Bowling Alone … in China: The Foshan Incident and its Meaning


Morality is a hotly debated political and social topic in present-day China. Tongues click and heads shake as increasing materialism is blamed for what is perceived and openly described as low social mores.  I remember my Chinese tutor in Nanjing last year was never shy in lamenting against what she saw as rising selfishness in Chinese society.

The very popular dating show, “You are the One” (非诚勿扰fei cheng wu rao), had a widely talked about episode where a Harvard Grad declined to choose any of the female contestants. When he asked the two remaining female contestants what would they do if they won 10 million dollars, one answered that she would give it to her mother; the other answered that she would continue living the same way. He rejected both girls: neither apparently opted to donate the money or give back to society.

Last year, the string of attacks against kindergarten students and the number of suicides by migrant workers had the Chinese media talking endlessly about psychological stress arising from the contemporary economic rat-race.

The most recent incident occurred in Foshan, Guangdong. In this incident a two-year old toddler was struck by two vehicles and left – as it turned out – to die as 18 onlookers walked by without any effort to assist the toddler. Finally a garbage collector called for help. Netizens have roundly decryed the moral state of post-reform China.

But is the Foshan incident really a question of low morals in China? Was my tutor right?

To characterize the problem as an absence of morality neglects the fact that Confucius values deeply permeate Chinese society. Principles like Filial Piety, which demands respect for one’s parents and ancestors, still resonant with Chinese youth today. Responsibility to one’s family is particularly strong in China, whereas responsibility to the society and to fellow citizens is markedly limited.

Probing this dichotomy between Confucian values and the lack of community sensibility is far more interesting than declaring that there is no sense of responsibility among citizens. To cite modernization as the culprit misses the mark about the real lack of social capital in China.  The inchoate development of civil society explains weak social trust beyond the family unit and compounds the social consequences of economic growth.

Party officials have often combated what they saw as the social ills of free market capitalism. In the 1990s the campaign against Spiritual Pollution was launched to stop the flow of pornography along with remnants of western pop culture from Hong Kong. At the time, the Campaign was highly political as it reflected a faction’s opposition with the pace of reform. Today Party officials in different parts of China appear to fight crime and social malaise with two strategies; a revival of socialist principles and the revival of Confucius values.

In Chongqing, Party Secretary Bo Xilai has gained tremendous popularity with his campaign to tackle organized crime. He is also credited for the revival of Red Culture with the return of Red Songs and the replacement of commercial advertisement on Chongqing Satellite TV with social advertisements and public service announcements (PSA). In January 2011, a statue of Confucius was erected in Tiananmen Square, reflecting an attempt by Party officials to utilize China’s Confucius history to shape moral and social discourse. The statue’s removal to an indoor location a few months later reflects perhaps schisms within the party about its ideological identity.

Today, Communist ideology no longer shapes societal goals and values. And when the Party is split over its own ideological direction and struggles to find its relevance, it leaves citizens unsure about their civic responsibility.

Moreover the monopoly of power by the Party restricts meaningful development of the third sector.  There has been a proliferation of charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to address a range of social problems: environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS and the plight of migrant workers. They have been accorded limited space as they provide services that assist the state. Volunteerism is also highly encouraged among Chinese youth. The 2008 Chinese Olympics attracted over 1.5 million applicants. Jackie Chan was also featured in a PSA that extolled the role of the Olympics’ young volunteers.

The Party accords limited political and social space for NGOs to operate; and it is willing to contract or eliminate it at will. After the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, there was an outpouring of donations and young people flocked to the site of the disaster. However when it came to light that local officials were implicated in the poor construction of many of the buildings, there was clampdown on the work of civil society groups.  It was Ai Wei Wei’s attempt to account for the number of student deaths that got him in trouble with authorities.

When Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, he talked about the erosion of social capital in the US; voter turnout, political engagement and membership to civic associations were on the wane. For Putnam, social institutions play a vital role in forging social trust and the norm of reciprocity. While western democracies seek to reinvigorate activism and participation, in China, social capital is weak as a result of the Party’s prerogatives.Restrictions on civil society limit the space for Chinese citizens to develop a sense responsibility to each other.

The Foshan case is less about a moral vacuum in China, as it is about a society in need of a stronger third sector and a hegemonic Party still unwilling to cede it.

Photo Credit: Palmo Tenzin

Is China Faking it?

When news about the fake Apple store in Kunming China broke out, it further reinforced the image of China as the Mecca of knock-offs. From 50 renminbi (RMB) for a pair of Ray Bans to 10 RMB for a DVD, fake goods are ubiquitous in China. Virtually every city has a fake goods market with merchants lined up in stalls, shouting ‘hello’ to the nearest foreigner and lighting bags on fire to prove the authenticity of their leather. The case of the fake Apple store reflects a copying culture that is very common and part of popular culture. The global attention the country receives elicits more laughs than shame from ordinary Chinese.

