Why Doesn’t China Respect Life?

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.



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  1. rootinhead

    Social aspect:
    *population pressure,
    *one child policy,
    *huge social wealth gap
    all make ppl more indifferent in this economy/money-driven country.

    what’s in their mind:
    *twisted history – the most bloody slaughter is prettified as the national hero, because he “wins” the history,

    *jungle world view – 70%++ of Chinese ppl are Darwin’s firm followers – Atheism and Marxism is what they are told to only believe when they are very young.

    *Cultural Revolution – which overturned the foundations of traditional morality. Since then, the chinese ppl learn to kill and torture enemies from a different class, whether they are parents, friends, teachers, or spouse. Survival is for lairs and traitors.

    *6.4 – the sad story that always remind ppl of the fear of truth and self-brainwashing.

    and many more…

    What is really wrong is right in mainlander’s head!
    If they don’t have the bravery to bring justice to their past, they don’t get the guts to care for their own kind.

    • roninstevie

      thank you for wasting my time with your stupid rednack comment. If I want to read white propaganda I read the washington post, the new york times or any other mainstream media

  2. AndyR

    A related and important question is why some Chinese people picture Mao’s China as some sort of “moral paradise”. Were Cultural Revolution participants representative of that period’s “respect for life”? Mao and the Gang of Four get most of the blame for that period’s atrocities, but often (purposefully) left out of that discussion is the fact that many normal Chinese actively and readily participated in the violence of that time. Many tend to give this reality a pass with the age old “brain-washing” argument, but as always it is much more complicated than that. No doubt the leaders of that time deserve most of the blame, but Mao wasn’t constantly standing next to all those Red Guards whispering specific instructions on how to “disrespect life”.

    I actually tried to answer this “nostalgia” question in my Master’s thesis, but there are a lot of conclusions I would probably re-work having 3 year’s hindsight (and if I wanted to re-visit the torture of thesis writing). I basically looked at how a lot of the current nostalgia for the so-imagined “moral purity” of that period is a consequence of both how Mao’s legacy and the legacy of the Chinese revolution was re-written to conform to post-reform realities and also a popular re-imagining of the past by those who have experienced economic reform’s “dark side”.

    At the end of the day, I don’t think Chinese people show any less “respect for life” than any other nation’s people. With or without a definable “moral compass” a society is always going to have its fair share of horrors because human beings have a great capacity to do horrible things. I guess people get uncomfortable in China today because many of these situations appear to be economically motivated, which seems mega evil. But are the politically motivated atrocities of Mao’s China any better? What about all the religiously motivated atrocities around the world? (even a society with “morals” can still do terrible things in their name…)

    • Perhaps the moral compass of any modern society is no longer primarily defined by its politicians or religious leaders. Instead morality may have become part of a tradition, which exists more or less independent from the official state. A stronger regulatory state may produce some short term effects, however, a government that fails to acknowledge any authority but its own, will clearly be less succesful in terms of preventing social atrocities. The state cannot provide a real cure, since they are somehow part of the disease. Therefore any real change should come from within, instead of above.

    • I find this sort of nostalgia to be an interesting issue as well. It’s an imperfect analogy, but at the moment, we have lots of people running around the U.S. whose idea of heaven seems to be the 1950s, yet their memories of that time are completely at odds with historical fact.

      I get the feeling that this is simply a very human thing to do.

    • Good comment, AndyR. Like Stan, the nostalgia angle jumped out at me.

  3. Good thought provoking blog; however, your pondering will excite many responses that will span the spectrum of the issues addressed. If capitalism is a learning curve, requiring certain steps, then certainly China is merely passing through certain stages well described by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle”. Addressing sensitivity toward humanity’s food chain, Sinclair, in writing his landmark book, did not even attempt to write a critique of the meat industry (which he apparently sort of took for granted) as much as a political tome. He was profoundly disappointed that his readers, while being moved to pass laws on food handling, apparently missed the point of his work.

    But what we do see in China, which endlessly fascinates non-Chinese observers is the China scale. Whereas in the Middle Ages, if France or England marshaled 100K troops, that was a significant event. In China, that number would merely have amounted to a scouting party. And, agreeing with Andy’s reply, corruption didn’t start in ’78, but Capitalism did allow petty corruptions to grow–China scale–in an unprecedented manner since (maybe) the Southern Sung Dynasty.

    Thus, for those who find advising others easier than rectifying their own faults, are ignorant of their own path to success, and are unfamiliar with large numbers, present-day China presents a blame-game of unprecedented dimensions.

    • On the “China scale” issue — interesting point. With a gigantic population, one can find an example of just about any horrible act imaginable, I suppose.

      Just another reason to stick with per capita statistics whenever possible.

  4. lolz

    I think Chinese value their lives MORE post-cultural revolution simply because there is a larger middle class now. People value and respect lives when there are things which they care for and can call their own. Then there is also the concept of justice. Regardless of how people think about the Chinese justice system today, it has came a long way since the 70s. There is a more defined (though still not transparent) justice system today which puts more values on each life lost. A lot of this has to do with mass media and the internet.

