China’s Values Vacuum

For a nation whose cultural values were more or less destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, greed and corruption have become the name of the game in China. Manipulation of others to achieve one’s goals is not viewed as morally unacceptable, nor does morality have a place in the nation’s scramble for economic success.

Look no farther for proof of this than the Chinese leaders’ relentless, yet unsuccessful, efforts to stamp out government corruption. Society’s obsession with money, luxury brands, idols and celebrities reflects the spiritual and moral desert the society has become.

US presidential candidate Barack Obama has tried to warn the American people of a general “empathy deficit.” Strangely enough, his guiding principle in politics, symbolized by his famous line, “How would that make you feel?” curiously resonates with a Confucian core value: “Do not do unto others what you do not want done unto yourself”.

In China, the empathy deficit is not only at a worrying level but seems to be further compounded by what intellectuals call a “values vacuum.” In one of his blog posts, Financial Times Chinese web columnist Xu Zhi-yuan said, “The ideals of the past are no longer effective. Yet worship of money can only be a temporary substitute. We cannot possibly transplant Christianity onto Chinese soil, nor can we simply revive our ancients’ values.”

It may not be mere coincidence that there has been recent talk of the revival of Confucianism and even Taoism in China. Beijing has just endorsed Hong Kong’s decision to make Confucius’s birthday a public holiday. Yu Dan, a Beijing Normal University media professor, recently published a book called “Thoughts on the Analects of Confucius” that has sold 2 million copies.

Moral values as depicted by Confucius had always been an integral part of Chinese culture. With “harmonious society” the present slogan of the Chinese leaders, it dovetails nicely with what Confucius thought was an important social value; the revival of Confucian values may at least be convenient politically.

Film director Ann Hui has a different way of painting reality. Her film “The Postmodern Life of My Aunt” portrays humorously a present Chinese society that worships money and lacks morality. The film epitomizes what Xu calls, “this full-of-life, yet unutterably crass China.”

Hui’s movie is nothing less than a microscopic replica of present-day society in China. It embodies China’s tragic past which, through the notorious cultural purge, uprooted all traditional moral values, and a materialistic present which is marked by total lack of morals. These have molded the characters in the movie. The story depicts a sense of emptiness and ridicule in an unprincipled community that has no ideals to hold onto. Yet it also takes note of a vague and hidden sense of conscience.

The protagonist, a 60-year old well-educated woman, is in Shanghai in search of a better life, having left her husband and daughter in a poor northeast hometown. Her unpleasant experience starts with being cheated by her nephew who is in her care. Then, after a fateful meeting with a seductive middle-aged con man, she is later mesmerized by him and pours her life savings into a scam investment on his advice.

When he tells her that all her money is lost, she is devastated and is later hurt in an accident. Out of fear that she might commit suicide (and perhaps out of a guilty conscience) he stays by her bedside through the night. When finally she manages to pull herself together, she decides to return to her husband and daughter and take up a humble life again.

“A strong sense of helplessness permeates the entire society. Even people who are young do not believe they can change anything. Their only hope is to take one more spoonful from the existing social order,” Xu told Asia Sentinel.

After graduating from Beijing University in 2000, Xu worked for four years with a Chinese-language newspaper, the Economic Observer. Then he became a co-publisher of Life Magazine, which is published by Modern Media Group, and a columnist for the Financial Times’ Chinese site.

Having authored several books, his biggest ambition, he says, is to become “an intellectual able to influence one or several generations of Chinese people”.

When asked how he viewed China’s present era in an interview with Southern People Weekly, Xu replied, “It is a question of how we can build a good, benevolent society. China is experiencing such drastic upheavals. How can we mitigate the pains that these upheavals have brought? How can we find a brighter, healthier path to the future?

“This society has a host of problems. It is my hope to truly understand this nation and society from the emotional and intellectual perspective, in order to express it in a more lucid and insightful manner.”