Thor's China Diary

All's Fair

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 "Be careful", an instant new friend who sees me as free English practice will often say. "The people in Wuhan are very rude and dishonest. They will cheat you." Well, probably some of them are not quite straight, and maybe it's also one of the cultural myths that every group develops about itself. Recall the "larrikin" self-image that Australians used to cultivate - the disrespectful breaker of rules who, under his rough exterior was supposed to have a heart of gold. It has not been unknown for a street merchant here to con me into buying above the market price, then honour satisfied, give a sudden discount with a smile.

Much less attractive are the dishonest games you find in institutions -- everywhere, not only China. Betrayals often come very cheap, no 30 pieces of silver, just from a whiff of envy, or an unwelcome foot on someone's jealously guarded turf. It's all a matter of degree. The degree has its own particular extremities in mainland Chinese culture of course. A month or so ago two Chinese professors asked me to proof read the English in a new book. It was an imperious demand, made with sudden rude urgency. I looked at the material, and felt a surge of nausea. The book had been stolen from the first page to the last, some from British texts, some from American, some even from books in the tiny collection in my apartment. Not a single acknowledgment. Their editor would publish it, no questions asked, because the publishing house was all part of their guanxi network. For them, it was another gold star to put on their resumes for promotion. They would be offended to be called thieves, and shocked to think that such behaviour, so common amongst academics here, could cost them their jobs and reputations in the West.

This week, a new insight into common Chinese values arrived a little unexpectedly. I have been working hard to give my postgraduates some rudimentary critical skills, a habit actively discouraged by the whole of their prior educational experience. A part of this somewhat forlorn exercise has been class practice in formulating counter arguments. If you challenge every proposition, I try to persuade them, then many of those sweetly reasonable "facts" that you have been storing away suddenly begin to look shaky around the edges. I tell them darkly of the Ptolemaic universe, and how clever people just like them believed the earth was flat for fifteen hundred years. Why? Because some wise fellow told them so, and it was written in books. Many of you, I suggest, are also flat earthers ....

A few, just a few in each class, take to the spirit of this new critical enterprise. One of my lead-in propositions to be challenged has been: "Stealing is wrong, and can never be justified." This is an easy take of course, because their are obvious and universal incentives to steal under certain conditions: the starving man, the poor child in dire need of medical help .. etc. What has been interesting is the spin put on some justifications to steal, the fact that they have come up in seven classes, and the general approval they have evoked amongst 306 postgraduates.

Someone in each group has proposed the Robin Hood scenario, a theme well-known also in Chinese literature. The modern interpretation of this -- and here is the interesting bit -- is that wealth or advantage unfairly gained is fair game for pilfering. What is unfair? Wait for it. It is horrendously unfair that America is a superpower, and rich, and the source of all new things worth having; (the other 80% of the human world is assumed, ipso facto, to be an American branch office where nothing worthwhile ever happens). You can guess the rest. Each time, after this leap has been made, another creative soul will propose that, after all, stealing national secrets from another country -- spying -- can often be justified. General approval all around.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. When are people going to stop seeing their lives as a World Cup soccer match: China Vs America (or Islam Vs America ... or India Vs America, or Russia Vs America). Me, I'm satisfied to be a citizen of the world. Envy is a debilitating condition, and its step-child is that self-pitying sense of injustice that can justify theft, or worse. There are times when Robin Hood and his spiritual descendants are needed to balance up an unequal world. And it often happens that spying, in the sense of learning the other fellow's intentions and capabilities, can prevent a war rather than start one. But when the supposedly best brains in a country, the professors, are pseudo-professors, routinely padding their reputations with stolen books, and when the artifacts of a culture, from tooth brushes to space ships, are routinely fake imitations of someone else's invention, then that culture is perilously close to self-castration.

China is the size of thirty normal countries, with twenty percent of all the humans on this planet. It is a society, or more realistically a collection of societies, in transition. The tiny corner of experience that is Thor May's encounter with China cannot conceivably capture all the mutations in such a place. I see trends, tendencies, tides, but in so large a mass of humanity there will be countless variations and endless experiments in living. Those moods and values which seem to be steering this unwieldy nation state at this moment, might suddenly be overtaken by some other cultural design which is quietly gathering strength in a forgotten corner of the polity.

"All's Fair" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved
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