drive.  The rules of the road, while consistent with the rules of the road the world over, are universally ignored.  As is consideration for others.  Even when not actually in motion drivers invariably park their car wherever it is most convenient for them, even if it means blocking other cars in or otherwise creating an obvious disruption to traffic flow.

The problem arises in the potential conflict between individual outcomes and collective outcomes.  The rules of the road are designed to maximize driving efficiency and safety overall.  Any individual driver may, as a result, have to sacrifice his or her individual convenience for the convenience and safety of the motoring public as a whole.  (Statistically, they in turn will get the benefit on other occasions.)  And that’s just not a sacrifice many Chinese are willing to make.  Or more accurately, I think, many Chinese do not comprehend the need to make.

Frankly, this presents a monumental conundrum for the Chinese government, whose actions to temper this me-centric perspective in the interest of society as a whole only exacerbates the problem and opens the door to new outcomes that are even further out of sync with the common good.

Let’s take an example; paying taxes.  Nobody really wants to pay taxes.  But most of us do.  Because we realize that for the government to provide schools and roads and police protection it needs money.  And as long as the rules for assessing taxes are perceived as generally fair and the money is not overtly squandered we pay.

But what if we measured the outcome in strictly personal terms?  What if we determined our willingness to pay taxes strictly in terms of the direct financial benefit to us as individuals?  Would we be so compliant with the government’s taxation process?

Probably not.  And because this behavior is built on a worldview that is not exclusive to a small segment of the population (i.e. the crooks that exist in every society), the problem manifests itself on both sides of the process.  The governed cheat on their taxes; the governing sometimes accept bribes to look the other way.  In both cases the individual appears to gain, but society as a whole loses.

But let’s look at this problem from another angle.  What is the most famous and broadly recognized process of all?  The process of behavior defined by the Moral Code.  Virtually every religion has one and among the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) they are both explicit and absolute.  (e.g. Thou shalt not …)  In the end, they represent the  process for achieving that religion’s ultimate objective (e.g. getting into heaven).

Religious influences actually run pretty deep here although many who would define themselves as religious don’t appear to be particularly doctrinal in their daily lives.  But even many who would not consider themselves to be dogmatically religious in the Western sense nonetheless accept the monotheistic moral codes as essential to the functioning of a modern society.  And both Confucianism, as well as Chinese Communism, or Maoism, if you will, while not religions, have historically provided a code of values that roughly translate into a moral code of behavior.

The problem arises, I believe, in that many of the Chinese who came to adulthood in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution appear to lack any such compass.  There are many exceptions for sure.  But in a very broad sense it would appear that a good portion of the population is today guided largely by the simple quest for financial security and a better life.

The risk, of course, is the fine line that separates individualism as a behavioral code and anarchy, or the triumph of individual greed and self-serving exploitation.  If nobody follows the rules, for whatever reason, there can be no game.  The collective outcome shatters under the weight of individual outcomes pursued with abandon.

Personally, I believe the government understands this risk, which, in part, is why it allows organized religion, albeit regulated, to openly operate here, and why NGO’s, nearly all of which embrace some universal moral code, exist in abundance here despite the potential conflict with the country’s political agenda.

And it is why, I believe, the government allows the deep-seated nationalism that is so fervent among the Chinese the world over to bubble to the surface from time to time despite its potential to froth out of control, potentially derailing the government’s own geo-political agenda.  Nationalism is, in many ways, a proxy for a behavioral process designed to sublimate self-interest and optimize the common good.

As on so many fronts, however, the ‘Moral Code with Chinese Characteristics’ is very much a work in progress.  I have no doubt that it gets much attention behind the closed doors of power here in Beijing.  And I have every confidence that once the vehicular anarchy reaches the point of total gridlock – and it will; it must – the Chinese people will once again look in the mirror with the self-awareness and pragmatism they have brought to the task for millennium and ultimately accept the need for some self-restraint in the winner-take-all Driving Games that exist today.

In the end, no modern society can exist, whatever it’s political system or however hardworking its citizens, without collective self-restraint.  Behavior in the public interest cannot be enforced.  As history will attest, there is no army or police force big enough, motivated enough, or equipped with the necessary tools to force a citizenry into behavioral submission over a long period of time.  People must ultimately be willing, of their own free will, to behave in ways that will promote the common good, or it simply won’t happen.

Ironically, I believe the Internet will help.  I say ironically because the Internet is one of the most highly regulated industries in China.  (The Chinese cannot access Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other tools of Western social media that many Westerners appear to view as both an entitlement and a prerequisite to modern living.)  It is, nonetheless, a vehicle for transparency – both good and bad – and the government is, in its usual deliberative way, steadily but surely loosening its grip.

It is the netizens of China, most of them young, I might add, who appear to be taking both their government and their fellow Chinese to task for behavior that is blatantly self-serving or otherwise inconsistent with the common good and/or generally accepted norms of universal morality.

It is Chinese netizens, as much as the disciplinary arm of the CPC, who are outing corrupt government officials and chastising Chinese citizens who behave in a boorish or contemptible way.  When a Chinese teenager desecrated centuries-old artwork at Egypt’s Luxor Temple last year, for example, the Chinese social media (Yes, they have their own versions of those aforementioned banned Western outlets.) erupted in digital finger-wagging and moral outrage.

The end result may be a Moral Code with Chinese Internet Characteristics, but if it precludes the anarchy that is inevitable without self-restraint, it could prove to be the one missing ingredient to achievement of the Chinese Dream championed by President Xi Jinping at the outset of his 10-year tenure in office.

I, for one, am rooting for him and them.

In the meantime, I dearly hope they continue to build more subway lines here in Beijing.   The roads, I fear, will soon be impassable.


Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

One thought on “China’s Achilles Heel

  1. This makes me think of the ‘one child per family’ policy. It intensifies the creation of the narcissistic ‘me’ personality in the only child. That will only exacerbate the sociatal difficulties that you mention. – See Christopher Lasch’s work. It’s so easy for Cult of Narcissism to become Culture of Narcissism.
    Thanks for a very, as usual, interesting post.

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