China’s Morality Crisis

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China’s great crisis of morality and social leadership came to the fore with launch of a campaign to select national role models in five categories; those who helped another person, those who acted with great moral courage for a just cause, those who were honest and trustworthy, those who made great contributions by working hard and those who demonstrated love and piety to their parents and family members.

On 18 September a list of 53 role models based on these criteria was announced at the Great Hall of People in Beijing. These included a leading scientist, Zhong Nanshan who had made a singular contribution to controlling Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Yuan Longping, discoverer of the first hybrid variety of rice way back in the 1970’s. These perhaps were in the category of, “great contributors”. Others included a philanthropist singer, Cong Fei who gave financial aid to students and the disabled over a period of ten years and also donated his cornea on his untimely demise at the age of 37. A migrant worker, Li Xuesheng who saved lives of two children on a railway track and a college student, Hong Zhanhui who cared for his mentally ill father and an adopted sister were the other winners.

The entire campaign of selection or to use the phrase of the China Daily, “appoint” was managed by the Civilization Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), All China Federation of Trade Unions, Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League and All China Women’s Federation.

The selection was done by a two step process, the first involved publication of their deeds in newspapers on 1 September, asking people to vote for their candidates. This drew in over 21 million responses. Thereafter a review committee of officials and experts are said to have done the final selection. There is no doubt that candidates were worthy winners for their deeds whether of philanthropy or of scientific inquiry which benefited a large section of humanity were exceptional.

In more open societies such selection would have been carried out by civil society or commercial organizations, however in China it is apparent that the state thought it appropriate to intervene even in issues of personal and social morality.

This campaign also underlined the concern of authorities over transformation taking place in society due to industrialization and urbanization. As families are being torn asunder, old parents have been neglected back home in the villages while sons and even daughters earn their Yuan in Beijing or Shanghai. Moreover generation of wealth was being seen by some as a passion to be pursued with full vigor and thus state intervention was considered essential.

Honesty, trustworthiness, helping the family and the community are virtues fast vanishing from Chinese society. There is no moral compass of the church or the mosque where values could be imbibed in people. The awards were a reflection of state acknowledgement of the moral crisis slowly setting into Chinese society and correctives to control the same.

This focus on moral values has been an ongoing process in Chinese society. Thus in March 2006, President Hu Jintao personally launched a campaign of eight honors and disgraces which included, Love the country, do it no harm; Serve the people, never betray them; Follow science, discard superstition; Be diligent, not indolent; Be united, help each other, make no gains at other’s expense; Be honest and trustworthy, do not sacrifice ethics for profit; Be disciplined and law-abiding, not chaotic and lawless; Live plainly, work hard, do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

The congruence of societal as well as political values in a chain of leadership identified with the party has led to lack of development of social leadership in China. The role models are party patriarchs both locally as well as nationally. They cannot provide a convincing moral guiding light. Thus the need to nominate more credible lay persons as social leaders. On the other hand those who contributed in the field of science have also been honored. For the first time perhaps such a collective honor has gone to a group of non party or non Army personnel in such large numbers.

This is also a tacit acknowledgement of the motivation models followed in the West, be it Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or the British decrees of Lordship and Knighthood. To the Chinese masses projection of leaders as scientists Zhong Nanshan and Yuan Longping or ordinary folks as Li Xuesheng should be an inspiration. How long this impact will last and how much peer pressure it will create to improve moral standards in a society which is experiencing upheaval of modernization, industrialization and informatization all at once remains to be seen.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.