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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, July 05, 2010

China's Crisis of Faith 

Just when I thought I'd heard everything...

The Communist Party decided to hold a press conference for the foreign media. I guess it's part of the party's pitch for more openness, or something. A reporter from CNN asked whether it was true that most people join the party to help them get a good job, rather than because of their belief in Communism. The party official responded that only a few applicants "may not have very correct motives for seeking Party membership." As a response to the question asked, it was ludicrous. But viewed in the context of today's China, it was strangely appropriate. I will try to explain.

I have been in China for over six years now. Several times over the past six years, young people have asked me whether I thought they should join the Party. I always respond with a question:

"Why do you want to join the Communist Party?" Always, without exception, the answer is the same:

"Because I want to get a good job." Never, ever, have I had a young person respond by saying, "I want to uphold the cause of Marxism." So when I read the response, it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud (I was on the bus). In China, when an official is confronted with an inconvenient reality, an emphatic, face-saving denial is the default answer. So one should not be too surprised by a denial like this in response to such an embarrassing question. Still, this one takes the cake. If joining the party for the purpose of advancing one's career is to be regarded as an ulterior motive, then it is not a small minority of people who join the party with "incorrect motives." It is absolutely everyone. If you ask a hundred young people what would make them want to join the Party, I can assure you that all one hundred of them would list career advancement as their main, if not their only reason. Eating lunch with some friends yesterday after church, I mentioned the Communist Party official's response to the CNN reporter's question. Of course, they all laughed. On the surface, anyone who knows anything about China would agree that his remarks were disingenuous.

But there is another way to look at this. You see, in today's China, joining the party for the sake of advancing one's career is not considered inappropriate. Making money is the goal right now. The party encourages this. In fact, if a young person joining the a party were questioned about his motives for joining, and responded that he wanted to uphold the cause of Marxism and smash the capitalist running dogs, he would probably be viewed as a wacko and rejected. That kind of thinking is not politically correct these days. What is politically correct is making money.

When I first came to China, young freshmen from the countryside would ask me, "Professor Eric, what's the difference between socialism and capitalism?" Interesting. These are the brightest kids in China. They have been all the way through the educational system, and had all the indoctrination the government could give them, and they are asking me, a foreigner, to tell them the difference. Why? Because they don't know. And their teachers don't know. I have talked to their teachers. Here's the problem: In today's China, it is not politically correct to espouse Marxist philosophy. But it is also not politically correct to publicly admit that we no longer follow Marxist teaching. So whatever system we adopt in China, we must call it socialism. That's why Hu Jintao dresses up in a Mao suit on National Day (which he wouldn't be caught dead wearing any other time) and says that "Socialism is the only hope for China." Naturally, the young people are confused. They look around them, and they say, "If this is socialism, what is capitalism?" And I have to tell them, "This isn't socialism. Your grandparents had socialism." I was discussing this problem with a friend of mine some time ago. This is a professional woman with a master's degree, but her response did not surprise me, "Please tell me, what is the difference between socialism and capitalism?"

I told her the same thing I told my students: "If you have a company, do you think you should own the company, or do you think the government should own it, and you just work for them?" My students were quite emphatic. They wanted to own the company. I said, "Then you're a capitalist. If you think the government should own it, then you are a socialist." Socialism has the simplest definition in the dictionary. "Public ownership of the means of production." The reason the issue is confusing is not because the terms are not easy to understand. The issue is confused because China has abandoned socialism, but cannot admit it. So the only alternative is to redefine the terms. So when a young person applies to join the party, their ignorance of the difference between socialism and capitalism is not a problem, because the odds are that the party official examining them doesn't know either.

