How many times have you heard someone say that there is no respect for life in China (or sometimes Asia)? The sentiment almost always comes up following a horrific scandal or a major disaster like an earthquake, when fingers are pointed and accusations are made. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, artist/provocateur Ai Weiwei imparted the following words of wisdom:
I think to respect life, which is quite rare in this culture today, to pay more attention to the value of human life, human rights, and to fight for the basic dignity of life.
Is he right? Is respect for life rare in China? Compared to what?
After drafting part of this post, I realized that there are two fundamental issues here. The first is whether China respects life less than it used to, and the second is how this compares to other nations. This is too much for one post, so I’ll stick to China for now and address comparisons with other countries at a later date.
To answer either question, we would all have to agree on what respect for life means, and we most certainly do not. Even approaching that discussion gets us into scholarship in several areas, including moral philosophy, religion, and ethics. I don’t think it would be useful to go there in a blog post, although I have a feeling someone will feel up to the challenge in the comments section.
Even though we can’t all agree on a definition of “respect for life,” there are certainly many incidents one could find that elicit universal condemnation. China Daily journalist Huang Hung, writing in the Daily Beast, uses one recent incident as an indictment of modern Chinese values:
The dumping of 21 dead fetuses and babies is the latest sign that the Chinese have lost all respect for human life.
[ . . . ]
All these stories make me wonder, who are we, the Chinese? Are we the people of Olympic glory or monsters who pay people to throw away dead babies?
Huang’s article also lists some other recent horrific stories, including the Shanxi vaccine scandal (several children have died), investigations of restaurants that use discarded grease as cooking oil, and the many incidents of mysterious prisoner deaths. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence such as this does not get us any closer to either understanding what it means to “respect life,” or determining whether a fundamental shift has occurred in modern Chinese society.
Huang evidently feels as if China has taken a wrong turn and that these stories are indicative of a coarsening of society. She lays the blame for this turn of events on China’s economic development:
The more I ask myself these questions, the more I am convinced that we are a nation that got rich and lost its moral compass. Our value system is single-mindedly materialistic, and we have lost all respect for human life. We are rich, but our values are totally screwed up.
The comparison being made here is to China’s recent past, perhaps to pre-1978 China, before the country dismantled its social safety net, was plagued by rampant corruption, and implemented economic reforms that have allowed an ever-widening income gap. These are all defects of the current system that were arguably not present (not sure about corruption, though) before China opened up to the West. But of course this comparison is incomplete; the defects present in pre-1978 China must be listed as well.
The most significant change between pre-1978 China and the current state of affairs is best summed up in two words: wealth and poverty. China is much richer than it was back then and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Surely this must count for something, a counterbalance to at least some of the perceived problems with modern Chinese society? Simply saying that “we are richer,” in a broad sense, does not pay adequate homage to the massive alleviation of poverty, and suggests that all the benefits of economic development have been enjoyed by a relatively small number of individuals.
Given China’s rapid economic and societal changes and current income gap problem, perhaps no one should be surprised if many look backward with nostalgia and ignore the problems of the past. All societies that undergo rapid change face this problem and react in a similar manner. Just within the past couple of generations, we’ve seen tremendous social change brought about by technological innovation (e.g. televisions, computers, telecom). In Western history, one can easily go back further to times of catastrophic upheaval (e.g. the Black Death); the literature from the time is chock full of people questioning their culture, religion, political structure — virtually all of society’s institutions.
Part of me therefore wants to say that of course many people are questioning the results of such fundamental change, and of course there will be some who give it a thumbs down, or at least contend that change has come at a high price. Perhaps this view could even be supported by data, but again we have the problem of defining the problem.
If we found, as I suspect we would, that crime is higher in China in 2010 than it was in 1980, would that be an indictment of modern society or is that a price everyone is willing to pay?
What if it was determined that a higher incidence of fake or unsafe products, including food, is on the market now than there used to be? Would it be reasonable to blame China’s modern capitalist economy or again, is this something we have to deal with in the short term?
As I suspected, I am asking more questions than providing answers in taking on this topic. As I don’t think there are any answers (remember, we probably cannot even agree on definitions), this is pretty much how I expected this post to go.
However, I will end here with one final thought. When I hear people complain that China’s society has coarsened over time, that people used to respect each other more in years past, I tend to think that all this is just a normal transition. China has made great strides in the past 20+ years, and in many ways, things are a lot better for most people. On the other hand, that progress has not been perfectly linear, nor has everyone benefited equally.
If Huang Hung and others are correct, and China’s respect for life has been harmed by the excesses of capitalism, this does not mean that such problems will not be dealt with in the near future by a more aggressive regulatory state. Many of the recent scandals involving fake or shoddy products (e.g. the melamine milk scandal), violent crime, and even animal cruelty are all arguably examples of capitalism gone awry. In each case, however, a stronger regulatory state might be the answer.