Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In search of values

Dec 16, 2008

As China's streets have morphed from the seas of blue and green of the pre-reform days to the riot of colours of today, so its society, too, has been transformed into a vibrant entity. Some would say the Chinese have lost their soul in their pursuit of material well being, but the signs are that they are seeking a value system that can sustain the world's oldest continuous civilisation.

By Goh Sui Noi

MS LI Si, 38, learnt not to trust anyone in Beijing the hard way.

Widowed eight years ago, she left her two young children with her mother in the small city of Yingtan in Jiangxi province to look for work in the nation's capital. She was hired as a domestic helper and was told by her employers to treat them as family. This she was happy to do, waking up at the crack of dawn to work and going to bed late at night.

After a month, she was paid 1,000 yuan (S$220), 200 yuan short of the agreed amount, and told to leave. The reason was that she did not do her job well.

Ms Li felt hurt and angry - and exploited. 'Where I come from, people are honest and simple, but here it's different. They take advantage of you, trick you and take you for a fool,' she said.

Now, after several years of working as a nanny, she is interning at a non-government organisation for women migrant workers, hoping to teach others like her how to protect their rights.

'Migrant workers are hardworking and honest, and work at the dirtiest and most tiring of jobs, but we are looked down upon and bullied,' she said. Yet, if she had not moved to Beijing, she would have been hard pressed to keep her family afloat.

Pursuing individual interests

THREE decades of market reforms have resulted in spectacular economic growth and improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese. But the reforms have also meant the dismantling of the planned economy. The 'iron rice bowl' of Maoist China no longer exists, and as a result, society has become a lot less equal than before. There is a widening income gap between rural and urban areas, coastal and inland regions and within communities.

Social injustice has been exacerbated by corruption and the collusion between government and business, said sociologist Guo Yuhua of Qinghua University. Ideally, there should be balance among the government, market and society, but in China, the social pillar is 'too weak', she said.

'With marketisation, the government should have retreated. But what has happened is that the market and the government have combined to become a powerful entity,' she noted. Thus, migrant workers are owed their salaries and government officials and developers cooperate to forcibly take over people's houses and lands without giving adequate compensation. The disadvantaged are paying the price for reforms but not enjoying the benefits, she added.

Indeed, many of the tens of thousands of protests that occur in China yearly have been staged by unhappy farmers and urban residents who have lost their land through land grabs or have been forcibly evicted from their homes.

Meanwhile, the old cradle-to-grave welfare system - with the danwei or work unit taking care of workers and their families, including their education, housing, health and pensions - has broken down, so people have to learn to take responsibility for themselves.

The government allows movement from the countryside to the city so surplus rural labour can help man the factories of coastal urban centres. Also, urban residents move between cities in search of better jobs. But such mobility has meant the breakdown of old familial ties. In the villages, the most able workers, both men and women, have moved out, leaving behind them old folk, young children and women who take care of both the old and the young as well as farm the land. In urban centres, many old folk no longer live with their children, who may be living in a different city. The old system of caring for the elderly in extended households is disintegrating.

The shift towards a market economy over the past 30 years has meant an increasing emphasis on individual, as opposed to social, interests. This, coupled with the earlier destruction of traditional cultural values and religious practices particularly in the first three decades of communist rule, has produced a pragmatic society - 'achieving one's objectives through means fair or foul', as some analysts have put it.

'People are too focused on practical effectiveness. We are too focused on functionality and lack the pursuit of values,' said Professor Guo.

Vibrant, lively society

BUT the picture is not all bleak.

As population expert Li Xiaoping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted, the dilution of kinship and friendship ties as a result of marketisation makes it easier to develop the rule of law. Such ties have traditionally been impediments to the establishment of rule of law, he said.

Chinese society today is also more pluralistic than before and thus more tolerant. For example, homosexuality is now openly discussed. There is also greater respect for each individual's choice of lifestyle, a growing 'live and let live' attitude, Professor Li said.

'This society is so vibrant and lively,' declared retired professor and women's activist Wu Qing. Many are indeed obsessed with money, but there are also many who do volunteer work. Economically, there are more employment channels and wider opportunities.

In the cities, migrant workers are now treated better than they were in the past as urban residents accept them as a part of their society, Prof Wu said. Urban dwellers used to blame migrant workers for problems such as crowded buses and dirty streets. But during spring festivals, when migrant workers return to the countryside and there is no one to clean their homes, sell produce or take care of the sick, urban residents begin to see the importance of inclusiveness, said Prof Wu.

For Ms Jiao Fangfeng, 26, a teacher's assistant by day in a school for migrant workers' children and a student of business management at a technical college by night, economic reforms and the new mobility meant that she was able to leave her village and broaden her horizons.

The native of Shandong province had a bad start in 2000 when she failed to receive her pay after working for six months in a factory in Yantai city in her home province. The following year, she went to work for a cousin in Beijing as a nanny. She was allowed to attend classes to complete her secondary school education in the morning while her charge was at nursery school. When the child began primary school, she found her current job and moved out to a two-bedroom flat, sharing it with three other migrant workers.

With her new knowledge of law, which she studied as part of her course, she has been able to advise an uncle on a land dispute back home, and another relative who was involved in a car accident. She hopes after graduation to start a business to bring farm produce to the city and urban knowledge to the village through computer classes. If she had remained at home, she would have married early, had a child and led a narrow life, she said.

Asked if she wants to change her residential status from a rural to a city one, she says she sees no urgency to do so.

The household registration system, which divides people into urban and rural residents, was begun by the government in the 1950s to control the movement of people, especially from rural to urban areas.

When reforms first began, rural residents had to get temporary permits to work in the cities. But government policy has changed so much since the early days of reform that although Ms Jiao has a temporary residential permit, she has never had to use it. Some of these residents have not even bothered to apply for such a permit.

This is a far cry from the days when migrant workers without temporary permits were thrown into detention centres and sent home to their villages. Rural residents living in cities, however, are not covered by urban welfare schemes.

Reasons for optimism

PROF Wu noted that with greater exchanges with the outside world, 'we are learning from people outside of China'. People are beginning to care about the environment and they are also more aware of their legal rights as well as social responsibilities, she said. There is a growing civil society, including environmental and human rights groups, some of which operate in grey areas.

Still, there is no denying that social injustice and social contradictions exist and that there is something of a moral vacuum in Chinese society. The government has recognised this and has begun to stress the building of a harmonious society. It has also quietly loosened the reins on religious practices and started to support Chinese cultural traditions, including Confucianism and Daoism.

There is intense intellectual debate as to what should constitute China's value system. Some advocate a revival of Chinese cultural traditions, while others prefer the adoption of a set of universal values such as those embodied in the United Nations' human rights declaration.

Professor Kang Xiaoguang of Renmin University is among those arguing for Confucianism as the basis for 'benevolent' governance. Confucianism, he pointed out, had for centuries 'enriched the people's inner world'.

Professor Daniel Bell, a Canadian teaching at Qinghua University, noted that Confucianism as a social ethic has never really gone away. He suggested that if officials were trained in the Confucian classics, they would rule in a more moral way and be less motivated towards corruption.

Certainly, Confucianism is becoming more popular. There are numerous books on the subject in the market, and Confucianism is now being taught in schools and even universities. There is also a revival of religion - including Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity - indicating that people are searching for spiritual fulfilment.

Pessimists think the Chinese people are degenerating, but there is much to be optimistic about regarding Chinese society.


[The quest for meaning and spirituality fundamental to human nature. We are not all that different.]

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