Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is China a Collectivist Society?

Something I hear a lot back in the States: "East Asians tend to be collectivists; Westerners, individualists." (Or, when we want to be more critical, we will dispense with the euphemism of individualism and directly disparage ourselves as "selfish.") The same sort of view has come up among Chinese acquaintances here as well - though I've only heard it a few times unattached to an expression of wonderment at how young American children (adults?) are when they leave home to travel the world and start their own lives.

So is it true in China's case? Based on my experience so far, I'm going to have to respond with what I know is an entirely dissatisfying answer: yes, and no.

Now let's get into the evidence.

First, there are the red herrings. For example: 'When they go out to eat, Chinese diners won't each order their own meal, but will instead order a bunch of different dishes and share everything.' For my part, I see this as having more to do with American germaphobia than anything else: we're used to the peace of mind that comes from having everything sterilized, or at least believing that it is. After all, I don't know any American who's come to China and, after trying it and not coming down with some debilitating illness the next day, hasn't fallen in love with the Chinese way of eating - which shows that, at least on the food front, Americans don't have particularly individualistic tendencies. Another oft-cited example by those who have spent a little time here is that the Chinese are incredibly 好客 - fond of guests, or hospitable. But to be honest, from everything I've seen with my own eyes and heard from those with much more experience than I, people the world over are hospitable at heart. I've been treated like royalty in little old Laiwu City, and I plan to spend some time with some of the tens of thousands of Americans who have opened their homes to travelers visa Couchsurfing; one day, I hope to host some weary sojourners myself, and while that's not everyone's wish, I think it's a general tendency that spans geographic and cultural gaps.

I have, though, seen a few things that support conventional wisdom that the Chinese are collectivist. The most striking of these came up as we prepared for debate last semester. The powers that be wanted alternates from my language program, so I was asked to get in touch with two of my ACC classmates (who were in Xi'An at the time) and ask them to come to practice with us. Realizing that everyone was busy and they might well not want to attend when they learned how much of a commitment it was, I said I would ask them but added what I thought would be a pretty acceptable caveat to take the pressure off of them: I said I didn't know whether they would be willing to practice with us, given the long hours and the fact that they might end up spending the entire time as alternates. Everyone seemed a little surprised, and then I got the explanation: Chinese students, I was told, would have no qualm whatsoever about helping the team from the background.

Despite what seemed like earnest agreement all around, I could dismiss it as a bunch of people being theoretical and taking the high road... but that would mean completely ignoring the roughly 100-150 hours put in over five weeks by each of almost a dozen graduate students, none of whom got so much as a prize when the dust finally settled. I'll be honest: I suspected they were receiving some kind of compensation, either monetary or in the form of a GPA boost. But I asked a few of them, after we had gotten more familiar, why they were doing this, and the answer I got was roughly, "Our teacher asked for volunteers, and we know that if we do well this will be a big deal for the university." In contrast, consider my own reasons for competing: a prize, recognition for my work, meeting people, and above all, Chinese language practice. At the risk of being seen as projecting my rampant selfishness on my American brethren, I'm going to say that I see in this a very visible manifestation of the divide between Eastern collectivism and Western individualism.

So it might seem contradictory or at least ironic that, of all the complaints I've heard from Westerners who have lived for a significant period of time in China, the most common (and most convincing) is that the average Chinese doesn't give a damn about anyone outside his/her family. To put the best spin on this attitude, allow me to describe it as sort of an extreme version of the "Malcolm Reynolds approach" - putting your "crew," whoever that may consist of, first, while everyone else comes second and last. Notice that I'm not talking about individualism here, per se, but rather about selfishness - which, in my mind, is much more accurate than individualism as an antonym for collectivism.

That mentality manifests itself in a lot of ways. In September, I met someone interesting in the youth hostel in Kashgar, a lawyer from Texas whose self-possession and soft-spoken earnestness won my immediate respect. He's been in China for years but is taking a last tour around the country and then leaving indefinitely, simply because he doesn't want to live in a society where, as he sees it, people have so little respect for others. He talked about a time when he wasn't able to sleep well for a month because someone was doing some illegal building next door - in the middle of the night, to avoid scrutiny. The lawyer, after arguing with the builders for a while, ended up calling the police, who eventually came by one night and told everyone to scram; the workers were back the next day and nothing changed.

In the world of politics, I have heard the "family first, everyone else last" mantra used as a way of understanding the rampant corruption in Chinese politics. As for the business world, an Englishman I met in a Beijing hostel echoed a view I've heard in various forms over the past year: "Why are there so many family businesses? Because if you're not related to your business partner then you're going to get screwed as soon as you turn your back on him."

