Agents of Conformity

Today I read Murong Xuecun’s speech given in Oslo. The things he described in his speech are clearly happening all around us and I have rarely, if ever, met a Chinese who will dispute much of what he said. In fact, most of the conversations that end up dealing with the woes of China are initiated by Chinese friends. I try not to start a China rant because all anyone really has to ask me is “Why are you here?” and thus ends the rant.

But Chinese don’t have that option. This is their motherland and that fact is at the core of what keeps people in line, no matter how much they complain online or with their friends. The whole society is constantly at work to bring the young and the rebellious back into the fold of acceptable behavior. Every facet of life is controlled by a burden of history that is backed up by proverbs and stories.

The keepers of the proverbs and stories are, usually, the older women (wive’s tales, anyone?). They know what a man should do in order to get a wife; they know how a wife should act at home; they know how to give birth, how to deal with post-partum recovery and they absolutely know how to raise children. The older women are all over the home-lives. How to cook, how to clean, what is proper and what is not.

It’s hard to gauge the level of control this older generation has over the lives of the young. Certain rules are bent and broke and many traditions have fallen by the wayside, but there is one maxim – one philosophy so to say – that survives on into modern life: the belief that certain things are just the way they are and there can be no changing them.

The phrases 不行 (impossible),没办法 (impossible), and in Sichuan 免不了的 (unavoidable) are the proverbs of that philosophy.

That things are changeless actually flies in the face of much of traditional Chinese thought and philosophy. I am leaving familiar waters here, but the language is contextual, the society is relationship- as opposed to rule-based and every utterance of the above three phrases can be (and often is) followed by the impossible suddenly becoming possible.

Yet still older women try and lay a clamp on the next generation with a host of rules and regulations passed down over centuries. There is a desire for conformity in China that I have never experienced anywhere else – not at this level. I have been in countless situations in which the “nail that stuck out” voluntarily pulled his head back in in the face of peer pressure. That isn’t a Chinese phenomenon at all, but the techniques used here to bring about conformity are different than what we may be used to elsewhere and I think it’s important to try and take a look at them.

Because there may be differences, but there will also definitely be similarities and for us non-conformists, it’s vital that we know what we are facing.


The number one rebuttal to any criticism of China from a Chinese person is a question:

“Are you or are you not Chinese?”

And the worst insult a nationalist Chinese can hurl is 汉奸, race traitor. A few others have popped up such as 带路党, accusing critics of “guiding (Americans) through the country” and 西奴, “slave of the west.” In most ultra-nationalist sites, like Utopia or Strong Nation Forum, the West is the enemy and the USA is the Great Satan.

Conformity here appeals at once to the heart of one’s identity. The logic is simple and difficult to attack head-on: If you are Chinese, then you are a nationalist; if you are a critic of China (and Chinese), then you are a traitor. Even if the critic phrases his suggestions softly, claiming that the true patriot would criticize and help to improve his home, the logic stands:

If you are Chinese you can have no criticism of China.

What this does is immediately put the onus on the critic to defend himself. Like Ai Wei Wei in the post I wrote the other day, dissidents are forced to prove that they are Chinese first, before anything they say will be heard.

And these nationalists are not the fringe. They might sound ridiculous and outdated – even praising foreign countries can get you called 汉奸 – but with the “Are you Chinese” card in their hand and the rampant xenophobia that infests all discussions of politics and society here, the fringe has power.

I have found that in one-on-one conversations any line of reasoning is possible, but once the conversations involve a group of Chinese, everyone begins self-censoring. Nobody wants to be accused of being a race traitor. So the same person who told me that China is corrupt will flip-flop in a heartbeat if others (especially strangers) are around.

People here do not know how to react to the accusation, 你是不是中国人?It’s such a visceral attack, most people recoil.

Be Practical

Another common agent of conformity is pragmatism. Many Chinese friends of mine describe themselves (and therefore all Chinese) as being 现实: pragmatic and unable or unwilling to take risks, change, or buck the system in any way because to do so threatens the basics of life.

“Once we are able to eat,” they say. “Then we can consider changing the system to be more free.”


“I don’t have time to worry about politics, I need to get a job, buy a home, save up money and (get ready to die).”

Here is where the parents and aunts and uncles come in and help conformity take hold. Decisions for Chinese young people often involve the whole clan – or at least a substantial part. When the clan gets together to decide on something, rest assured the outcome will be as risk averse as possible. It only makes sense: for the older generation, life was hanging by a thread. For them the key to a good life is hard work, good family values and avoiding troublemaking artists and foreigners.

Now if the foreigner happens to be rich and a bit older …

Things are getting better

The most dangerous and insidious agent of conformity is the “look to a better future.”

