After years of opening up, minds are as closed as ever

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2012, 12:00am

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China has been regarded for decades as a state that prefers 'rule of virtue' or even 'rule of slogans' to the principle of 'rule of law', with the authorities having launched countless moral campaigns since the founding of the People's Republic.

These generally contain nothing more than vague slogans copied from traditional Chinese texts on ethics. Officials see the slogans as moral guidelines for society, but to the public they are nonsense that goes in one ear and out the other.

For example, Beijing's city government announced in November that the capital's spirit was 'patriotism, innovation, tolerance and virtue', and that it was planning to place a video advertisement plugging the message on a giant screen in New York's Times Square and in other media.

Following Beijing's move, some other mainland administrations have launched similar campaigns.

One by Guangdong illustrates nicely how mainland officials and people still rely more on virtue than the legal system.

Even though former Guangdong party secretary Zhang Dejiang highlighted the 'Spirit of Cantonese' just nine years ago, local people were encouraged to vote between January 10 and Monday for a new 'Guangdong Spirit' from four options provided by the provincial propaganda authorities. Officials hoped the new spirit of the province would include at least the three core concepts included by Zhang - 'pioneering, tolerance, and pragmatism' - that they believe depict the most valuable Cantonese characteristics.

People were asked to decide whether a fourth concept should be added, with their options including 'generosity', 'honesty' and 'abiding by contracts'.

At first glance, the slogans look as boring and dull as before, because nobody busy making a living couldn't care less about whatever 'good characters' the propaganda authorities want them to have.

But if we compare all six options, it is easy to see that all of them talk about ethics except the last one, 'abiding by contracts', which is talking about relying on rules and not people's goodwill.

Furthermore, unlike the others, 'abiding by contracts' is not a principle mentioned in Chinese moral education. On the contrary, it is deeply rooted in the Western cultural tradition and can be traced back to at least John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Some Guangdong scholars praised the idea of encouraging people to pay more attention to the spirit of contractual obligations. Dr Zeng Dexiong , a Guangzhou People's Congress deputy who majored in philosophy, said he strongly backed making 'abiding by contracts' one of the core concepts of the new 'Guangdong Spirit'.

'We are living in a society ruled by law so abiding by contracts should be the spirit of the province,' the Guangzhou Daily quoted Zeng as saying.

It is no surprise to see scholars welcome the new term because they understand that the concept is a foundation of the market economy.

However, local newspapers found that most internet users, polled online, preferred old Chinese ethical standards to principles from abroad.

The Southern Metropolis News reported late last month that 34 per cent of about 600 respondents voted for 'honesty' on first day of the poll, while only 17 per cent voted for 'abiding by contracts'.

Those who are working hard to promote the rule of law on the mainland will feel a little disappointed.

Guangdong was the first mainland province opened up to foreign investment and is Hong Kong's nearest neighbour, so one would expect it to be a region with a better understanding of the free market. But if Guangdong people still place more trust in virtue than contracts, how bad must it be in other parts of the country?

After more than 30 years of market-oriented economic reform on the mainland, it seems we still have a long way to go.