Calcified Culture, or Unique Characters?

This essay might sound a bit familiar, if you read this blog, as I seem to be circling the idea of change as a possibility. Last essay I wrote on this topic was Silk Roads and Great Walls, and that dealt briefly with the high-level impediments, this one here is a look at the grassroots blockages … 

Yesterday I went to visit the company that helps me handle fapiaos every now and then and I asked a few questions about visas. The visa situation for foreigners in China has always been a bit crooked, like pretty much everything else here, so I was only mildly surprised when she said “you’ll need a middleman to handle the documents for you”.

“In the past, you could just go to the visa office with your documents and hand them in directly,” I replied.

“Yes, but now the office will only accept applications from a middleman, for a much higher fee, because there is a woman in the office now and her brother is the main middleman.”

That surprised me. The matter of fact tone in which corruption in an official government office was just announced, to the snickers of nearby accounting girls, raised my eyebrows. Now that we had it out in the open, I could go ahead and ask a rhetorical question like,

“Is it always going to be like this?”

She tilted her head as if to think, smiled and said, yes, forever. This is our culture.

Culture as a Barrier

That wasn’t the first time I’ve heard culture invoked as a justification for a corrupt society. I spent a cold night talking with Chinese tourists atop Huashan outside of Xi’an and somehow we got onto the topic of duplicity, and one of the girls announced that duplicity was a part of Chinese culture. There was an awkward silence in the room, and then we moved on.

These lone statements spread out across the years – the “this is China” defense of all things unsavory – are not enough to prove or disprove that a specific cultural background can lead to certain behaviors. But every day, all of us make these assumptions about people.

There is a unique set of characteristics that distinguishes the Germans from the French, wouldn’t you agree? Americans and British, although similar in some superficial ways, are clearly from different societies. I for one am a strong believer in cultural differences and the beauty and exhilaration of crossing those lines and making contact.

But in China “culture” is used to defend and entrench all manner of behavior, from cheating on wives to cheating on taxes to cheating on tests. It’s not that cheating as a way of life is necessarily wrong – especially in a society with little incentive for not cheating – but the resigned acceptance of duplicity and all the inequality and suffering that comes with corruption really shocks me. In Evan Osnos’ recent essay on Bo Xilai and corruption, he optimistically points to the release of statistics as a catalyst for real public anger toward the ludicrous levels of corruption. The fact that he has to say it shows that acceptance – from Confucian and Buddhist cultural influences, the TIC people would no doubt say – is as big a problem as participation.


Much of the West focuses on China because of the belief that someday, somehow, China will see the light and embrace “universal” values of transparency, freedom and the rule of law. If the Internet encroaches just a bit more, if Chinese and Westerners get together a little more often, if the government can just loosen up and let those intellectuals and dissidents give voice to their ideas, then the tipping point will come all the sooner and China will be like us, just with a different history and different looks.

It’ll be like hanging out with Asian Americans – best of both worlds.

But China resists and rebels. Or perhaps better put, resigns and retreats. There is an element of rebellion in the resignation, however, and it is not necessarily against the corrupt bastards that run this country. It’s against us. Identity is a sensitive thing and even if I am prodding you about a dark side of your character, you might just defend yourself because the prodding comes from outside. You know, the whole,

“Yes I know they’re bastards, but they’re OUR bastards” mind-set.

Malcolm Moore of the Guardian spent some time in post-Bo Xilai Chongqing and spoke with officials and intellectuals and people on the street. The intellectuals were, of course, unhappy with Bo Xilai’s reign because it reminded them of the Cultural Revolution, while the officials struggled under the pressure to serve and survive. Yet, instead of struggling just a bit harder and actually doing something about the situation – even leaking a document, or posting something on Weibo or putting on a fake moustache and dashing for Chengdu – the officials committed suicide.

The ultimate passive resistance.

When Moore spoke with taxi drivers – my own barometer for what the street thinks – he heard strong support for Bo Xilai. Is that because of ignorance? The sacks of rice the government handed out in exchange for loyalty? Probably a bit of both, plus, I would suggest, the ingrained culture of obedience, respect and passive appreciation for the upper class. Not only appreciation, but an ancient, feudalistic strain of behavior that compels the common man to ignore the goings-on of the upper class because “it’s not our place to question what they do” … and maybe a bit of defiance . Americans might know something of that defiance, we have struggled with an ignorance culture for many years, a culture in which idiocy is defended as being just as valuable as intelligence.

Naturally Weibo and its millions of microbloggers give the West hope that the word will spread, the indignation grow and eventually the people will have the courage of the elderly petitioners, or the rebels in Wukan. As Rebecca Mackinnon writes:

“The paradox of the Chinese Internet is that despite all of these measures, weibo remain a lively place, where most Chinese Internet users feel freer to debate and discuss matters of public interest than ever before. A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference.

