Career: Postdoctoral Fellow | University of Washington | Seattle, Washington, USA
The Chinese Mentality and Preserving Social Order
An HBO documentary about the devastating 2008 earthquake in China features parents who lost their children in collapsed schools. In one scene, some of these parents hold pictures of their children as they kneel down crying and beg the government to investigate the problem of corruption in school construction. But instead of pursuing their grievances further through protest, most of these parents eventually silenced their voices. Shoddy construction is no secret among Chinese, but few stood up to protest.
Why the absence of massive social protest in China after so many school buildings collapsed? Were people not sympathetic toward the thousands of young lives buried in the debris? Hardly. When the earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, people all over the country burst into tears at the news of school collapses, and many volunteered for the rescue and relief effort.
Was the silence just a response to the Chinese government’s tight control over public expression? People outside China might easily think this, but to attribute everything to top-down oppression is superficial and misses the real point. This is not to say the government did not make a strong attempt to shape public opinion about the school collapses in the Sichuan earthquake. In accordance with official ideology, “preserving social harmony” is sufficient reason to control criticism and suspicion; but in the end, top-down control in the name of preserving social harmony is only part of the picture. What’s more important and interesting is the extent to which Chinese people themselves identified with the ideology of preserving social order.
In spite of their great suffering, the local people in Sichuan were able to show their appreciation to the party and government as well as to ordinary people for the support they received after the earthquake. Western observers wondered how these people could participate in the national celebration of the 2008 Olympics so quickly after the earthquake, but they heartily joined in while still in the midst of the debris of their hometown. Most notably, their appreciation and strong sense of national belonging were sincere and not faked.
And for people outside Sichuan, a common opinion was that compared to the great success of our government in its massive mobilization for disaster rescue and relief, the problem of corruption in school constructions was rather trivial, especially since corruption is quite common in China. The common perception was that China had achieved a great victory over this disaster, and the sense of national solidarity and identity was enhanced in the process.
How did such a collective mentality about “preserving social order” come into being in China? It has deep historical roots. In contrast to Western ways of viewing history as linear progress, a cyclic logic of oscillation between disorder and order is deeply rooted in the Chinese interpretation of history. In this context efforts toward unification extend back thousands of years and despotism has long been practiced in the service of this end. In this scheme of things,
maintaining unity and preventing national fragmentation have always been of central concern. The philosophical perspective that corresponds with this political orientation is Confucianism, which prioritizes harmony and order in a hierarchical system. In contrast, individual rights are subordinated to national order.
Many view this social system as being compatible with the ecological demands placed on the country with its huge population and with resource scarcity.
All of this plays out against a background of repeated episodes of massive suffering throughout history. In recent times alone, at least 20 million Chinese people were estimated to have died in the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864; the great famine (1959-1961), commemorated in China as the “Three-Year-Natural-Disaster,” killed 30 million; and the “Ten-Year-Catastrophe,” the official term for the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, killed 3 million. Compared to those massive disasters, the number of school children killed in the 2008 earthquake is miniscule.
Thus, faced with this disaster, the public was more inclined to maintain social order and rebuild the affected area than to challenge the established order. Life had to go on. Out of the collective mentality of preserving social order, people looked at the big picture and just moved on. This was the reason why people showed no enthusiasm for protesting against the corruption that led to the school collapses, and it provides insight into why eulogies for the Chinese government and nation dominated the memory of this earthquake while the individual tragedies faded away.
But still, I was shocked when a man living beside the debris of collapsed school buildings told me only two months after the earthquake, “This time I have seen so many dead bodies that I felt no fear. It’s just like pork.” Even if “collective amnesia” has been an adaptive response over thousands of years of social evolution in China, the scene of parents kneeling down and crying should not be erased from our memory. It is more than a minor protest that must be squelched in the name of preserving social order.