China : No blueprint for tomorrow

Mr. Thaddee Henry

During a press conference at the end of February 2012, to present a document encouraging religious groups to engage in charitable activities, a representative of the China State Administration for Religious Affairs declared that the Party and the government have always recognized the positive contribution of believers in the overall development of the country. The document was rather well received by Catholic Church groups as a sign of possible decrease of administrative hurdles when they wish to participate in society. It, indeed, sounds quite differently compared to what was said to priests in one place when they proposed to help poor people: No, your activities are limited to the compound of your Church and should be of religious character. The point of reporting the document is that it may be the expression of a “call for service” in order to promote stability, or harmonious society, when facing extraordinarily rapid changes, and a lower economic growth rate for the near future in the country. [1]

The new government team in Beijing has committed itself to pursuing reforms. At least on the economic front. The leaders are aware of problems inside the Party which may jeopardize its credibility, so its legitimacy. Ordinary citizens are often very defiant where they want their rights to be respected, as evidenced by the great number of manifestations. Mechanisms inside the Party and the ways police or other guardians of public order deal with such protests raise a lot of questions, but of course are not open to public scrutiny. Harassments of lawyers are just an example of this. In China, so it appears, people are not looking for sensitive information, but are mainly fighting against mal-practice, to use a mild word. They dare to do it, not to challenge the regime. Nevertheless, imbalances in society are to be kept under control to avoid too wide and too deep dissatisfaction. [2]

One of the most obvious imbalances is illustrated by the “Gini index”, measuring the gap between rich and poor. A recent report by academics gives the alarming figure of 0.61. One explained that China, still a developing country, will resolve the problem later when economy reaches a new maturity. It is also true that economists and social scientists are discussing Gini calculation and signification, with different results. Related to it, and very significant for China, is the fast emergence of middle-class. The unanticipated consequences of such evolution remain to be studied more comprehensively. To understand resentment among Chinese people, for instance, it would be necessary to define more accurately the concept of middle-class and its contour, since much of the feeling of unfairness comes from “relative deprivation”. China, which knew egalitarianism at a low level imposed for ideological reasons, now experiences social phenomena already known in more developed  societies, and will so have more difficulty to stress “Chinese characteristics”, and consequently many aspects of its political regime. [3]

It remains that, according to results of surveys, authoritarianism is till now largely accepted in the country; it is perceived as the best guarantee for the majority of individual interests. It does not preclude, however, “seismic” underground movements, still hesitating to surface. Among all socio-economic groups, the poor, in hamlets or cities, strive first for survival. Many villagers migrate to urban areas, manufacturing zones, or places in full construction fever; they try their chance where they hope to find work. Some succeed beautifully, at a heavy price, without intention to go back permanently to their village of origin; others, with the same mind-set, but less economic success, join low levels of middle-class. It is largely proclaimed and believed that if you work hard, success will come. A far too simplistic statement, forgetting others intervening parameters, like personal stamina, health, and connections. Actually a fair number of Chinese are becoming more articulate when expressing aspirations for a better balance between individualism prompted by the understanding that one must ultimately rely on oneself, astute navigation among networks for mutual benefits, and care for others.[4]

A reshaping of Chinese society, still in search of social norms, is on the making. Some have become very rich, not necessarily because of ethically sub-standards. Many white-collars try their best along the line of social-mobility, without much of political ambition and interest. As for workers in cities, where now the majority of Chinese population lives, we have to wait for the second generation to grow up and become mature participants of urban society to which they now belong. But already new trends are showing that they are not ready to accept anything anymore.  Even among peasants in the countryside, those who are living close to a city, with easy access to it, may enjoy relatively comfortable socio-economic conditions by growing vegetables or developing agro-business. But how many of their children will be willing to be their successors? Then, those, proportionally fewer, who are constraint to live in far away villages relying on staples crops, with low standard of schools and rare medical facilities, will find hard to cope with all the changes shaking the country. [5]

Individual mentality characterizes many of these changes, but it would be unfair to declare that morality is declining among Chinese young people. First, these children were educated by persons who suffered from many lacks and “invested” wrongly on the next generation; second, it is not true that altruistic attitudes among youth are only calculation to reach a better social position. A strange “nationalism”, often observed today, may well spur the invention of renewed ethical social norms. Better economic conditions, the triumph of major world events in China, and other achievements in technology or literature, encourage a sane, albeit ambiguous, pride. Positively, such a feeling has led many to a better perception of all dimensions of life. It is not surprising that the weaving of the future of Chinese people takes time; it is more astonishing that so much is changing so quickly.Like others but because of their own faith, a still relatively small number of Catholics in China wish to ponder the present social reality; they hope their Church can better respond to the challenges.[6]

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