The onion cart and the BMW: a different perspective

We all know the story about the poor peasant woman who accidentally bumped into a shiny BMW with her onion cart, after which the car owner confronted her and then plowed into her with the car, killing her. (This was possibly an accident.)

After the driver, Mrs. Sun, received a very light sentence, China’s netizens flooded the country’s portals with angry protests, and in a strange and perhaps disturbing bow to populism, Mrs Sun is being retried. (The crime is disturbing, too, don’t get me wrong; but making legal decisions based on heated Internet message board chatter can mark a dangerous precedent.)

While the media are all portraying this as an example of the growing hostility between China’s increasingly separated classes, Andres at Water offers an intriguingly different point of view.

To him, the incident is indicative of “a different and deeper problem in Chinese society: there is no commonly accepted notion of what is right and wrong. Such questions of morality are answered depending on your position in society.”

As the current case shows (but with corruption so endemic in China you have a practically limitless supply of such examples) the person with the most power sets the rules of the game. Which means that in a hundred different situations, with a hundred different people having the most power depending on the situation, there are a hundred possible definitions of right and wrong. And if that extreme relatively is the norm, then in fact there is no norm, no standard, no way to judge what is right and wrong. You simply have a society where rapaciousness is rewarded.

While Friedrich Nietzsche may have dearly believed in his ubermensch, a person who sets his own standards of right and wrong and then seeks to impose them on others through force of will, the sort of society where such an idea is put into effect looks a lot like the China of today. I question where a society of such extreme moral relativism is liveable or desireable.

I honestly cannot say whether Andre’s assertion is true or false. I only know it’s interesting and provocative. Also, after just completing the book The Chinese, it doesn’t sound at all inconsistent with the way things have been in China for many centuries, in terms of justice going to him or her wielding the most power.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

I think there is definately something to the argument about China being morally adrift, unsure about correct standards of behaviour … but at the same time, the particular example of the onion cart seems to me to be an example of something different. In many civilised but pre-modern societies, it was a commonly accepted norm that crimes against and crimes committed by different levels of society would be treated differently. Thus the killing of a lower class woman by an upper class woman would be punished by a fine, while a killing of an upper class woman would probably end up with an execution. In China’s case, I am thinking particularly of the Confucian gentry. There were numerous benefits for passing the civil service exams, not least being immunity from certain types of punishment and interogation.

January 19, 2004 @ 10:39 am | Comment

More on ubermenschen

I did not write my original post as clearly as I should have. I had a feeling going to sleep last night that that was the case, so in response to Roddy’s questions and my feeling that I should better

January 19, 2004 @ 1:31 pm | Comment

The sort of injustice you describe strikes a chord with me. It is this sort of unfairness that inspired me to go into journalism many years ago, and to write this blog.

January 22, 2004 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

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