We were talking about this one time at the English corner, and one guy said, "You're right. But you're not completely right, because in China we have state owned enterprises, and you don't have anything like that in America. Well, I had to concede his point. So perhaps China is more socialist than America. But my point is that if you ask the average person to list the companies they have dealt with during any business day, the bulk of them would be private businesses. A quick stop at a sidewalk restaurant or something like McDonald's (private business) for breakfast, then perhaps taking the subway (public business) to work (most likely at a private company). Lunch at some sort of restaurant or concession (private business), then back to work until quitting time. Maybe stop and pick up some things at a store, which is most certainly going to be a private enterprise--I have never seen a government grocery. Go home and spend time with the family, or go to a movie at a theater, which will most definitely be a private company.

You see, if you examine the companies with which most people have to do during a given day, the majority of them will be private. Why? Because China is not a socialist country, and does not have a socialist economy. True, if you have a car (which you purchased from a private dealer, not the government) and you stop for gas, you would have a couple choices: Sinopec or Petro China, both of which are SOE's. But they are the exception that proves the rule. China actually has a very Republican economy, and economic policy is crafted by government economists who are the cream of the crop from Wharton, MIT, or the Harvard Business School. Since China is not a democracy, economic policy is not burdened by the costly and wasteful pork barrel projects that are so typical in the American legislative process. That sort of corruption (and it is corruption) would never be tolerated here in China. The Chinese prefer bribery, which brings me to my main point:

The newspaper article says, "No 'faith crisis' in CPC." Is there a crisis of faith? In the strictest sense, no, there isn't. Young people who join the party definitely do not believe in Marxism. But the party doesn't either, so where is the crisis of faith? There is no crisis of faith in the party. Young people I talk to do not believe in Marxism, but they generally seem to be satisfied with the job the party is doing. The party does bring a measure of stability. I know, we can argue all day about "stability at what cost," but nevertheless, China is a reasonably stable place to live and work.

So I don't see a crisis of faith in the party. But there is definitely a crisis of faith in the society proper. Many, many times over the past six and a half years that I have been in China, people have said to me, "We Chinese don't believe in anything. We have no belief." I lived in America for forty years, and I never once heard anyone say that. Chinese people don't know what they believe, and they are not exactly certain what the party believes, because the party is never straightforward about this (as the official's response illustrates so beautifully).

I was talking to a PLA officer one time. I said, "The Communist Party doesn't believe in Marxism anymore. You know that. I know that. Why don't they just say it? Why don't they just come out and admit that they no longer believe in Marxism?" He said, "The Communist Party came to power under the banner of Marxism. If they say that they no longer believe in Marxism, what is their basis for power?"

A friend of mine studied political theory in university. Then she became a Christian. I put this question to her. She said, "If the Communist Party admits that they no longer believe in Marxism, the next logical question is, 'Then what do you believe?' and they don't have an answer to that question."

I believe that these two thoughtful observations frame the context which defines the crisis of faith in this country. It is hard for the general populace to develop a deep sense of loyalty to the values of their country, because nobody knows for sure what those values are. Freedom? No. Democracy? Definitely not. The belief that all men are created equal? No, not that either. The cause of the proletariat? No. The common people routinely have their property confiscated so that corrupt officials can make money on development. So what do Chinese people believe in? I went to the English Corner once and asked a bunch of people that question. The answers were insightful. Listen to the podcast of that interview and see what you think. Toward the end of my interview, I turned to a young lady, and said, "What do you believe?" She said, "I believe in myself." This is the crisis of faith in China. It is every man for himself. Get what you can for yourself and your family. If you can do it legally, fine. If not, just be sure you don't get caught, but don't worry about anything else, because there is no God to whom you might ultimately be accountable.

What hope is there for such a morally ambivalent society? Fortunately there is one presence in society that is very encouraging. Christian young people in China are barred from government service in China (because they cannot join the Party), so they are free to give themselves wholeheartedly to the church. There is a growing body of very bright, intelligent young people in this country who hold themselves to high moral standards, and refuse to be part of the corrupt system around them. They love God, and they love China. In China, the Party has power. Church people have no power, and are not interested in power. I never met a more apolitical group of people than Chinese Christians. They don't know anything about politics and power, and don't want to. But the Christian Church is a strong and growing influence in society, because Christians are the one group of people in this country who know for sure what they believe.

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