Tuesday, 4 September 2007

China in the Newspaper

Coming back from our holidays in China, I found a pile of unread newspapers. I was curious to find out what these papers would have told the Dutch reader about the country where we had been travelling. Here is the result.

1 China produces dangerous articles of low quality

The most important stories were about toys containing poison and the responsible owner who committed suicide. The quality of exports must be improved, says the government.

2 Basic Human Rights are still not guaranteed in China

Anomymous blogging is forbidden. One of the scarce opportunities of free speech is now blocked. Protest movements are repressed in the wake of the Olympic games. Slave labour exists in China. The Communist Party accepts no open criticism.

3 Corruption is a serious problem in China

Death penalty me be an effective answer to this problem, according to the government.

4 Chinese must learn to behave in a civilised way

Spitting is forbidden in Beijjing now.

5 Environmental pollution is a major problem

This problem is attracting attention because of the Olympics.

6 China's infrastructure has major weaknesses

Bridges are collapsing. Even during the building process (Fenghuang).

Nice selection! What does it show? The news seems to be a strange combination of the official news in the Chinese press - for example the stories about corruption, about civilised behaviour - and the themes that the West wishes to see, like human rights. In combination it gives a strange picture...

Culture or Economic Development?

My blog on uncivilised behaviour in China led to many reactions. Many people recognised the reality of uncivilised behaviour, some people found my explanation very sophisticated, but some doubted if I had really understood the phenomenon using the abstract variables of power distance and collectivism (in combination: vertical collectivism).
I also began to doubt my own explanation, when people pointed at our own past. Not long - say 40 or 50 years - ago spitting on the streets, fighting for a place in public transport and other forms of 'rude' behaviour were quite normal in the Netherlands, some older people told me. A person from China, who now lives in the the United States, agreed with my analysis but emphasised the economic dimension that was lacking in my analysis. Many things are simply scarce in China and that is the cause of the competition. Underground trains in Beijing and Shanghai are full most of the time and getting a seat is not easy. The same is true for a place at a university or a house. So objectively, there is more reason for competitive behaviour in these contexts.

So I may have 'over-culturalised' my explanation, a danger inherent in all cultural explanations of human behaviour. On the other hand I may have underestimated the effects of cultural change. Talking about the cultural value of modesty, which used to be expressed in standard reactions to praise in the Chinese language, like 'not at all' (哪里), 'you praise me too much' (过奖呢) and so on. This pattern seems to be disappearing quickly among young urban people. As my Chinese teacher told me, the standard reaction to praise tends to become 'yes I am the best' or at least 'thank you'. Self-denial is no longer the norm. This may of course lead to problems of anti-social behaviour if not balanced by a new (individualist) ethics.

Conclusion: the phenomenon is complex and there are more sides to it than a simple cultural explanation can possibly cover.