The Dark Side of Reform

Is Economic Progress Leading to Moral Decay?

April 15, 2005


BEIJING -- China's unprecedented economic boom has lifted millions of people out of poverty and created a new class of millionaires. Citizens have more freedoms and opportunities than ever before. Yet some are starting to wonder if people are really better off.

Get-rich-quick schemes, casual sex, animosity between rich and poor -- these are seen by scholars as just a few of the worrying symptoms of a culture undergoing changes. Moral decay has accompanied economic progress and could destabilize society, voices in China's media and academia warn.

"If people care only about material interests and lack morals, such a society is bound to be unstable," said an unusually bold article in Newsweek, a Chinese language magazine with no relation to the U.S. edition. The have-nots in China's new order "become anti-society. ... When they can't tolerate it anymore, they will resort to extreme measures."

The world's most populous country, with 1.3 billion people, has quickly transformed itself from one of the most egalitarian societies into one of the most unequal.

Flaunting wealth and stark individualism were unheard of in the first decades after the communist revolution in 1949. Now such behavior is seen as normal, even admired by many.

"People now are eager for immediate success and achievement," said Wang Dengfeng, professor of psychology at Peking University. "In the past, morality restrained people's behavior. But now the strength and scope of moral restrictions has shrunk. People don't think about the means; they'll just do anything."

Business has boomed, and with it problems of business ethics. Last year, several dozen companies were found to have produced fake infant formula devoid of nutrients. At least 12 sets of heartbroken parents watched their babies die of malnutrition.

Crimes against the rich, including kidnappings and murder, are on the rise. Last July, the owner of a small factory became so incensed at the chairman of a major company who refused to pay him $1,200 in compensation for land that he set off a bomb, killing the chairman and himself.

Sex is the ultimate expression of liberation in a society where political freedoms are still highly restricted. China has undergone a sexual revolution in the last decade; extramarital and premarital sex have gone from taboo to widespread. A recent survey of young adults found one-third saying extramarital affairs are tolerable.

A female journalist kept an online diary detailing her numerous sexual exploits and mischievously told male reporters who wanted to interview her that they'd have to sleep with her first. Her blog became one of the most visited and talked about sites in China last year, and her extreme freedom of expression made her a heroine to many.

For those who can adapt to the new rules of society, the benefits can be abundant. But for others, the psychological toll of the dizzying changes can be too much to bear.

"Many statistics show China's wealth gap has already reached a very dangerous level, dangerous for social stability," said Hou Yubo, a social psychologist at Peking University.

The disorienting changes are prompting many Chinese to turn to religion. Buddhism has seen a resurgence across all sectors of society.

"All the religions are growing quickly in China -- Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism -- because of the spiritual vacuum," said Rev. Yu Xinli, head of the Beijing Christian Council. Most newcomers to the church are poor, sick or disadvantaged, Yu said.

China's market reforms started in the late 1970s and reached warp speed in the early 1990s, after former leader Deng Xiaoping famously pronounced that it didn't matter if the cat was black or white; as long as it caught mice, it was a good cat.

"This encouraged people," said Hou. "But it's wrong."

Although Deng is still considered the architect of China's reforms, his metaphor is no longer part of the official propaganda. But the damage has been done.

The market economy engendered the concepts of competition and survival of the fittest. Inevitably, other Western values have seeped in.

"On TV, films, the media, the value system being put forth is getting closer and closer to Western values," said Wang.

While many urban Chinese have adroitly absorbed certain Western concepts, such as individualism, immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption, Hou said they have not learned the rules and responsibilities that counterbalance those luxuries. Littering is rampant, drivers in the bike lanes routinely honk at bikers to get out of the way and rare are the good samaritans who give to charities, donate blood or help a stranger in distress.

"Everyone is always thinking, 'What does society owe me?"' Hou said. "The West's concept of individualism has influenced us. But people think it means only, 'I do everything for myself."'

While the leadership in Beijing seems to recognize the problems, the official line is that the current moral decline is part of a transitional phase in China's development. The government has offered no innovative ways to instill a sense of public responsibility in its citizenry.

The national discourse still emphasizes material wealth, though Confucianism -- with its emphasis on loyalty, hierarchy and honesty -- is occasionally revived as the answer to achieving social harmony. And the government frequently resorts to what it knows best: mass political campaigns to improve morality and patriotism. The current campaign targets college students.

The real answer, Newsweek wrote, is to allow citizens to organize independently. Labor unions, religious groups and non-governmental organizations would give the disadvantaged a way to vent and collectively defend their interests.

But with the Communist Party's aversion to groups outside its control, China experts say the prospects for the growth of a robust civil society are dim.

"We live in an age of increasing wealth but less harmony," the Newsweek commentary said. "People don't really feel happy."

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