“Values are not central to today’s world,” or so proclaimed the author of an article published in the Global Times covering the recent BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in New Delhi. The article is an unapologetic and only marginally ungrammatical pre-emptive strike against Western ne’er-do-wells seeking to undermine the union by pointing out “a lack of unified values among BRICS countries.” The article argues that universal values held in common between countries aren’t that important here, rather it is what they can give each other that counts. The message is that potential mutual benefits outweigh a lack of shared values. Though it rarely strays from its uniformly histrionic tone – neatly slotting each BRICS country into the distinctly Chinese narrative of “facing oppression by developed countries in the current global political system” – the article nevertheless highlights an incredibly interesting trend arising in modern Chinese politics: value bashing.
Value-bashing started in earnest only very recently in Chinese political discourse. Exhibit A was the furious response from party conservatives to a 2007 address by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (widely regarded as more of a progressive than the rest of the CCP) stating that “science, democracy, rule of law, freedom and human rights are not unique to capitalism, but are values commonly pursued by mankind over a long period.” While Wen was never targeted personally, progressives within China have been fighting off thinly-veiled attacks in the state media on their apparent support for Western “democracy” ever since. Exhibit B came, ironically enough, as a response to a pro-government piece in Guangdong’s Southern Weekend that praised the party’s actions after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The newspaper said the party’s relief efforts had “honoured its commitments to its own people and to the whole world with respect to universal values.” This irked hard-liners, and over the next year the term “universal values” increasingly found itself being thrown around in editorials, op-eds and the infamous netizen message boards by the party’s wumao lackeys as a term associated with a Western plot to undermine the party’s power.
In 2010, The Economist collated these (and many other) instances together and laid the blame for the recent upsurge in universal value-bashing squarely at the door of CCP conservatives who feared that embracing universal values would also mean acknowledging the superiority of the West’s political system. The truth is that the party would much prefer it if China had its own ‘values with Chinese characteristics,’ rather than troublesome universal values they would have to share hand-in-hand with the decadent West.
With 5,000 years of history, only the most close-minded of Sinophobes would argue that China does not have its own set of values. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and yes, Communism, have each had their impact on Chinese society and have each left behind traces of themselves to be absorbed into a larger whole. The problem lies in the fact that China has changed more in the last sixty years (one could even argue only thirty years) than it had in the last thousand, and one cannot help wondering whether the CCP’s value-bashing – or rather its efforts to align “universal values” with the alleged moral bankruptcy of the West – is an attempt to cast a smoke screen to hide some uncomfortable truths about its own citizens it would rather not acknowledge.
Values are changing in China. This is an indisputable fact. Ask someone who lived through the Cultural Revolution if people act the same today as they did then. The answer will most likely be laughter. That the nation is wealthier, more equipped and better off than it ever has been is beyond doubt and this is no more evident than in the demand for increasingly frivolous entertainment. The propensity for daft TV shows in China has already been noted abroad, and the weird and the bizarre interpretations of Western shows like the ‘X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ becoming increasingly popular with Chinese audiences. Appetites for sex are at their most open as well, with reports of busloads of tourists making the trip down from the mainland to Hong Kong in order to watch the multi-dimensional soft-porn extravaganza ‘Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy 3D’ making the rounds in Western media for quite some time. At the more macabre end of this scale is the recent documentary aired in China which interviewed inmates on death row for a reality TV show. According to the BBC, Interviews Before Execution first broadcast on Henan Legal Channel in November 2006 and interviewed a prisoner on death row every week before it was cancelled after government intervention. It may make for unpalatable viewing, but it is telling evidence that values in China aren’t the same as they used to be.
The good, the bad and the money
The root cause of all of this is money. China is wealthier than it ever has been, but as a side effect some previously ‘foreign’ behaviour that the CCP has long held as proof of the West’s decadent inferiority is beginning to crop up within its own borders. Vulgarity is very much part of the new China: see super-rich property mogul Ren Zhiqiang’s comments that those who can’t afford to live in their own homes in a Tier 1 city should “go home and live as peasants in their parent’s village,” or the now infamous video of a Chinese girl breaking up with her boyfriend on the Beijing metro screaming “a man without money is garbage” for just a taste of what is going on.
The public may well vilify these characters, but the ‘spend, spend, spend’ mentality that typifies their actions pervades Chinese society from top to bottom. A recent interview in the China Daily with pensioner Yu Ping commenting on how inflation has changed her life drives this ethos home. By no means a decadent big-spender, Ping talks about how the increase in prices and loss of interest rates has completely changed her attitude to money: “I used to love saving up, but money has become a lot less valuable in the bank,” she says. “So I figure I should spend it where it is needed and enjoy life.” Putting it bluntly, if even the lowliest of peasants wants to start dishing out the cash, then everybody else – all the way up the ladder from desperately poor to obscenely rich – will be wanting to do exactly the same.
The blame game
This attitude is true of an increasing proportion of the population. In most cases it is perfectly healthy, most certainly for the economy, but at its most excessive it can cause some really rather distasteful behaviour. Since its inception, the CCP has been incredibly touchy about aspects of its population being portrayed negatively, and the stock answer of ‘influenced by Western immorality’ was – and still is – trundled out as a common explanation/verdict. Essentially, the West was (and is) the scapegoat for whatever unfavourable aspects of society the party didn’t want to take responsibility for. However, with the rising prevalence of this ‘greed is good’ (or “to get rich is glorious,” as Mr Deng famously said) mentality and the associated distasteful behaviour that seems to come along with it, this excuse becomes less and less compelling.
What is interesting in all this though is that the party seems to have made the choice to stick to its guns. It has decided that even though, as Wen Jiabao says, “science, democracy, rule of law and freedom” may well be universal rights, these rights will mean that the vulgarity spreading through the streets of China is no longer a result of Western influence, but a home-grown problem that is 100% Chinese. For developing 21st century China, that is one development too far. The West is a handy scapegoat when it comes to explaining away the more unpleasant aspects of Chinese culture, and by subscribing to the notion of universal values the CCP would give up the right to this most convenient of excuses. Better the devil you know…