And in terms of everyday life, the subway is often held up as a prime example of what many foreigners call Chinese selfishness: the omnipresent "first get off, then get on" propaganda doesn't stop people waiting on the platform from cramming into the subway cars before everyone who wants to disembark has a chance to step out. It's incredibly inefficient, not to mention disorderly and slightly harrowing; furthermore, one rarely snags a seat by leaping into the car, and only once have I ever seen a car so full that stragglers were forced to wait for the next one. Among people who just can't bring themselves to like China, the selfish senselessness of the subway scene has become a pretty common metaphor for what it is they like the least.

There are other, more sinister manifestations of the consequences of the average person not giving a damn about anyone he doesn't know personally. What happens, for instance, when the providers of major food products look for ways to cut costs, at all costs? You get the main reason why I would not my child to grow up in this country: an unending series of food safety scandals. A big one was the infamous "poison milk powder" scandal of 2008, in which the harmful chemical melamine was added to fake protein content in milk formula and ultimately harmed hundreds of thousands of Chinese infants. In class last semester, we watched an investigative report about a 2005 scandal in which major producers of soy products made the final product more attractive by coloring it with industrial chemicals, which are cheaper than food-safe dyes. More recently, a 2010 Greenpeace investigation discovered illegal genetic modification of rice, and unrelated research done just last month has brought to light heavy metal poisoning in rice paddies, much of which still makes it to the market anyhow. Last week, the use of a banned substance was once again found in farmers trying to artificially get leaner pork out of their pigs. (I should note that products of the same type, known as beta agonists, are legal in the United States and about 20 other countries.) Not to be left out, noodles too were added to the list of dubious staples in a "rotten rice noodle" revelation that caused yet another a food scare this past December. And those are just the ones we know about: I'm just waiting for it to be discovered eggplants, too, are unsafe, at which point nothing I eat on a regular basis here will be scandal-free.

However: It can be argued that none of the above examples actually show a particularly selfish streak on the part of the Chinese. The subway scenario can be blamed on population pressure (a reason often given by the Chinese for almost any societal problem) and a ; corruption, on a governmental structure that allows it; bad business practices, on corruption/poor safety inspection infrastructure/lack of legal repercussions.

I can grudgingly grant the latter - that, were American governance as weak in some areas as in it is in China, we may well be seeing similar business problems as people fight tooth and nail for their own interests in a competitive market. (Imagine, for instance, an American company that finds the opportunity to operate where governance is more lax...) But the subway? While it is a Nash equilibrium, it's also not a best-case scenario for anyone - and I'm told that in Tokyo, where it's pretty darn crowded, doesn't have this kind of problem.

There's no good way to sum this up: make of these observations, new items, comparisons and inferences what you will. There's some quote about how the longer you live in China the less certain you are that you understand it; I can't remember it off the top of my head and anyway I think it's both pessimistic and obnoxious, but that it even comes to mind means that I will consider the title question of this blog post unresolved until further notice.

Feel very free to discuss.


1 comment:

  1. One sure sign that you're learning is that it becomes far more difficult to see discrete categories. In fact, one must work hard to see grey. And once you've mastered shades of grey, you're ready to operate effectively in the world.

    Korea operates, in my view, on an "inside / outside" dynamic, in which you'll do almost anything to help somebody on your "inside" team (family, friends, respected elders...) yet you can safely ignore the "outside" people.

    This struck me as horrible when I first arrived in Korea. But by the time I left 6 years later, I found it to be brilliant insofar as if you imagine an individual's life containing only so much energy that can be expended on others, you have to seriously question expending that energy on people for whom it will be wasted. Every dollar of energy invested in somebody on your inside team is almost guaranteed to earn interest. Every dollar of energy invested in somebody outside your team is likewise almost guaranteed to be cashed immediately only to disappear.

    So what holds such societies together? As we have both witnessed in China and in Korea, "collective" thinking is highly problematic as a paradigmatic statement about those countries.

    But this begs the counter question: What holds the U.S. society together? If it is so truly individualistic, wouldn't it also just splinter into factions? Or isn't it always splintered but the relative genius of our governmental model is that we account for, even encourage, differences of opinion?

    One facile similarity I see across all these examples is that as long as the individual has access to an increasingly better life (education, money, health care, etc.) the system seems to work no matter the flavor. But when those things are taken away or are threatened...then it's every man for himself.

    And that's true in China. True in Korea. True in the U.S. The question, then, is just how secure are those countries in those regards? Or how much of those things is EXPECTED in those countries?

    I would argue that it is that security / expectation or lack of it that correlates well to some of this fuzzy talk about Eastern and Western individualism. In other words, this is a changing dynamic, one that will take some time for our feeble vocabulary to catch up with.