Trust Issues?

Catching up on my newspapers, I came across this article in last week’s Los Angeles Times about a “crisis of trust” in China:

Even as China surges onto the world stage as if powered by rocket fuel, Earth’s most populous country is beset by trust issues that would test anyone.

Rules aren’t clear and must be navigated on the fly. The food supply is full of life- and health-threatening fakes. Factories spew chemicals into the air and water at alarming rates. Power and connections far outweigh justice, and social tension is growing.

Meanwhile, corrupt local officials pay lip service to Communist Party ideals as they line their pockets at the expense of the general population. Land that farmers have tilled for generations can be seized on a moment’s notice in a system that doesn’t recognize private property. Friends cheat friends and uncles bilk nephews for short-term gain.

Though the widespread insecurity is difficult to quantify, analysts say it is taking an economic and psychological toll, and making governing more difficult.

“China is in a very serious trust crisis,” said Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Peking University and author of the book “On Trust.” “I’d say we’re looking at a minimum of a generation, maybe 20 or 30 years, to recover, but it could take two or three times that long.”

Experts cite several reasons for the dearth of trust. Some point to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and other wrenching political campaigns in the first decades of communist rule that ended centuries-old traditions and forced family members and friends to denounce one another, severing basic human bonds.

“Mutual trust among people because of various political movements has deteriorated to the lowest level that any society can possibly hit,” said Hung Huang, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group and star of the recent film “Perpetual Motion,” about a woman out to determine which of her friends is having an affair with her husband. “There’s also a very different starting point: In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty. In China, you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Others cite the influence of a market economy on a society without a well-developed legal or regulatory system. Some say a lack of religion or meaningful belief system under communism leaves people morally adrift.

The article portrays a China where mistrust pervades every level of society, from food supplies — “There are scandals involving carcinogenic noodles, poisoned melon seeds, waste-filled pancakes, substandard wine and water-injected pork, among others” — to marriages — “Cheating on your spouse and cheating the public are closely related, according to the state-run New China News Agency, which reported last year that 95% of Chinese officials convicted of corruption had mistresses.”

Some of these issues are common to any modern society, where relationships are freuqently impersonal (ask me about my daily experience of road rage here in Los Angeles). So is what’s going on in China unique? Or is it just a matter of degree?

The Discussion: 21 Comments

For me, this is one of the most dismaying things about living in China. So many people cheat each other at the drop of a hat, even people who know each other. When people have no trust for each other, it cannot be surprising if there is also little respect for each other. Five minutes on a busy Chinese street confirms this.

The worst instances occur when someone cheats for trivial personal gain that comes at disproportionately great cost to the other. It’s hard not to feel outrage over these cases.

Sure, poor people everywhere have to do what they can to get by, you can’t blame people in desperate straits for doing what they can to feed their kids. But when people do things like produce infant-killing baby formula, steal donated medical equipment from the orphanage they manage, knowingly use industrial toxins in food production, or steal children on trains, you have to wonder to what extent this kind of thing occurs elsewhere. It seems to me it’s rather more virulent in China than elsewhere – I wish posters with other developing world experience would comment on this.

Like most things, IMO it’s much better here in Shanghai, the younger generation, in particular, showing very great promise. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the situation (at least in the cities) is far better in a single generation.

Funny, as I’ve mentioned before, back in the States, generally speaking, it’s young people who are the least trustworthy and most likely to cause trouble or try to hurt you, while old folks are generally much kinder and more trustworthy.

In China, it’s just the opposite!

October 4, 2006 @ 4:49 pm | Comment

Actually what is said in the above article applies to many developing countries as well. For example India.

India is also facing a lot of the problems cited in the above article like fake food, medicine. Here are some examples:

Like China, India also has many corruption problems and this is causing a lot of social divide. Here are the related articles:

Let’s hope that this is just this is a transitional phase.

October 4, 2006 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

Actually what is said in the above article applies to many developing countries as well. For example India.

India is also facing a lot of the problems cited in the above article like fake food, medicine. Here are some examples:

Like China, India also has many corruption problems and this is causing a lot of social divide. Here are the related articles:

Let’s hope that this is just a transitional phase.

October 4, 2006 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

Many of those atrocious problems are not unique to China. Look back to America circa. 1900. Reread Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. One cannot help but be struck as to the similarities in problems and crisises developing nations all undergo.

