My own first introduction to Chinese thought and political economy was a university course in New Zealand in 1974. I especially recall one book, Mark Elvin’s “The Pattern of the Chinese Past”. If you are not familiar with the arguments in this book already, there is a reasonable summary at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Pattern-Chinese-Past-Mark-Elvin/dp/0413286304 . Of course, China is any number of “countries”. With 20% of the world’s population it could hardly be otherwise. Nothing is more foolish than the outsider who pretends to “know” China, but certainly the second most foolish is the Chinese person who pretends to “know” China. Yet we are generalizing creatures. Probably we have form stereotypes to function at all. Looking at that vast conglomeration called China we can all discern flavours, tendencies, preferences, patterns… that are different from, say, the European mix, although we may argue about what the varieties mean.
Broad cultural patterns do shape our behaviour indelibly. There is a never-ending argument about whether the tides of history are driven exclusively by these cultural forces (really Marx’s argument, with a few fancy ideas of economics and “progress” thrown in), or whether history is (also) shaped in critical ways by particular individuals at critical moments. The longer I watch the world (i.e. the older I become) the more I am impressed and depressed by the power that such exceptional individuals have actually had in shaping events. In almost accidental ways, they have pushed whole nations down this path or that. This power has not been simply a matter of single events or actions, but the ability of these individuals to influence the lifelong behaviour and value systems of millions of people. I’m depressed by it, because historically such influential individuals have only occasionally been nice or even wise people themselves. Neither niceness nor rationality are qualities that usually get you to positions of great authority, especially in politics, but also in any workplace, and even in universities. I am also depressed by it because in every generation so few ordinary people will go against the tide and make up their own minds. Truth in their world comes from authority, not scientific investigation, and authority comes from those who hold power. For children of course, those things are structured in the family pattern. The vast majority of people, once they have a job, a family and debts, will dance to any tune that seems to offer a better life for them personally. If necessary — and it is often necessary — they will betray those around them to maintain that comfort zone.
Cultural patterns are often phrased as value statements. Ask someone what it means to be Chinese and they may offer you a list of virtues (this kind of response is the same in every culture). The virtues they state for you will be OVERT values — those actions and beliefs that are publicly approved in the culture. In practice the real shape of the society also includes behaviour driven by COVERT values. In fact, for several reasons covert values are usually a far better predictor of where a society is going than overt values. For example, changes in overt values often show a time lag, sometimes by centuries, while covert values reflect the necessities of daily survival. Example: if you ask any Korean the primary defining value in their culture, you will usually be told that age is the critical thing. Koreans have elaborate public behaviours to express this, and it is impossible to use the Korean language without making a respect choice reflecting this age paradigm. It is all a kind of fraud. A few years ago, an extensive survey found that youths in Korea had the LEAST respect for age of any youth group in Asia. If we go to South Asian and Middle Eastern societies and ask about public and private sexual values, we find a similar contradiction. Nowadays, when someone tells me the virtues of their society, I immediately become alert to the very opposite patterns in their real behaviour !
For all their igorance of the wider world, most Chinese youths as well as older people I meet do not strike me as especially selfish, especially after living in South Korea. If a situation causes them no personal loss, I have found many people in China very well intentioned and more than willing to help. Of course, there are countless corrupt officials, and greedy businessmen who will cheat or even adulterate food to make an extra yuan. However poorer people are often exceptionally generous (and this is true the world over). Maybe if you want to make a better world, then you need to find a way to make it cheap and easy for people to be kind. I suspect that the best way to do that is to separate the idea of “success” from the ideas of “wealth” and “power” — not an easy thing to do since modern economies are built on just that equation.
We all know that the Communist solution for humanity in China and elsewhere was a total disaster and just demotivated everyone. My personal idea of success is to have an interesting life, and I keep my respect for those people who try to be good at whatever they choose to do, whether it is being a street sweeper or president. This is not a perspective that many Chinese friends find easy to grasp, but they are hardly alone in that.