Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's Not Just a Chinese Problem

An AP report from Beijing raises some interesting but troubling questions:
A speeding taxi knocks the pedestrian off her feet, sending her hurtling through the air. Dozens of people stand gawking or walk past, as if the young woman sprawled in the busy intersection simply doesn’t exist. A full minute passes, and another speeding vehicle, this time an SUV, tramples the prone woman. Her unconscious body churns under its large wheels like a lumpen sack.

After a grainy video of a traffic accident in the city of Zhumadian surfaced on Chinese social media this past week, the initial reaction was one of outrage directed at the more than 40 pedestrians and drivers who passed within meters of the woman, all failing to offer help.

But for many Chinese, the video was something more: a 94-second reminder of their society’s deep rot.

Even as China presents itself outwardly as a prosperous rising power, around kitchen tables and in private WeChat groups, Chinese citizens routinely grumble about a nation that’s gone bankrupt when it comes to two qualities: “suzhi,” or “personal character,” and “dixian,” literally “bottom line” — or a basic, inviolable sense of right and wrong.

Here, the common refrain goes, is an unmoored country where manufacturers knowingly sell toxic baby formula and fraudulent children’s vaccines. Restaurants cook with recycled “gutter oil” and grocery stores peddle fake eggs, fake fruit, even fake rice. Many Chinese say they avoid helping people on the street because of widespread stories about extortionists who seek help from passers-by and then feign injuries and demand compensation — perhaps explaining the Zhumadian behavior.
There are a couple of things to be said about this, but before saying them let's read what some thoughtful people in China are saying:
“It’s a problem with the entire country: Our moral bottom line has fallen so low,” Tian You, a novelist based in the southeastern city of Shenzhen, said by phone. “If I’m truly honest, I wonder, would I myself have dared to help the woman?”

The news swept through social media and even state media outlets. The Communist Youth League, an influential party organization, circulated the video on its Weibo account, urging its 5 million followers to “reject indifference.” An opinion column on, a state media organ, asked citizens to “reflect” on the tragedy. Others used the episode as a starting point to vent about social ills.

“Like the polluted haze facing our country, we see boundless corruption, left-behind children, medical disputes and so forth,” a columnist in the Chengdu Economic Daily wrote. “Have our society’s morals gotten better or worse in the last 10 years? What about our future, are you confident about that? Don’t ask me, because I’m not.”

Public concern about China’s morals crosses decades and age groups. Ever since China began its free market reforms in the 1980s, older citizens have frequently griped about moral decay and profess nostalgia about a more innocent socialist era, while younger, worldly Chinese wonder why fraud and fake products aren’t as rampant in other countries.

Chinese scholars say many issues that leave the middle class disillusioned are a result of lagging government regulation and the dislocating forces of swift development.
So, a number of people simply have no answer to the moral malaise they discern spreading throughout their country. Others push forward possible culprits like free markets. I think the correct answer is offered by a sociologist at the China University of Political Science and Law:
“In the West, law, faith and morality are a three-legged stool,” said Ma Ai, a sociologist at the China University of Political Science and Law. “Our legal system is catching up, but we don’t have religion and a new moral system has not established after China transformed away from a traditional, collectivist society.”
This problem, as the article goes on to point out, is not uniquely Chinese. It's a problem that arises in every society when people no longer feel a moral responsibility for others. When that sense of responsibility fades so does human sympathy and compassion. Egoism and the wish not to get involved in other people's troubles are really the default position in a culture. People have to be taught not to be egoistic and that requires that they be given good reasons why they should care about others.

Unfortunately, a secular society such as China's, and, increasingly, societies in the West, can give no compelling answer to the question, why should I care about other people unless it's in my interest to do so? If I can profit from, and get away with, fraud and peddling fake food why shouldn't I do it? If it'll inconvenience me to help a stranger in distress, why should I help him? If nothing's in it for me what good reason is there for going out of my way to help someone else?

An individual who rejects any transcendent moral authority has no good answer. To care about strangers requires that we see human beings as in some sense sacred, but in a world that has done away with the sacred, a world that has adopted the view that human beings are little more than temporary aggregations of molecules, caring about strangers is not going to be high on anyone's list of priorities. If the Chinese, or anyone else, wonder why so many of their countrymen seem so indifferent to the plight of others, all they need do is ask themselves what motivation anyone who believes we're merely dust in the wind has to sacrifice his or her own time and energy to help someone who needs it.

The Judeo-Christian worldview, on the other hand, teaches that we have a duty to help our neighbor, to be compassionate and to do justice, not because it's the "nice" thing to do but because God insists. It teaches that people have worth, dignity and rights because God loves them and desires that we love what, and whom, He loves. Our default is to put ourselves and our interests first, but that option is not open to the Christian committed to do the will of God.

Put differently, the Christian believes that God died for us so that we can live. Out of gratitude for that act of cosmic self-sacrifice we can surely inconvenience ourselves to help someone else. That's why so many of history's greatest humanitarians, people like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, were people of deep Christian commitment.

On the other hand, when modern man pushes God to the periphery of his social life, or expels Him altogether, he forfeits any objective ground for feeling obligated to treat others with compassion and justice, or for putting others' interests ahead of his own. Society becomes a Darwinian jungle, a war of every man against every man. Such a society may present a superficial patina of politeness but underneath that surface many people know intuitively that, in the absence of God, the only person who really matters is me, and it's just a short step from knowing it to living it.