Even native brands – that target the Chinese market – struggle to find their own voice and borrow heavily from the west. Li Ning, a maker in sports apparel and active footwear, is one of the most successful domestic brands in China and competes with the likes of Nike and Adidas. It is however a mirror image of Nike. I mean literally, flip Nike’s logo and you got Li Ning Ltd. Its slogan also captures the same drive and ambition in Nike’s Just do it, with its mantra, Anything is Possible. Although in July, the company did introduce a slightly altered logo and a new slogan, Make the Change – as you can see it’s a real game changer!

China’s current development strategy relies on a number of joint ventures with foreign companies, with its main objective being to secure knowledge and technology transfers. For instance, the development of China’s high-speed railway network led to a competitive bidding war among foreign companies, among them included Canada’s Bombardier. A major criticism in the aftermath of the train crash in Wenzhou is that quality, oversight and safety were compromised as the Government sought to accelerate the expansion of high speed railways and adopt foreign technology to in turn allow Chinese companies to innovate and export the technology. The Chinese, it seems, have been successful in appropriating the technology. Chinese companies have already helped with the development of high-speed rails in India and Brazil.

In response to the widely acknowledged copying culture, the Chinese education system is often blamed for failing to breed creativity and innovation. The test-based education system (应试) creates a generation of young people who are superior test takers. Beginning with primary school, the educational experience focuses on preparing students for a series of entrance exams, the most important one being the annual National Entrance Exam (高考). The education system tends to overemphasize the use of tests to evaluate performance and rewards rote memory over critical thinking.

So, when it comes to the China threat question, the lack of innovation and the human capital and technology gap are major hurdles to the country’s rise. However on the other hand, while Lining is not likely to compete with Nike in the global market in the near future; and neither will brands like Haier or Tsingdao replace GE or Budweiser, they can potentially edge out foreign brands in the domestic market and in other non-Western markets.

Many Chinese brands are making a name for themselves in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Years of having American cars like Jeep sell to the Chinese market has led to the growth of Chinese companies, like Chery who are seeing significant growth in the Middle East and North Africa. While I was travelling in Anji, home to a vast bamboo forest, I visited a clothing wholesaler whose wide collection of active wear, sleep wear and even business wear are made out of bamboo. I assumed they were a supplier for Chinese retailers, but a sales rep proudly explained they were well-established in Southeast Asia and had buyers in France. It was certainly ironic that the country with the largest C02 emissions is able to produce a green eco-friendly company that has the capacity to tap into the European market.

There is no doubt that fake Guccis and Burberrys are aplenty in China. But the rise of domestic Chinese brands signals an important and major step in the country’s development. And although these brands tend to be an import of western ideas rather than a distinctive approach to attract the Chinese middle class, one does have to credit them for being sophisticated replicas. And in the area of technology, the import of foreign goods may eventually lead to their demise. The Chinese are acutely aware of their global image as a factory of cheap goods and their desire to change it is just as apparent.

While both Chinese and Westerners scoff at the fake Apple store, it is easy to be dismissive and overlook that counterfeiting and copying is perhaps more of a phase in the economic growth of native Chinese firms.  It may also represent the conduit to the country’s future innovation and success.


Image Credit: Palmo Tenzin

From the Bottom Up

[Editorial Note:  It is with pleasure that this humble blogger introduces a new blogger to the Rising BRICSAM site.  Evelyn Chan was a former student of mine at the Munk School and a research assistant.  I have persuaded Evelyn to periodically write about her experiences as a student in China – “From the Bottom Up”]

Most people envision an epic battle scene in a bamboo forest with a sword-wielding Chow Yan Fat when they hear Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very few know that the name originates from the former Chinese capital –Nanjing. Situated in the prosperous Jiangsu province, a part of the eastern region where the Yangtze River flows, Nanjing has always held an important place in China’s nation-building narrative. Serving as the capital under ten different dynasties and under the Kuomintang, and the site of the worst atrocities of Japan’s wartime occupation of China, the city noticeably straddles between its rich history and its rapid development. Its historic Wu Tong trees line city streets, which are marked by condo developments and shopping centres.

I found myself in Nanjing, having been placed by the China Scholarship Council at Nanjing University, one of the most prestigious universities in China, ranking among the top five nationwide, and the alma mater of former President Jiang Zemin.  Perhaps stemming from a calculated policy of “soft power”, many foreign students have been been endowed with generous scholarships by either the Chinese Ministry of Education or by the many Confucius Institutes worldwide. Could mastering Mandarin really create a generation of foreigners sympathetic to China’s rise?  Seems unlikely.

My time in China allowed me to be part of living history and observe a rapidly pluralizing country. Rather than battling an institution that towed the party line or a disengaged public, I was taken aback by the candidness and pragmatism of many of the Chinese I met. Too often in the news, the power of the Communist Party of China (CPC)  is given so much credence, that the astuteness, scepticism and diversity in opinions of the Chinese population goes unrecognized.

For me this blog series is not to offer a prediction of how China will look like in 25 years, not even the apparatchiks in Beijing can you tell that. Rather, I’d like to share a range of encounters that has informed my understanding of Chinese society and may give you, the blog reader of Rising BRICSAM, a bit better sense of the evolving China – “from the bottom up”.

