Is China’s ‘Morality Situation’ Improving?

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A recent article in Qiushi, the Communist Party of China Central Committee’s policy magazine (English site) argued that moral behavior in China is improving (also in English, see this People’s Daily news report on the subject). Whether things are perceived to be getting better or worse, however, is irrelevant; it’s the discussion itself that is illuminating.

It’s fascinating to watch societies in transition or under stress. There’s always so much hang-wringing and naval gazing as individuals try to figure out where things are headed, and whether perceived trends are negative or positive. Very often, this includes a discussion of morality.

I remember back in the late 70s/early 80s, when these questions were rampant in the U.S. It was common back then to read articles about whether America had “lost its way.” This self-imposed funk was mostly a product of post-oil shock economic problems, but it also included a host of other changes, from gender roles to urbanization.

That isn’t to say that these periods of questioning are rare, coinciding only with significant change. There are always folks out there who question, or downright bemoan, the current state of morality and wistfully gaze back at the past to a, usually mythological, “better time.” In the U.S., many conservatives have been ramping up this sort of dialogue since 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, crying out in desperation that the nation must be “taken back.”

The economic challenges and social changes experienced by Americans in the past few decades pale in comparison to the situation in China. This entire country has almost been reinvented since 1978, and the consequent social changes have been intense. No wonder that questions are raised here on a regular basis about moral behavior.

But why was this question raised in Qiushi? A famous U.S. politician once said that “You can’t legislate morality.” He was arguing that the government had no place when it came to moral choices.

He was of course absolutely wrong. Governments constantly make moral choices. The simple matter of funding a bridge instead of a hospital is a moral decision, feeding the poor or producing weapons is a moral stance. Therefore it’s not at all odd to see this issue being addressed in a Party publication.

Moreover, the perceived state of moral behavior in a society is a reflection, fair or not, of government, which tends to get blamed when societies seem to be headed in the “wrong” direction. At the same time, governments use this question about moral behavior for their own self-validation purposes.

Government can either:

1. Say that society’s moral standards have declined, and then use this idea to push for specific policies to solve the problem;

2. Argue that moral behavior is improving, in part because of the implementation of relevant government policies; or

3. Avoid the issue completely.

For whatever reason, in most countries governments are seemingly incapable of choosing the third option!

In nations with multiple political parties, this dynamic gets a bit more complicated and messy, as one party can “blame” the other’s governance for declining moral behavior. In China, where the Party has been in power since 1949, the government is limited to blaming declining standards on: a) past mistakes of the Party that have since been rectified; b) mistakes made by local government; or c) outside (foreign) influences. President Hu’s recent pronouncements on culture, a hot topic this week, is an example of Option C.

The Qiushi article states that things are getting better on the morality front, essentially defending overall domestic policy from charges that, for example, economic development has led to income inequality and corruption. The rhetorical tightrope that has to be walked here is that although a wealthier society undergoing significant change might afford some bad actors the opportunity to make poor moral decisions, this is a temporary situation and things are getting better.

Let’s acknowledge first that there is no way to prove any of this. Sure, it’s theoretically possible that one could somehow satisfactorily define “moral behavior” and then identify certain indicia of that behavior (perhaps charitable giving, levels of violence, incidents of corruption) that could then be used to determine whether a country’s moral landscape has undergone significant change during a given period of time.

Sounds like a tall order to me. In the absence of scientific data, society is left with anecdotal news reports, with the Internet/social media acting as an amplifier. The effect of such reporting on the perception of morality is controversial:

Zhang Yiwu, professor and deputy director of the Cultural Resources Research Center of Peking University, told the Global Times that he could give many examples of “poor morality” in the past, such as in the 1980s, citing hospitals’ indifference to patients as well as passers-by ignoring people who were injured on the road.

Zhang said that things were broadcast on a smaller scale in the past and the growth of the Internet makes it easy for people to know what happens in every corner of the world, thus deepening the public’s impression of immoral conduct.

Consider the problem of corruption. We see stories about corrupt officials in the news every day. Does this mean that corruption is getting worse or that reporting on the problem has improved? The answer is usually “We don’t know” or “Maybe both.”

This is a tough call. On the one hand, we want the media to report on corruption in its role of societal watchdog. On the other hand, we don’t want muckraking to skew public perception of moral behavior. The balance between the two is difficult, and China’s continuously updated Internet content rules suggests that this is all a work in progress.

Additionally, is media discussion of morality itself a positive sign?

The media has a two-sided effect on the morality situation, Cai Xia, professor with the Party School of the CPC’s Central Committee, told the Global Times.

“The heated discussion of a morality crisis and the condemnation of immorality just reflect the public’s great desire for a better moral situation,” said Cai, adding that as the main part of society, the people’s thought represents that of society, therefore it is reasonable to say the moral situation in the country has been improving.

Interesting suggestion, that the dialog itself is evidence that society wants things to improve. On the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily say that supports a “things are improving” argument, as the dialog might just be a reflection of discontent at a perceived worsening situation.

I think an answer to this question will continue to elude us, and not just in China of course. There will always be a segment of society that is dissatisfied with current standards of behavior, and in times of great change or stress, that segment will grow.

The much more interesting dynamic here is between the media, which is motivated to report on, and often sensationalize, specific incidents of immoral behavior, the effect this has on society’s perceptions of declining moral standards, and the government’s need to then respond to national anxiety by validating its own actions.

6 responses on “Is China’s ‘Morality Situation’ Improving?

    1. Stan Post author

      Ha ha. Hmm, what with new aircraft carriers and all last year and the South China Sea kerfuffle, I’m going to have to refer to that one as a Freudian typo.

  1. Anon

    This is always an interesting question, and I think the “economic development has broken China’s moral compass” theme that pops up from time to time is a bit simplistic at best. I don’t think President Hu’s piece really addresses the same question as the piece on morality, though.

    1. Stan Post author

      You’re right, President Hu’s piece was on culture. But I was referencing that as an example of my “Option C” for governments, which was blaming outside forces. The culture speech, as you know, was quite direct with its cultural imperialism type language.

  2. Pablo

    Interesting and level-headed appraisal. Awesome.

    I agree. Morality seems ridiculously difficult to measure.

    But..You could also factor in where people live as wealthier people tend to have, at least, more awareness of what’s morally acceptable.

    Corruption seems like a rather illusory social problem to measure. Sometimes the more widespread corruption is, the harder it is to spot. There’s no gap in the loop. The people who are caught out are often just scapegoats or people that won’t toe the corruption line.

    I don’t know if these issues apply to China’s situation especially as it is changing so quickly but I see how they could be.

    1. Stan Post author

      Your point about corruption is a very good one. There’s a big difference in, for example, low level corruption like a judge who takes a bribe, and a Senator (like in the U.S.) who takes a campaign donation to steer legislation in a way favorable to the donor. Both are forms of corruption. One is recognized as such, one isn’t, at least formally.