Ultranationalists can be defeated with a modicum of experience and education. Their shrill arguments are boring and comical once one has learned a bit of how the world really works.

Pragmatism is the arch foe of all young people and we can expect that no matter what culture, what epoch, the young will rail against the “proper choice” forever and ever amen.

But this last argument can snare anyone. Even the most ardent rebel can be swayed with a calm appeal for patience:

“China is getting richer and stronger every day. People eat good, the bars are full and popping, every consumer good is more or less available. This is Progress and isn’t this what the Party promised us? How can we turn our backs on them now, after they have brought us this far?”

“Remember when you didn’t have socks? Remember the Cultural Revolution? We helped you out of that mess. Stick with us, and we’ll lead you to glory!”

今天的幸福生活来之不易, Today’s good life did not come easy

“And the road to the better life ahead will not be easy either, but if you just tolerate all of the evil in our society today, we promise it will be much better tomorrow.”

How can you argue with that?

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Sascha Matuszak

13 thoughts on “Agents of Conformity

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. I wonder if another part of it isn’t that the country just went through an extended period of self-hatred and questioning of traditional values that ended in disaster. The conservative, moralistic neo-confucianism of China in 2011 seems preferable to the anti-cultural nihilism of China in the late 1960s, which was the final blow of a process that had begun in earnest with the May 4th movement of 1919.

    Right now we’re just seeing the 1815 (Waterloo and the Restoration) to Mao’s 1789 (French Revolution), or the 1980 (Ronald Reagan) to their 1967 (Summer of Love). A revaluation of all values usually ends in a counterrevolutionary reaction.

    That, and there’s a lot more ferment in the air than Murong’s speech reveals. He didn’t mention the profound effects that the Internet and cell phones are having on the youth- who may be “conforming” on the outside while living radical “double lives” online. What will happen when this generation comes of age?

    Overall, I just saw a lot of self-hatred in that speech, and it’s the same that I’ve seen in writers of many nations and nationalities… and reveals more about the psychological state of the author than the society he’s discussing. China is just a middle-income developing country; the only exceptional thing about it is it’s scale, which tends to magnify problems out of proportion to their reality, which is little different from other countries in the same league when taken per capita.

  3. Interesting comment.

    There is a lot of self-hate in China, that is absolutely true. A very insecure place, as are a lot of places in the world. Seems to be some sort of epidemic.

    I would add that the author’s insecurities are a product of or a reflection of his society’s ills. I like to think that the author, no matter how hard he tries, can not extricate himself from his environment and wouldn’t want to even if he could.

    I agree with the part about cell phones and double lives … that is fascinating and once they don’t have moms to worry about all the time … what will they do?

    It’s easy to draw lines between this epoch in this nation and that epoch in that nation, but I have always thought that the schizophrenia and fear in China is due to the fact that several epochs are meeting at once. That is why it is so hard to see into China’s future and predict what it means for the rest of the world.

  4. I strongly suggest that you write down your observation about China in Chinese instead of English if it would not entail too much effort on you. Your observation and comment is usually based on average people’s lives through real contact, not a big yet way too rough, distant speculation on the whole group(it seems to me that some white analysts should boast or seemingly boast he/she does possess a magic crystal ball to assert their judgement), thus very illuminating, especially for those common Chinese nitizen, who are kind of open-minded, yet usually not “well-educated” enough to be willing to wade through original English piece of passage. And I does wonder whoever would follow this blog if he/she is a native westerner — “What the fuck should I care about the lives of some little yellow ones? The instalment is due!!” — people simply care about themselves, or the ones that can whine. “见鸟血而心惊,见鱼血而心静。”

    1. I woud love to have Chinese translations of everything I have ever written, But imagine the time and effort that would go into that. I will try and do some shorter posts and translate them with my wife … but I can’t guarantee anything

  5. Ever think that maybe, just maybe, the reason that China has survived for 5,000 years are certain values that remain constant and resistant to change?

    As for the linked article, any writer who uses the phrase “Chinese trickery” needs to get his ass out of dated racial “Fu Manchu” movie stereotypes and into some modern thinking.

    1. Hi Harland!

      well the whole “survive for 5000” years thing is up for debate I think. China as we know it today rose out of the ashes of hundreds of dead kingdoms and cultures. In fact, the inability to adapt led to many a downfall ….

      but yes, I agree the power of tradition and family and the values that make a father buy a home for his son and a son give part of the house back to his parents helps to maintain continuity in the face of constant change.

      I think defining “tradition” might be useful. Are traditions methods to cope with reality, tactics to avoid possible danger and injury, or wise words meant to improve and expand living standards and the spirit?

  6. Hell, there isn’t any rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.
    Meetings are indispensable once you don’t want to do anything whatsoever.

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