These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China’s political future. As [Michael] Anti puts it, “The political change will come from non-Internet factors, but thanks to the Internet people will be more ready to do something positive with it.”

But it is not just the Great Wall or Great Firewall that inhibits change in the society. It’s the man on the street complaining about pollution and then tossing his garbage into the nearest waterway. It’s the cab driver more worried about traffic jams then princeling squabbling over billions … it’s the young girl proudly proclaiming that duplicity is a part of the culture and therefore is enshrined along with all of the other artifacts of “5000 years” in the collective identity of the Chinese people.

How many times has the West been surprised by Internet fueled revolutions that led to a regime change that wasn’t really much of a change? Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who knows in Syria? Each time the shock led Western governments (and that part of society which continued to care after the Internet’s mercurial focus fled the scene) to recoil.

Maybe they’re right

If you’ve read a Dream of Red Mansions, or the Three Kingdoms … or any other historical account of China, fact or fiction … then what is happening today is nothing but a tired repeat. A web of families encasing the capital and the major industries in their schemes and plots; an effectual Emperor slowly delegating power as the web tightens; the struggle for power that ensues; the high profile sacks and purges … rinse and repeat. And the rest of the society, from the middle on down to the beggar, reads the tabloids if they exist, runs for cover if they are somehow entwined in the mess, helps to spread a rumor or three and then goes about the daily task of living.

The last great attempt to eradicate that old society and build a New China was the Communist Revolution, a mass movement based on utopian Marxist principles that raise the proletariat above the vest interests. The hope was to create a more egalitarian society, but, as we have seen, the revolution might have just made things worse. Or, and this is the point of this essay, teh red Era was nothing but a tragic hiccup in the long history of China just … being China. In Kristin Stapleton’s book, Civilizing Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform 1895-1937, I basically found myself reading about contemporary Chengdu:

“One of the main figures in Stapleton’s book is Zhou Shanpei, a high level bureaucrat and reformer of the early 20th century. Zhou’s hope was to transform Chengdu into a city such as Tokyo, the model East Asian city at the time: clean, orderly, productive, modern.

Some of Zhou’s reforms included the regulation of beggars and prostitutes, the creation of a professional police force, installation of street lamps and public latrines, the establishment of public economic and cultural associations under the supervision of the government, and the establishment of training institutes and colleges.”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Optimists would point out that the Communist Revolution sidetracked a natural progressive process toward the New China that Mao envisioned, and that we in the West went through our own convulsions – at the same time – and instead of Communism or Fascism, the Free Market Democracies won out. Not only did the West annihilate its imperial feudalist society in the fires of WWI and WWII, but history also shows us a similar robber-baron society in the US at the turn of the century, which has since morphed into the free market society ruled by law that we have today.


So if you have read this far and you’re still with me then you are probably asking the same question I am,

What’s the point?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.



Picture of Sascha Matuszak
Sascha Matuszak

5 thoughts on “Calcified Culture, or Unique Characters?

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Another interesting post, even if it’s a bit defeatist. While there’s no doubt that obstacles towards progress exist at almost every level, the conclusion you reach is really no different than the conclusion the officials who killed themselves reached. Of course I don’t know, as you don’t know and the dead officials clearly didn’t know, what the solution is. It is easy to throw up our hands and move on and through our lives without trying to instigate change. Patterns emerge, and will continue to be the blueprint for future civilizations, no matter what.

    But even acknowledging this frustration, as you have done here, is a step forwards; without admitting to ourselves that the solutions we’ve posited and executed thus far are, in essence, fruitless, there can be no forward momentum. And without forward momentum there is no movement.

    Society at large, and China in particular, is like a school bus stuck in the snow; only through coordinated pushing and quality deployment of resources (sand, salt, shovels) can the driver use the force of the engine to emerge from the icy quagmire.

  3. Nice comment James. I have to say, when i write these types of posts I am usually playing devil’s advocate. I want someone to jump up and say, “hey Sasch, quit yer damn whinin and go do something awesome!”

    I am an optimist. I guess I just like to know what I’m up against ….

  4. I’m a bit more optimistic about the situation. I’d agree that the vast majority of Chinese people that I know would likely be passive and accepting of much of what is wrong in China as being part of their “Culture”. However the last few years I’ve seen the minority voices getting much braver and much more likely to be held as legitimate than they were before. Basically, I’m seeing more Chinese people “calling out” the culture excuse as nothing more than an excuse, and the ability to think differently than everyone else is being more acceptable.

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