The Chinese Individual and His Relation to Society in Contemporary China - 中欧社会论坛 - China Europa Forum

The Chinese Individual and His Relation to Society in Contemporary China

CHINA-EUROPE FORUM 2010 – Hangzhou Zhejiang University 9-11th July 2010

Authors: Mieke Matthyssen

Chinese society is traditionally characterized as a collectivist society in which the individual’s position and importance is determined by the type of relation within the larger whole. The roots of this kind of societal structure can be found in both Daoism and Confucianism (cfr. presentation of professor Bart Dessein). Daoist and Confucian ways of thinking are still deeply rooted in the minds of the average Chinese. However, the specific external conditions such as the mainly agrarian, family-oriented society and the social instability of the period of the Spring-and-Autumn Period (722-481 BC) and the Warring States Period (481-221 BC) that gave rise to these two philosophical systems in the past, are less present in contemporary Chinese society. The main change came from the switch from a clan or family-oriented society into a more individualistic society due to the opening up of the economy and, as a result, the growing wealth. This societal evolution had a strong influence on the position and function of the individual in a part-whole relation with emphasis on the whole. Growing individualism in the particular form of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ is also illustrative for the changing relation individual-society. As such, this changing relation is quite remarkable for a society in which the value of an individual was traditionally measured in function of his value for society.

From the ’80s on, becoming rich in any possible way provided a new sense of individual freedom and individual rights. Nevertheless, this also implied a heavy burden disguised as a social duty. Although it is generally accepted that this newly acquired ‘freedom’ was warmly welcomed, especially by the Chinese youth, most Chinese could not possibly foresee what the impact of the new liberal course on the welfare system and their feelings of social and general security would be. The consequences on grassroots level of this new economic policy were only experienced later, when millions of people got laid-off without any compensation, health insurance became an unaffordable private issue, and abuse by those in power (corruption) flourished.

To deal with these new problems of financial and social insecurity, the Chinese seem to have efficiently adapted their lifestyles and personal values according to the capitalist ideal of getting rich. Care for relatives, far-away family members and close neighbors have become less important. Instead, pragmatic self-preservation is now imperative for surviving.

Moreover, growing personal autonomy and self-reliance gave rise to more and more identity-building through choosing one’s own priorities in life instead of blindly adopting the ideals imposed by the Party. For many, the ideal of ‘serving the people’ lost a lot of its appeal, and political apathy as well as public criticism are increasing. Criticism is most apparent in the form of blogging. However, it rarely concerns public deviant behavior, and although there is no large reader’s public, it can be noted that people at least express their thoughts more freely, going as far as infringing on state policy.

How does the state react to this lack of interest in ‘serving the state’ and critical voices in society? One of the most obvious policy tools is the omnipresent nationalist propaganda, focusing on the individual contribution to the glory of the nation to tighten the relation individual-state. To reinforce these nationalistic feelings, the promotion of traditional culture and in particular Confucian thought by the state is now undergoing a strong revival.

Apart from a growing individual detachment from the state, there are also signs of a constructive change in the relation individual versus society. Probably one of the best examples is the emergence of a Chinese civil society (gongmin shehui), in which the individual can express his concern for private and social issues. Another (potentially) significant development that expresses a positively changing relation state-individual is the effort the government makes to set up more rule of law (fazhi), in particular with respect to civil rights.

In general, we can say that the path to modernization, with its growing individualism and the challenges this poses on both individual and on state level, is not always a ‘harmonious’ one. There is indeed more criticism and less self-effacing in favor of the state, but at the same time we can discern two very positive societal developments: the emergence of a civil society and the growing importance of the concept of ‘rule of law’. That this process will benefit social cohesion and harmony in a different way than it did before in Chinese history should not distress us. Whatever the outcome may be, it is clear that the individual in contemporary China gained a new form of self-assurance.

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