    If you look at most poor nations, lives are not respected because each life does not worth all that much and there are no consequences whatsoever when lives are lost. If someone in Africa dies an unnatural death (and there are plenty of them dying daily due to military conflicts) nothing would happen. No justice, no compensation, little news coverage unless there are significant atrocities. Now, if there are no justice and no compensation, what would be the significance to a life lost and just just why would people take lives seriously?

    In some ways I think capitalism actually forces people and corporations to value lives more in China, because it puts on average a greater figure on the lives of each person. Of course, the negative side to this is that it also separates those who have the potential from those who don’t (fairly or unfairly).

  5. I also tried to answer Huang Hung’s post yesterday on my own blog, but tackled whether life is valued more in other countries compared to China. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon and, in fact, I think there’s a massive moral blind spot in Chinese culture. Fei Xiaotong addressed the problem in 乡土中国/From the Soil.

    The issue more prevalent than “valuing life.” The same cultural problem that leads to dead babies dumped in a river is what leads to the crazy situations of people standing around watching crime happen. How many have heard stories of people being robbed on buses and the thieves simply wait for the next stop to get off with the goods, nobody stopping them? I had a friend who was beat up while the guards of his apartment stood by and watched. He had stopped a drunk man from assaulting his girlfriend in public. She was asking for help. When I ask my students about this, every one of them will say “call the police.”

    To over-simply a very complex issue, I think the blind-spot is with Confucianism.

    Confucianism preaches responsibility to another, but not the Other. The Greater Good, for Confucius, was byproduct of everyone was doing what they were supposed to do. When kings acted like proper kings and sons acted like proper sons everything would flow along harmoniously

    Where Jesus, Buddha, et all summed it up with “treat others as you’d like to be treated”, Confucius took a different road, “treat others the way they’re supposed to be treated” but with a fairly limited definition of “other.”

    So it’s not just about valuing life. It’s about valuing other people around you with whom you have no guanxi with.

    • Granted, you’re oversimplifying, but I’m not sure its really about Confucianism as it is about social inertia. I think a lot of behaviors, habits, or perceptions of what is acceptable (or unacceptable) came to be over time as mechanisms for survival and “getting by” as influenced by the realities of the world people found themselves living in. That they persist when the world has changed is less about any philosophical framework as it is about behaviors becoming ingrained and difficult to change within human nature.

      • King Tubby

        Agree on this one. Philosophical frameworks/ epistemologies (theories of knowledge formation -Popper, Kuhn, Marx, Althusser or whoever) are academic fun, but that is about it.

        I think we are talking about cultural mentalities of a long duration: habituated and learned responses which are probably better explained by reference to some sort of structuralist view of language. Plus a bit of anthropology. Language/culture shapes *human nature* and not the other humanist way round.

  6. zball

    There is too much gore in the title picture.

    For the last three decades, transformation from collectivist culture to individualist culture has been seeping into the very corner of this large country. The reality right now is that individual Chinese cherish/respect his/her own life so much that he/she ignores rights of the others. In addition, Relative Inequality mentioned by Kai in previous post and Social Benefits ensued with personal wealth just highlight the prize people covet.

    A stronger regulatory state might be the answer. Religion, either Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism or Marxism might be another alternative

    • Absence of religion is one of the things I like best about this country. Moreover, I see no evidence in other countries that religion necessarily causes people to treat each other better. In many cases, it is the exact opposite.

      • zball

        Being brought up under red flags, I am not a religious person. However, as long as people are not stuck between clashes of two different religions, I cannot see how worse things can go in terms of accommodating needs of each other. The good thing about religion is it set certain spiritual standards for social behaviors, although it could sometimes be applied to cover evil intentions of certain people.

  7. Alard

    I don’t think China as a society holds less respect to human rights than it did in pre-1978 era, the illusion of a “moral paradise” is probably caused by two facts:

    1. much of what happened under Mao’s reign is still covered by both CCP and the witnesses themselves (because they were also participators) and the effect of the revolutionary delusions still exists.

    2. people just didn’t pay much attention to morality when they were having trouble filling their stomachs, a usual recollection of the past is “hunger + shortage of basically everything + efforts to make ends meet + …”. So it’s more of a blank era, only to be filled with illusions when morality becomes an issue.

    Moreover, what matters is not the absolute condition, but the urgency of improvement. Chinese people were not that upset when live dismembering was used as capital punishment some 100 years ago.

    Technology/free market never create new injustice, they create the urgency to improve existing ones. It’s not that Chines society gives less respect to human rights, but rather the need for more respect is more urgent than ever.

  8. yangrouchuan

    Nothing in China’s history, especially recent history, suggests any value placed in human life, even before opening up, before capitalism and before getting rich.

    The GLF and CR are great examples. And China has been exterminating countless baby girls since the morning the one child policy went into effect. At none of those times was China rich. Now that China is rich, it is simply more belligerent and open about its abuse of humanity.

    • friendo

      Nothing in the West’s history, especially recent history, suggests any value placed in human life, even before opening up, before capitalism and before getting rich.

