On the moral void in contemporary China


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.

Morality and social system

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 lack of moral exemplar – moral crisis of the government

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.

Jiong Tu is a PhD candidate in Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. Her work explores people’s moral experience under health care transformation in China.