Jun 9 2005

Morality and China

Tony Perkins posted a cautionary piece on China yesterday to AlwaysOn entitled “Chinese Youth, Unite  A moral view of China”  In it he argues that we (silicon valley) are being perhaps too quick to look past some of the moral and ethical issues with the Chinese government while we give them what he terms a “gigantic money-fisted hug”. My parents just returned from a two week vacation in China and dad sent around his reaction to Perkins piece with his recent on the ground observations as his perspective. I’m printing it here, with his permission. __________________________ I’d like to offer a (limited) bottoms-up view to complement Tony’s top-down view. I strongly agree that the economic, political, and ethical issues are strongly intertwined (or will be in the next decade). I just got back from two weeks of cycling and hiking in China. I didn’t tour factories or get any official presentation about economics or politics. I just met a lot of Chinese people in cities and in the countryside, and I wasn’t restricted in what I could talk to them about. I have three observations: 1. The expansion of the Chinese middle class is real, but superficial so far. Yes, there are a lot of cell phones, and I got excellent coverage everywhere (even on the tops of mountains and on a fairly

remote section of the Great Wall). New construction is evident in all but the smallest towns. Shops with “western” goods are open in larger cities. But I noticed that the fanciest shops (Gucci, Ferragamo) had no customers and seemed to be there to establish a brand identity (trying to ensure that what’s chic in the West stays chic in the East). Most ordinary Chinese have access to very modest consumer goods and live in (at best) very modest housing. I also noticed that a lot of new construction (especially outside of the largest cities) deteriorates very quickly, mostly due to poor materials and building practices. The huge numbers of people involved make this an economically significant trend, but I think it’s important to note that for most individual Chinese their actual living conditions would be considered very modest in the West. Their aspirations, on the other hand, are not as limited. TV, Internet, the presence of high-end (empty) stores, advertising, etc. expose Chinese people to living conditions still not available to most of them. I would predict that within the next five years the disconnect between people’s economic aspirations and their ability to achieve them within the boundaries of government policies could lead to a political crisis. 2. The impact of this on the environment (and on cultural treasures) is significant and may become a growth-limiting factor. My advice to those of you who haven’t seen theForbidden City or the Great Wall is: go now. I don’t see how these treasures can withstand the huge crush of tourists descending on them. On a typical weekend there might be 20,000 people visiting the Forbidden City. And these aren’t foreigners. One interesting consequence of the economic gains in China is that most of the tourists are Chinese — people who can now afford to go see the cultural and historical sights they have heard about. This all takes place in an environment of increasing pollution and (by our standards) inadequate environmental controls. This is another source of potential political unrest, though harder to predict because other countries have shown that their populations can tolerate considerable environmental (and personal) damage in the context of economic growth. 3. Moral/ethical issues cannot be ignored. I hear stories about political repression, but I didn’t see any evidence of it so I can’t comment on it. But I did see one story that was remarkably moving and, unfortunately, common. When we checked in for our flight in Denver we met a couple also on their way to Beijing and learned that they were going to adopt a year-old girl. When we got to Xi’an (400 miles SW of Beijing) we were delighted to see them again in our hotel, the day after they had gotten their new daughter — along with 14 other couples and their new babies. In all, I probably saw 100 Western couples from the US, Spain, Finland, and France adopting (girl) babies in China. And when we got back to San Francisco we ended up on the same plane to Denver as our new friends and their daughter. So we got to see her meet her new brothers. I have never seen a child happier. No eye was dry among those of us who knew the story. The fact is that if a couple lives in a Chinese city they get to have one child; in the countryside it’s two. This is strongly enforced. Many girls babies are abandoned and not reported (so the couple can try again). There are two important consequences of this. First, it is significantly depleting China of girls, which will have implications in the future as Chinese men look to build families (this was a common topic of conversation among Chinese young men). Second, the government practices behind this are strongly at odds with Western ethical values. I do not believe that this can be separated from economic and political issues. (And the fact that much of Western politics is now dominated by religious belief increases the potential conflict here — but I want to emphasize that I believe this transcends religious belief and is a basic ethical issue for many people inside and outside of China.)

Conclusion: The growing economic power of China is significant, but gains in living standards are spread over so may people that the impact on most individuals is modest. That, coupled with the cultural impact of exposure to Western consumer values and deteriorating environmental conditions, may create conditions that are not conducive to the political continuity so important to the Chinese government. The social and ethical conflicts created by the Chinese government’s family policies are significant factors, but their impact is very difficult to predict.