China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2006/Jun

A harmonious society

The Bible contains the Ten Commandments and Buddhism has the Eight Precepts. When Hu Jintao, president of China and also chairperson of the Communist Party, addressed the National People’s Congress in April, he listed eight do’s and don’ts:

Love the motherland. Do not harm it.
Serve the people. Don’t disserve them.
Uphold science. Don’t be ignorant.
Work hard. Don’t be lazy.
Be united and help each other. Don’t gain benefits at the expense of others.
Be honest and trustworthy. Don’t profiteer at the expense of your values.
Be disciplined and law-abiding. Don’t be chaotic and lawless.
Know plain living and hard struggle. Do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

Behind Hu’s list

These “Eight Glories and Eight Disgraces”, as they are also called, did not spring from a historical vacuum. Many nations have put patriotism first, as China has in recent years. “Serve the people” wei renmin fuwu (為人民服務) was Mao Zedong’s favourite slogan. Marxism has always taken pride in being scientific. All the other do’s and don’ts made perfect sense in old China. They also sound reasonable and laudable in the 21st century in any nation. The stress on unity, discipline, plain living and struggle echoes the sacrifices of the Jiangxi Soviet, the Long March and the Yan’an Spirit. Putting such austere values into practice enabled the party to survive the long struggle against the Nationalist Chinese and the Japanese invaders. Memory can be selective, but many senior citizens look back nostalgically to the early years of new China and praise the idealism and lack of corruption of the early 1950s.

Filling a moral vacuum

Hu’s eight admonitions spring from a moral vacuum. China has changed enormously since the death of Mao in 1976. China opened its doors and windows to the outside world, so a number of bugs flew in. Yet the country was never as free of internal pests as the Chinese media had boasted. The plagues of corruption and bribery were listed on the death certificates of previous dynasties and regimes, at least as contributing causes. These proved harder to eradicate than animal pests. In 1958, there was a campaign to eliminate the Four Pests si hai (四害): flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows. Sparrows made the list since they eat grain, but they also eat insects. Killing sparrows led to a population explosion of bugs, so the tiny birds were rehabilitated in 1959 and bedbugs took their place on the list of public enemies.

Once thought to be an extinct species, corrupt officials are back with a vengeance. English is not the only language to label unhealthy physical, business and administrative environments as dirty or polluted. Wuran (污染) describes water or air pollution, while an atmosphere of bribery is labeled tanwu (貪污) for “greed + filth.” With growing wealth and a widening gap between rich and poor, city and countryside, coastal areas and the interior, tanwu is creating an explosive situation.

What can be done to create e a harmonious society? The party aims to discipline itself. Chairman Hu is a firm believer in party discipline, but he is not the first such believer. A decade ago an article in the China Daily on corruption began with the quote, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” then immediately added: “not necessarily!” The article proceeded to list ways in which the party was policing itself by finding and uprooting cadres who had misused their authority. In 2006, party members, who are required to be atheists, are studying and memorising the “Eight Glories and Eight Disgraces” and urged to put them into practice.

Frugality versus consumerism

Perhaps the most problematic pair of admonitions is “Know plain living and hard struggle. Do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.” An introductory economics book describes the Paradox of Thrift: If everyone buys only the essentials and saves the rest of their income, then those who sell luxuries will go out of business and let their employees go. If everyone is thrifty, then the economy goes into a depression. On one hand, the party is urging its 68 million members – and indirectly all the newly rich in China – to live simply. On the other hand, the market is advertising name brand items while the government exults in economic growth!

On a deeper level, what is the purpose of life? To obtain wealth and pleasure? If everyone in China were rich, would they be happy or bored? As Protestant Bishop Ding Guangxun (丁光訓) said years ago, “Communists want China to be strong one day, with everyone educated, healthy and prosperous. So do I! When that day comes, they predict that religion will disappear. We’ll see! But if we Christians are right, then people will still have needs which Christianity can fulfill.”

Praise for Buddhism

For the common people today, religion is no longer opium but an option. Buddhism is attracting new adherents, many of them educated, white collar young adults. Competition in business is ferocious and everyone is in a hurry. People are looking for peace and inner strength. So Buddhists are using the Internet and modern language to explain the fundamentals of their faith to busy professionals.

The World Buddhist Forum sponsored an international forum in Zhejiang Province from April 13-16. Over 500 scholars, monks and sisters from China and several other nations attended. The theme was “A harmonious world begins in the mind.” Modern technology is simply a tool to get the message to a new generation. The social responsibilities of Buddhism include promoting harmony among people and harmony with the natural environment. Buddhism can promote peace, international understanding and dialogue rather than conflict. Government officials had high praise for the contribution of Buddhism to Chinese culture. Chinese newspapers editorialised that everyone can learn from Buddhist moral values without needing to convert to Buddhism. In stark contrast to the violence of the Cultural Revolution which began 40 years ago, the government now values Buddhism as a teacher of morality and social stability.

Christians and Muslims have fewer followers and questionable international links. Their revival does not generate nearly as much official publicity as does Buddhism. Yet last Christmas, a Catholic bishop preached “We should not feel envious when we see people with more money than ourselves.”

Confucius restored

The government backs the philosophy of Confucius and Confucian academies popularising Chinese culture and language are opening everywhere. Confucius’ stress on harmony among all people and between people and heaven (meaning nature, not God, as the media are quick to clarify) is held up to the global community as worth imitating. In the 1890s, the impact of foreign power and domestic discontent made the old imperial system creak. Reformers then hailed Confucius as a reformer and reinterpreted him as an advocate of democracy. In 2006, Confucius has returned as a supporter of the existing political system, with a new role, that of patron saint of ecology.

From this quick sketch, it seems that China is casting a wide net for all the help it can get to help people cope with the tensions of a new century and to be law abiding, altruistic, and upright citizens.

Why bother to be ethical?

But why be moral at all? From childhood, people have an annoying tendency to ask “Why should I? What’s in it for me?” If they get slapped for asking this question aloud, they will still whisper it to themselves. In 2004, a study showing a statistical link between belief in hell and economic growth caused a brief stir. In countries where a greater percentage of people believe in punishment after death for sins committed during this life, there is less corruption and more hard work. Mainland news media did not report this story.

Healing the scars of the Cultural Revolution

If there was one decade during the past 5,000 years when both private and public morality in China hit bottom, it was the “ten lost years” of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. That was a traumatic assault on everything old and traditional, on Confucianism and on all religions. It not only killed hundreds of thousands, but also scarred and disoriented the entire population. The aim was to “smash the four olds”: old ideas, culture, customs and habits. Yet on this May 16, the 40th anniversary of the start of the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution, there was dead silence in China. Print, radio and TV did not mention it, while there were reports of authorities strongly discouraging any discussion of the anniversary in public or on the Internet. How sad! Sweeping dirt under the rug does not make it vanish and repressed memories are guaranteed to return to haunt families to the third and fourth generation and to render societies dysfunctional.

South Africa, Guatemala and especially Rwanda have recently emerged from years of brutality. Truth commissions have compiled lists of names of the victims and given the survivors a chance to talk. With a mixture of amnesties and prison sentences, society has slowly begun to heal. “Christian” countries should never have inflicted such damage on themselves in the first place, but now perhaps the Christian belief in the forgiveness of sins is helping the process of reconciliation. In laying a solid foundation for a more ethical future, could China have something to learn from those nations?