October 4, 2006 @ 8:08 pm | Comment

That argument is bogus, teapot. Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell and other muckrakers had complete freedom to publish their exposees, leading to rather swift reforms. Not overnight, but impressively quick – our system worked, the free media could shine its spotlight. And bad as these situation were – and they were often atrocious – they don’t compare with the many documenetd stories of abuse coming out of China, where people’s digits are sliced off daily by machines with no hope of compensation, miners breathing in gold dust that their boss’ could have told them about to take preventive measures…I could list many, many other examples. This comparison with the early 1900s rings so false to me. In the US there was recourse, there were solutions, the media reporeted the horror stories and effected change.

October 4, 2006 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

The problem pervades to all levels, affecting every aspect of life in China. For example, just look at any major tour attractions visited during National Week where the local authorities collaborate with the touts for a quick buck. Students from outside Qingdao are told their student passes are invalid when visting Qingdao attractions and must pay the full fare, but the ticket officer just pockets the difference. Guards and assistants help illegal cab operators by telling tourists that their are no bus or taxi facilities nearby when in actual fact there are. Bus drivers allow fake tour guides to enter the bus and lie to passengers that they should get off the bus here, so they end up paying another ten yuan for a short car ride to the real entrance. When one can trust nobody during a so-called “relaxing vacation”, who will be willing to keep travelling to new places after these experiences? This is how economies falter.

October 4, 2006 @ 9:38 pm | Comment

Though I overall agree with Richard, I’d also agree with Swirling Teapot that you will find problems of this sort in just about any large society undergoing massive social changes. I would think in China, a country that has been pretty insular for much of its history and has always depended on family as the primary means of organization, this transition to a more urban society – and the attempts to build a civil society on the fly would be especially wrenching.

Okay, that sounds pretty garbled, but I haven’t had much coffee yet.

October 5, 2006 @ 1:24 am | Comment

The difference between China and most of the rest of the developed world and even the developing world is that in orher places the rule of law exists and is enforced because the governed have assented to be ruled. In China from the top down there is no rule of law, no government for the people. The CCP exists to further its own aims (I know, I know there are those in the party who actually want to make a better society and there are continual reforms and ya-da, ya-da, ya-da) at the expense of the entire country.

Laws are not enforced universally because there are no consequences for their lack of enforcement. To whom is one to complain? Is China the only country suffering from this lack trust in personal, political, and economic relationships? No. Is China a worst case example of the lack of civil society? Almost.

At every level, there are plenty of Chinese people who have an amazing work ethic, a sense of duty and pride and personal integrity. Yet, I think that the system in which they find themselves does not reward them for their efforts. Everyone is persecuted by unbelievable bureaucracy. There is a lack of personal or political or corporate responsibility.

Yes, the basic assumptions in life as we know it in the West are missing too. The sanctity and value of life is missing. Value is placed more on saving face and covering up mistakes and ignorance than on the truth. Even the education system from primary school through post graduate work is steeped in ignorance. 20 to 30 years to change? There are days when it seems an unreachable goal. Maybe it will be more like 100 years. By then though the population may have poisoned itself with industrial waste or smoked itself to death.

October 5, 2006 @ 1:48 am | Comment

The trust problem in China is worse than almost any other nations because there is a lack of religion and years of oppression under the communist government. It is going to take a long time to rectify the problem.

October 5, 2006 @ 3:06 am | Comment

richard, I understand my comparison with the U.S. touched upon some nerves, as your American, and I agree that its indeed hamfisted. But think about it, America at the time (1900) was among the most “civilized” and “advanced” nations, yet it still had those kinds of problems. Now imagine China, which is really just starting to crawl into the current globalized, post modern world less than a generation ago, with more than a BILLION people thrown in with an ages old tradition of despotic authoritarianism. The problem then becomes exponentially and staggeringly larger. Perspective is often times needed.

October 5, 2006 @ 3:36 am | Comment

Ahmet, spot on.

October 5, 2006 @ 4:28 am | Comment

ll I’ll say is that I’m leaving China soon, to go back to a real civilisation in the West.

Mao and the Communist Pigs destroyed Chinese civilisation.

Deal with it. Don’t fool yourseves. Just deal with it. China is a savage, barbarian country, because of Mao and the Communist Party. And China will remain in a Dark Age for many generations to come, because of what the Communists did to China.

China is a savage, barbarian country. The Communist Party has made it so.

Don’t deny it. Deal with it.

October 5, 2006 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

When richard is on, he’s on.

October 5, 2006 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

My law firm has been doing legal working involving Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. We have seen Russian companies steal $200,000 in a deal that would have given them a million a year for five years. We have seen a Russian company lose its chief supplier of an absolutely critical commodity by lying on a matter they had to have known we would catch. BUT, I have also seen companies like this fall by the wayside to be replaced by companies that understand trust is important for doing business for the long term.

