Morality in tatters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am


A minibus that should seat only nine people was crammed with 64, all but two of them children. On its way to a kindergarten, the minibus collided with a coal truck and, as a result, 21 people were killed and the others injured. This tragic accident that happened last month in Zhengning county, Gansu, sparked a nationwide debate on the safety of school buses in China.

It is hard to imagine how more than 60 children could be squeezed into such a small van. But those of us who were shocked by this 'feat' should also remember that, in many remote villages, having a bus to squeeze into is considered fortunate. Only the better-off families can afford school transport for their children. The contrast between the profligacy of corrupt government and the dire poverty of rural education could not be greater.

A look at school buses in developed countries shows that people in the West love their children more than we do. According to reports on the internet and in the press, transport for school children in the West is strictly regulated: the buses are sturdily built and traffic rules are enforced. The system protects children to a degree unimaginable to Chinese people.

Children are the most important part of our society, yet we live in a system that does not support their protection. On the mainland, the most important people are government officials. We remember the deadly fire at a concert hall in Karamay, Xinjiang , in 1994, where children were told to 'sit still to let cadres escape first'. This despicable order was roundly denounced when it came to light, but, even now, officials enjoy far better protection than ordinary children in every way.

At the same time, an elderly person who collapses on the street in today's mainland China can expect no help from passers-by. This indifference has become so widespread that authorities have issued guidelines on giving aid and orders that proclaim 'helping others is not a crime'. But these have not worked; ordinary folk just want to stay out of trouble.

Mencius says we should care for the old and young as if they were our own family. This famous saying is found in our textbooks, and the sentiment it expresses makes us feel proud of our ancestors. It is also trotted out at all kinds of occasions, and a common variation is the saying that 'Respect for the old and love for the young are traditional Chinese values'. It leads to the impression that Chinese people care more for their elderly and children than do people in other cultures.

This is something government propaganda wants us to believe. Officials want to convey the message that China has a unique culture, and Chinese people have values that have stood the test of time and are not easily changed. Thus, following this logic, the old and young in China are said to be protected in a way that those in other societies, especially Western ones, are not; China prizes familial ties, while, in the West, social relations are cold, familial bonds are weak and individual interests dominate.

The culture and character of every ethnic group is shaped by its own particular history. There was a time in China when the family was the basic unit of social and political order. It didn't necessarily mean that the Chinese treasured familial ties any more than other people did; the family was just part of a political system to keep the young in line.

But government officials today hold up this fact as proof that Chinese people prefer such a system, and that China is not suited to a democratic and free society based on human rights. Look, they say, at how democracy brings social upheaval, how freedom has ruined familial bonds and how talk of human rights only fans selfishness. Only authoritarian societies like China's can bring true harmony.

But, at the same time, officials also like to point out that ordinary people in China are not civilised enough to understand the concept of democratic freedoms, and therefore are not yet ready for a democracy. We're told that one day, when the people are of a higher calibre, the authorities will naturally grant us democracy, freedom and rights.

When the wise in ancient China encouraged people to treat the young and old as we would our own family, many Western civilisations were still in their infancy. Today, making a slogan of this virtue only shows up the motive of government officials: a misguided attempt to demonstrate China's cultural difference. After all, we can't say it is promoting moral standards - the recurring tragic accidents tell us only that society is on the verge of moral collapse.

Similarly for the so-called lack of democratic maturity. If we allow government powers to expand unchecked, not only will we never see the day we become a civilised people, even more of our values will be lost.

Both morals and democracy don't come with the switch of a button; they are learned through a process. Without people doing their part in a system of checks and balances, unrestrained powers will become a force of destruction. And this will be the opposite outcome of what we intend.

If there are still traditions left that we can be proud of, they are already slowly eroding. This is the problem that should worry us.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese