All of the Sinica podcasts are outstanding, but the latest is one where you want to stop what you’re doing and listen to it with your complete attention.
To talk about a lack of morality in China that results in people’s driving away from the victim they’ve driven over, or even going back to run them over again so they don’t have to pay the medical bills, is playing with dynamite. Trolls will automatically produce a list of dreadful things Americans have done, leaving scenes of accidents, failing to help a woman, like Kitty Genovese, after she had been stabbed in front of them, etc. But stories like Kitty Genovese are iconic, seared in the public memory and covered in all the media because they are so shocking and outside the norm of the typical response. They are also far less common than those stories of heroism,in which someone risked their life to save another.
The podcast notes wonderful examples of Chinese acting with incredible bravery to save the lives of others, such as a bus driver mortally wounded who “pilots his bus to safety and manages to get everyone off the bus before expiring himself.” And there’s no doubt stories like that abound. But they seem to be outnumbered by stories of extreme selfishness and an unwillingness to come to the aid of others. When I first moved to China, one of the first things my new boss told me was that if I walked down a busy Chinese street and saw someone unconscious on the sidewalk most people would walk right by and offer no assistance.
There could be many reasons for this, as the podcast explains. Maybe China simply has so many people that being a Good Samaritan is impractical. Maybe it harkins back to the brutal nature of the Cultural Revolution, or to the new spirit of selfishness that came with reform and opening up. But it is nothing new. Luxun famously criticized the Chinese for their lack of values and morality 80-some years ago, writing about “the man-eating society where the strong devour the weak.” The Chinese people themselves believe today’s China is in many ways a moral vacuum, and the government in the past has launched campaigns to heighten awareness of adhering to moral values. But the government may also be a source of the problem, with its corruption, where in order to get ahead you often have to be cutthroat. The podcast also looks at the traditional Chinese mindset of caring for one’s family, not for society as a whole.
The point being that many, many Chinese themselves have been critical about their society’s lack of morality. That’s why the recent recent photo of a Westerner sitting down with an old woman beggar and sharing his French fries with her created such a sensation even in the Chinese media, including social media, where he was hailed as a hero, with questions raised about the lack of Chinese who would do the same. Xinhua reported:
In fact, the story of the “French Fry Brother” and the poor granny has not been the first “wake-up call” prompting Chinese to reflect upon a general tendency to be apathetic toward those in need.
A two-year-old girl who was hit by two vehicles on a market street and subsequently ignored by 18 passersby died in hospital in October 2011.
The nineteenth pedestrian, a migrant woman collecting trash, pulled Wang Yue to the side of the street and alerted the girl’s mother.
The death of “Little Yue Yue” triggered a nationwide wave of mourning as well as public outcry for mutual love and concern.
“We should offer our helping hand to those in danger or trouble, and, of course, with less hesitation,” microblogger “Nuannuan” wrote. “Others may give the granny some money, but a foreigner offers respect and warmth.”
Of course, this triggered a wave of counter-arguments about how the media is fawning over examples of foreign kindness and ignoring the virtues of the Chinese. This was, however, Xinhua.
The Sinica roundtable discusses whether religion, like Buddhism or Christianity, might provide a set of guidelines, like the Ten Commandments, that might steer the Chinese in a moral direction. This is a surefire way to infuriate nationalistic Chinese who see Christianity as a tool of imperialism. And of course, at least some branches of Christianity come with their own built-in lack of morality, such as hatred toward gays and denying a woman the right to choose to end a pregnancy, and more.
They also note that social media like Weibo have thrust examples of immorality and selfishness into the public limelight. Perhaps there is no moral vacuum, just a new fixation on high-profile examples that win public attention? (I don’t think so.)
I would step into this minefield and make my own argument, but the podcast does it for me. I have to congratulate the bravery and forthrightness of the panelists, who delve into this incredibly divisive and explosive topic. In no way do they ignore the many acts of courage, selflessness and the willingness of heroes to put themselves in harm’s way to help others. (Many of these Chinese are Christians, for what that’s worth. For the record, I am an atheist and no great champion of Christianity.)
Do not miss this podcast. It touches on a super-charged topic that many of us are unwilling to discuss, and looks at the many possible reasons for why morality in China is where it is today.
My blog has discussed the concept of mamu many times. The phenomenon of Chinese people being so splendid as individuals with their family members and friends, and then becoming quite different people out in public, where it’s purely dog eat dog and where cheating and stepping on others can be the norm. This podcast is the best discussion of the topic I’ve ever heard.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.