My theory (well, not really my theory, but the one I adopted from others) with respect to Russia was that people were quick to lie and steal because they simply did not believe the non-communist quasi free market system was for the long term. They were so used to the government promising something and then turning around and doing something else that they did not really believe in any long term, so why not get whatever you can now while the getting is good.

Could there be an aspect to this in China? I have read that the Chinese do not really trust the permenence of their quasi-capitalist system either, so maybe that is the cause of their short term thinking. If so, there is a chance things will improve with time.

Richard’s comment regarding young people in China being more trustworthy (I agree with this) also bears this out. Trust is a huge problem in China and it is great you did this post on it.

October 5, 2006 @ 1:52 pm | Comment

To clarify, it was Shanghai Slim who made the observation about younger people being more trustworthy (and, erm, I did the post).

October 5, 2006 @ 3:08 pm | Comment

The trust issue also affects China’s business dealings with other countries: I know of many European companies which have been tricked out of large sums of money, patents, seemingly secure contracts, you name it by Chinese firms. At the moment the rush to get a foothold in China is still so strong that most companies are willing to consider this a regrettable but inevitable business expense, but this won’t be the case forever. Sadly, these practices are also catching on in previously trustworthy Taiwan. A string of recent business scandals involving Chinese and Taiwanese companies (Nanjing Auto, BenQ, to name but two…) has left Europeans very angry.

October 5, 2006 @ 4:03 pm | Comment

Swirling Teapot said:

richard, I understand my comparison with the U.S. touched upon some nerves, as your American

Richard is not sensitive to criticism of the US. The articles he posts and his comments are proof of that. Stick to the issue, Teapot, and don’t dismiss a person’s comments on the basis of their nationality.

October 5, 2006 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

Off topic, but why is it that people who promise to never post again can never help themselves from posting again. I’m not pointing out any names here coughAhmed&Ivancough, but for real yo.

October 5, 2006 @ 10:40 pm | Comment

Don’t fool yourselves. Young Chinese don’t trust you either. No Chinese trust anyone that is not family. And if you are not family it’s fair game to screw you as well. Sad but true.
There are no fair compairisons between Chinese society and any other, past or present, developing nation. They are a unique breed. They have been oppressed for thousands of years, and this was compounded by Mao’s reign. Because of Mao, China today is still a peasant society. No one since 1949 has taught these people any morals or values. The majority of the rich folk today were farmers yesterday. They don’t understand how a civilised society behaves, nor are they capable of teaching the next generation. China has a long way to go and she desperately needs guidance.

October 5, 2006 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

We need a generation at least that has gone through the cultural revolution (manipulated by the CCP) to foresake their most intrinsic cultural instinct of respecting elders and the rule of law then. Mao and his hence men were monsters. I believe Russia and FSU countries are going thru similar circumstances.

October 6, 2006 @ 12:35 pm | Comment

It may take a few generations. But I am ultimatly optimistic. The reason the comparison with the US 100 years ago is so idiotic is that the US was mainly a country of immigrants who brought with them their Western European Enlightenment values. Generally. Those values determine America’s persona – there are lots of exceptions in various ethnic groups, but there’s no denying this is the fabric of America, certainly of our Constitution and laws, our near obsession with free speech and the universal rights of man. China at this stage is missing this. Even when America was rough and mean, we still had rule of law (not always practiced sucessfully, but ultimately triumphant) and a free press – the two huge missing links necessary for China’s evolution. The Enlightenment permeated all aspects of America’s evolution (thank God for our Founding Fathers), and despite some gross disconects that occurred because it was a different age – imperialism, slavery, racism – our self-correcting system worked better than any other the world has known. At least until Bush came along and ruined everything.

Teapot, you didn’t hit any nerve. You merely repeated a tired, droning, ignorant argument I’ve been hearing for years, based on a lack of understanding of what America was truly like 100 years ago. While there were lots of nasty things happening, we were also biilding the world’s great museums, cultural centers and univiersities and nurturing the most prosperous middle class in the history of the planet. And you couldn’t take the people’s land away at whim or arrest them arbitrarily. As long as China operates as a police state with no rule of law or free press, all parallels with the progression of America ring false.

To others here: I am racing through Vietnam with only occasional Internet acess. I’ll try to post later in the week. Huge thanks to the guest bloggers!!

October 7, 2006 @ 12:48 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.