      The Iraq War, Holocaust and Amerind Genocide are great examples. And the West has been exterminating countless baby girls, brown people, non-Christians and raping little boys since the dawn of time. At none of those times was the West rich. Now that the West is rich, it is simply more belligerent and open about its abuse of humanity.

      • yangrouchuan

        Wow! That’s quite witty. Did you come up with that all by yourself?

        Nothing matches Mao’s >35 million dead Chinese just from the GLF alone, all to pay for China’s nuke program. No one will ever know the toll of baby girls since 1980.

        China is bad, dirty country

  9. oiasunset

    Stan,

    Can you generalise from the following video that America doesn’t respect life?

    http://bloodandtreasure.typepad.com/blood_treasure/2010/04/consequences-of-carrying-a-bag-in-baghdad.html

    I won’t. Because in each country there are people who don’t respect life and there are more people who do respect life. It happens that China has the biggest population in the world (hence the biggest number of people who don’t respect life), and is relatively poor comparing to the western countries. You will also find many horrific photos about India too, but do those suggest that India has not respect for life too? I resolutely reject that idea.

    Generalisation is a dangerous game and it inevitably attracts racist trolls as amply demonstrated by some of the replies.

    • yangrouchuan

      India’s level of humanity is quite low too. But this is not an India focused site, it is about Bad China and Bad China’s Bad Expat community.

      Read the Economist article about the dearth of baby girls? What kinds of monsters kill their babies, even after seeing them at birth? And even grandmothers defending the practice to promote boys who will carry the family name and do labor jobs. Such filthy, ugly, primitive behavior.

      China must be roundly scolded.

      • No, this site is not about “Bad China and Bad China’s Bad Expat community” either. This site is about “social and political commentary relating to modern China.” Insofar as India’s situation dealing with similar issues is relevant to the social and political commentary relating to modern China, it’s entirely within our umbrella.

        Those of you who try to indemnify their comments about China by arguing that “well, this is a China site” are seriously despicable. How disingenuous are you really willing to be? Knock it off and grow up.

    • lolz

      I was thinking about this video, which barely generated over 200 comments when it was on the front page of Huffpo, the popular liberal, america-hating (says the right wing) site where you think people would care. Of course, much worse is the so called collateral deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the US military simply drops a bomb on a house to kill everyone inside because one or two people inside the home is a suspected terrorist. A lot of the people who are critical of China for its treatments towards Tibet do not seem to care about this sort of thing at all, some of them even defend.

      I think at the end of the day all people do value life, it’s just that they value life differently. The majority of the people from Western world tend to TALK about how all life is equal but through their actions it’s fairly obvious that they don’t think that way. Chinese on other hand, generally accepts the fact that some life worth more than others, right or wrong.

  10. rb

    Stan.

    Interesting post. Question I get asked a lot as well.

    My 2 quick cents though is that I think you have perhaps miss framed the question as it is systems that actually do not care about people, and it is people who (1) look to exploit systems and (2) who fail to care/ understand the consequences of their exploits.

    Milk scandal. failure of system exploited by a few
    Bad vaccines. failure of system exploited by a few
    Babies in the river. failure of system exploited by a few
    Mining accident. failure of system exploited by a few

    That being said, your question is valid and there are plenty of examples of where people in China (and globally) can participate in mass acts of apathy and group think in the worst ways.

  11. Christine

    normalizing and managing morality is a separate (but related) issue from that of “respect for life”. Morality is a set of socially-accepted measures for constraining and sanctioning people’s behaviors and attitudes on a wide array of issues. “Respect for life” is not always contingent upon morality and vice versa, but it depends on what do we mean by “life” and “respect”. By “life” do you mean “human rights” (as some of the comments here invoked) in a UN-convention-paradgim or in the constitution of the US? or the rights of embryonic development since quickening, or the rights of artificial life form? I understand the scientific/moral boundaries of life may not be of interest to this blog now, but any serious discussion aiming to go beyond scratching the surface cannot dodge away from this fundamental question. Similarly, what do you mean by “respect”? Positive non-intervention? Who is respecting for whom? Regulatory mechanism can tighten up the conditions and consequences but the actors and their roles require specification.

    Sarah Palin explained her support for banning abortion service to rape victims within the “respect for life” rationale. Her justification is that don’t punish an innocent life with what a bastard did. Who is respecting whose life? Who has the power to decide which life and whose rights to be respected?

  12. A former colleague who’s family happened to be land owners during the cultural revolution explained to me his opinion once about this matter saying: that which humans value and consider precious is that which is uncommon or rare.
    He continued saying: a precious stone is only precious because it is sought after. If they were like grains of sand we would treat them as if they were little more than dust and sweep them away.
    He then went on to say: A virgin woman is considered to be much more attractive than a whore because anyone can have the whore, but only one may have the virgin.
    In essence he felt that because China has an overabundance of people, their value as human beings, their overall worth, decreases.

  13. Nathan

    I didn‘t read any of the comments after the post but I have to agree with the sentiment in the second last paragraph. Things are constantly improving in China. It’s important to remind ourselves of that (particularly when reading horrific stories of human indifference).

Continuing the Discussion