The most lasting impression I take away from my days in China is how differently as a Chinese Canadian I was treated .  Visibly looking Chinese did not give me an edge; rather it proved to be more of a liability. Differential treatment on the basis of skin colour is an unfortunate reality in China, even in such a big metropolitan city as Nanjing.

Chinese laborers arriving in Canada and the US near the turn of the century came mainly from Guangdong and Fujian. When Sun Yat Sen, the first leader of modern China, and a native of Guangdong, envisioned the new modern China, it included the return of overseas Chinese. Their education and experience abroad were crucial to the revolution and the rebuilding of post-dynastic China, so Sun Yat Sen thought. Sun held an ethnic notion of Chinese identity that went beyond the borders of the state. A pan-Chinese identity however does not exist today. For instance I could not tell people I was 中国人(zhong guo ren, Chinese). Native Chinese take that to mean I am a Chinese citizen. While in the West, being Chinese carries an ethnic connotation rather than a national one.

The identity of the Chinese Diaspora resides stronger in the South, while this is less true in the North. Even though the CPC today has sought to restore ties with overseas communities in an effort to increase remittance flows and investment, there is no rite of return for Overseas Chinese. While Sun claimed they were the Mother of the Revolution, they do not have a meaningful place in the national narrative of post-reform China. I was either met with disappointment by teachers and strangers for not knowing the language or not as a real foreigner by those who dote on exotic-looking expats.

Both my parents were born in Guangdong and spoke a distinct dialect that is audibly distinct from Mandarin. While I knew Cantonese, I like many CBCs and ABCs could not read or write or speak Mandarin. My Chinese face and my broken Mandarin accent, most likely created some dissonance among the locals I first interacted with.  I was often responded with: “你是韩国人吗?” (Ni Shi Han Guo Ren Ma?, Are you Korean?). When I said no, they then asked, “你是日本人吗?” (Ni Shi Ri Ben Ren Ma?, Are you Japanese?). When I said no again, I got a puzzled look and silence. When I said I’m a 华裔(Hua Yi/Foreign-born  Chinese), I got the “Oh, I get it!” expression and a good chuckle.

However when going out with a group of visibly foreign students, the Chinese automatically designated me the 翻译 (fan yi, translator). This often led to taxi drivers and waitresses yelling at me for my incompetent translating skills. When travelling to 庐山, Chinese teenagers asked to take photos with my Caucasian friends, while I watched on the side. They appeared to be the dollar-wielding, exotic foreigners,  and I the hired help. Many of my classmates, given their appearance have had the opportunity to host TV game shows or model for obscure Chinese clothing brands and car expos, earning about 1000 renminbi for a shoot.

I on the other hand could not for several months find a part time job teaching English. During my interviews, most of my potential employers bluntly said they were expecting someone with blonde hair. I was also told, it’s not about the teaching; it’s about the reputation of the school. While private centres willingly hire French, German or Czech expats, which will inevitably cause many Chinese students to develop interesting English accents, none would so willingly hire a foreign-born Chinese. Private centres, especially ones teaching young children are reluctant to hire overseas Chinese. They increase their cachet as a school that offers foreign teachers. One look at me, and parents would complain that the school hired a native and that they were cheated out of their money.  Looking to avoid a fight with overprotective parents, most employers just don’t bother.

This is not say that racism is widely prevalent or that no one could guess I was foreign-born – it happened once while climbing the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan. Currently, the discussion about race is limited to Han and Minzu (minority nation) identities, ie Tibetan, Uyghur. While globalization has created hyphenated identities and multicultural communities in other countries, it has yet to reach China, despite its integration into the global economy. This will likely change in the future. While we are certainly seeing the rise of China in economic terms, the social effect of China’s development is still playing out, especially in terms of race and identity.

This is also not to say that I couldn’t use my identity to my advantage. An American friend who is completing his Master’s degree in Classical Chinese literature complained that he could never be accepted as Chinese despite his fluency and knowledge of Chinese history and culture. He noted that it’s difficult for Chinese people to overlook his identity and to engage in more deeper discussions. He claims there is a level of trust that my sameness in appearance can create, allowing for a more frank conversation. It probably took a decade for 大山 - Da Shanthe Ottawa-born and only white personality on CCTV, to be seen as one of China’s own. If I keep my sentences short, people right away think I am Chinese.

By the end of my time in China, I handled my identity question with grace – I think.  The yelling with taxi drivers ceased as my Mandarin improved and we would banter about my accent.  As my friends’ Chinese improved, they defended me and angrily yelled back that I was not their translator. Perhaps the most touching moment was when my Chinese teacher, a lady in her 60s who worked in the coal mines during the Cultural Revolution, telephoned me to wish me a safe journey home. She poignantly said that as a foreign-born Chinese, I should continue to study Chinese politics and society. I had a responsibility to return home with better knowledge of the country. She never singled me out in class because I was a foreign-born Chinese, but in this private discussion, she recognized that I had a unique connection to China and to her.