Food scandals expose lack of moral compass
'If social order is like an iceberg, then laws, policies and systems are only the part that sticks out of the water, and moral principles are the block below the water. When there is no effective system of moral principles, there is no social order.' So read a recent editorial in the China News Weekly. It was one of many examples of the soul-searching that has been sparked by a series of scandals involving food safety.
In early April, three babies died and 36 people, mainly children, fell ill in Gansu province after drinking milk tainted by nitrite. The deaths followed scandals involving recycled cooking oil, contaminated pork and steamed buns.
They moved Premier Wen Jiabao to express his outrage on April 18. 'The deterioration of morality has reached a serious new level,' he said. 'If a country cannot raise the quality of its citizens and its moral standing, it absolutely cannot become a great country and earn the respect of others. To build a culture of morality, we must speak of responsibility, trust and good-heartedness, to root out conditions that lead to monetary profit before anything, fraud and deceit, bribery and bending the law.'
These powerful words reflect the thinking of many people and their concern about a lack of moral principles in society. Most shocking was the tainting of milk powder, which killed at least six babies and made 300,000 others ill in 2008 - most shocking because the producers knew the powder would be consumed by the most vulnerable members of society.
The government took strong action and ordered many of the country's dairies to stop production. But the most effective safeguard is not state regulators who can only inspect a certain number of factories, but a sense of morality in the individuals who make the powder.
These scandals have caused people to ask how things have come to this. Most blame the Cultural Revolution - when the pillars of tradition and morality were mocked and insulted and people were encouraged to inform on each other, even members of their own family.
After the reform period began in 1979, the basis of a normal society - family, school, work and a welfare system - was restored and the country began a period of sustained economic growth. But the morality of the Maoist period was discredited. In the new era, the influence of religion and moral education is limited, and the new ideology is patriotism and the renaissance of a strong and powerful nation under the party's guidance.
'To get rich is glorious' was the slogan coined by Deng Xiaoping to encourage entrepreneurship. That has become the defining ideology of the post-1979 era, the aim of people high and low. The heroes of modern China are the millionaires, with their sprawling mansions, imported cars and foreign holidays.
Ordinary people see all around them this dominance of money. According to Xinhua, more than 106,000 officials were punished for disciplinary violations last year, of whom over 3,000 were at the county level or above. They see how money has infected the media: companies and public relations firms pay to place stories and interviews. People do not know if they are reading news or 'paid news'. Money is the passport into a desired school and a foreign university, or the introduction to a top surgeon. Money buys brands.
The restraint of this pursuit of money is found in the principles of traditional culture and the religions that have started to re-establish themselves since China's reforms. But it will need more time for these principles to take root. Wen will have to sound his warning again.
Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong