Sun Liping (孙立平): The Biggest Threat to China is not Social Turmoil but Social Decay (Part II)

sunlipingchinaqinghuaSun Liping (孙立平) is a professor in the Sociology Department of Tsinghua University. He was also the PhD superviser of Xi Jinping, the current vice-president of the People’s Republic of China and probable successor to President Hu Jintao. Professor Sun’s main research area is modernization and transitional sociology. He wrote the following post on his sociology blog on Feb. 28. It is being widely read in the Chinese blogosphere, and has appeared in major news websites such as Netease and Southern Net.

The entire post has been translated by CDT’s Linjun Fan. Please click here to read Part I. Here is the second section:

7. People’s sense of social belonging and cohesion are declining rapidly. The State lost several billions in the CCTV fire accident. However, many people gloated over it on the Internet. There was no sadness or sorrow. This gloating sentiment reflects an unspoken pleasure. Some said that it reflects people’s indifference. Some said that our nation has fallen beyond rescue. Some asked those who gloated over the accident whether it ever came to their mind that they have a share in the billions of assets destroyed in the fire, since CCTV is owned by the state. I remembered that many people wept on street after a large fire accident took place in Shenyang in the 80s. So the reason is not that the Chinese people are ill-natured. What is the real problem? It is that people have lost their sense of belonging in the society. They cried in the Shenyang Fire because they felt that what was destroyed was “ours.” However, in the CCTV fire incident, some people said, let the billions of assets be burned, since it will be eaten away by officials anyway. Some even said that they felt bad that lots of water was used to put out the fire, since we are suffering from drought. These opinions reflect a sense of alienation among many in the public. They feel that the assets belong to “them,” instead of “us”. The psychological alienation reflects a structural alienation [in our society.]


8. The society has lost the ability to think ahead to the long-term. The interest group that formed from the combination of power and money just focused on the present. They don’t have either a sense of responsibility that ancient emperors felt towards future generations, or an aristocratic spirit of detachment and transcendence. In our society, there is a tendency to exaggerate short-term problems and ignore long-term ones. We are extremely nervous about the problems in front of our eyes, but have no sight on the issues that will impact our offspring and our long-term development. Getting drunk when there is some liquor available, this is our institutional behavior. We exhaust our reproductive capacity in resources and the environment. We procrastinate systematic reform again and again. Handan [a small city in Hebei provonce] has changed seven mayors in ten years. A mayor’s average term nationwide is 1.7 years. The new administration needs to have a transitional period from the previous one and then needs to look for successors… Officials only care about power and the immediate distribution of interests. They don’t have much time for real business.


9. Why are our anti-corruption measures ineffective? Those with vested interests are weighing their options: Which one is more threatening, corruption, or allowing the social institutional measures deal with the corruption? Anti-corruption measures have been very superficial in the past decades. They were mostly ceremonial, killing chicken to scare the monkeys, and failed to address the real problem. Although many people know the right tools to counter corruption, they refrain from adopting them. For those measures to be implemented in a socially institutionalized way would be particularly threatening to the leaders.


10. It is a tiring effort to maintain vested interests. However, our society has put so much energy and resources into this effort. To safeguard vested interests, (the government) has to suppress freedom of expression. Just think about it, how much energy and resources have we used to suppress freedom of expression? To safeguard vested interests, the government has to take all means to try to avoid democracy. Please consider this, how much effort have we devoted in order to avoid democracy? How many excuses and theories have we devised for this purpose? To safeguard vested interests, we have to suppress the righteous expression of opinions from the public, which has caused numerous mass incidents. How much energy have we devoted to deal with the problems of mass incidents? To safeguard vested interests, we are afraid to take the anti-corruption measures which have been proven effective in other countries. Instead, we have to use these cumbersome and useless means characterized in the mass mobilization era. How many resources and energy have been wasted? Take in mind that it is difficult to achieve the double goals of maximizing vested interests and keeping the society operating steadily. Thus, we have a system that’s tiring. Many government administrators are exhausted. They carry a heavy psychological burden. More importantly, we will pay a high price in the long-term for the purpose of safeguarding vested interests. For instance, why are we criticizing universal values so fiercely? Which elements in universal values make us so indignant? Well, it’s nothing but democracy and freedom, because the two things threaten vested interests. Since it doesn’t sound good to criticize democracy and freedom directly, the government targeted the term “universal values.” In an era of a spiritual and moral vacuum, when even universal values have become the object of political attack, one can only imagine the impact [to the public morality]. But in order to maintain their vested interests, the government has to do so.


11. The fundamental cause of social decay is the marriage between political power and capitalism. Many people regarded power and the market as two separate things in the past. Now we can see that the two have joined hands in China. It’s like two persons, who were thought impossible to get married, have come together now. And they get along very well. We thought that power would be constrained in a market economy. However, we have now seen that power has acquired a higher value and a bigger space for exertion because of marketization. The market is a market in which power plays a big role. Power is the power being exercised in the market. This is the problem we are faced with. The vested interest groups, formed by the combination of power and the market, make the public feel estranged, as I pointed out in an earlier analysis in 2002. This has broken down the society and formed a divide of “us” vs. “them”, producing psychological alienation.


12. How should the intellectuals look at the union of power and money? We have to regulate power as well as the market. But more importantly, we have to cut off the links between the two. Mr. Mao Yushi proposed recently that we should not allow the rich to command power, and should not allow those in power to obtain money. He was making points similar to mine. We must see the union of wealth and power is the key problem. Here is a metaphor for such situation: [state] power and wealth [market], two seemingly impossible to marry people formed a family, and have a really good life. The leftist and the rightist scholars argue against each other when they discuss the issue of the marriage between power and market. Some said that the husband is the good one, but the wife is bad. Others said that the wife is good, it’s the husband who has problems. They argue against each other endlessly, failing to see that the couple live happily together.

12. 面对权钱结合时的中国思想界。对于权钱的结合,既要规范权力,也要规范市场。但更重要的是要切断两者结合的链条。最近茅于轼先生提出,不让有钱的人有势,不让有权的人捞钱。说的也是这个道理。要看到,关键的问题是权钱的结合。但目前中国思想界的情况好有一比:权力和金钱两个看起来不能结婚的两个人组成了一个小家庭,而且日子过的还相当不错。这时,左派和右派的分歧形成了,一派说,你家的丈夫是个好丈夫,妻子是个坏妻子;另一派说,他家的妻子才是好妻子,丈夫是个坏丈夫。并为此吵得不可开交。殊不知,人家小两口日子过得甜甜蜜蜜。

13. Because we have taken a variety of measures to “maintain stability”, we could not advance the necessary reforms to build a healthy society; as a result social decay has intensified. Social unrest could be dealt with by “stability-maintaining” methods. But social decay is hard to treat. When Joseph Estrada, the former President of the Philippines, lost his power, an editorial in an American paper commented that it might take a century for people in this country to recover from the damage caused by corruption. When corruption becomes a way of life, when it becomes something beyond reproach, and when it becomes something everyone denounces and at the same time desires, the whole society has entered a state of maldevelopment. History will prove that “stability” would not override everything else; instead, it might destroy everything else. Because such a rigid focus on stability will stifle the efforts in their cradle which could make our country healthier.


14. The combination of power and money and the resulting corruption has fundamentally distorted China’s social development. It was the 30th anniversary of China’s reform last year. It could have been a good point for people to look back on the reform and reflect on it in a profound way. However, the opportunity was wasted by superficial eulogies and cliches. This shows that we have lost the courage and capability to face reality, including the reform. In fact, the reform has in a sense become a predatory war on wealth, as I pointed out in a series of articles in 2005. The consensus on reform has largely collapsed, and the motivation behind it has basically disappeared. Why is that? It’s because the reform has been constrained within the framework of vested interests, and even really open-minded reformers are not able to break the constraints. In this case, a mechanism has been formed to twist reform policies. Even well-intentioned policies fail to make a difference.

14、权钱结合以及由此形成的腐败,从根本上扭曲了中国社会发展的进程。去年是中国改革30 周年。本来,在这样一个重要时刻,人们期待着对改革的认真总结和深刻反思,期待将30年这样一个时刻作为发展新的起点。但遗憾的是,廉价的颂扬、言不及义的套话,使得这个大好的时机被放过。这说明,我们已经失去了面对现实,包括面对改革的勇气和能力。实际上,正如我在2005年的一系列文章中所强调的,改革从某种意义上说已经开始成为财富掠夺的战争,改革的共识已经基本破灭,改革的动力已经基本丧失。原因何在?就在于改革已经受制于既有的既得利益框架,即使是真正开明的改革者也无法摆脱这种制约。在这种情况下,扭曲改革的机制已经形成。即使是出发点良好的改革,最后的结果往往也是南辕北辙。

15. In fact, China’s reform is not as good as some people think it is, nor is it as bad as others believe. I have always disagreed with the idea that we should completely credit the reform for our economic development and improvement in people’s living standards. The economy would have developed without the reform, as long as we didn’t have natural or man-made disasters. Some people compare today’s living standards with those 30 years ago to illustrate the success of reform. Actually an important factor is the decrease in birthrate and average family sizes, besides technological advancement. Imagine how our lives would have been if each family in Chinese cities had three children. I am not trying to dismiss reform. Instead, I want to remind us to have a rational perspective of it. The real value of reform is to turn China from a deformed and distorted society into a normal one, and to make it join the mainstream civilization of human societies. Market economy is just a limited part of it. This process is far from being finished. Instead, it seems that we have walked backward in recent years.


16. There were some innate deficiencies in China’s reform policies. We could look anew at some problems if we reflect on the reasons for starting reform. Actually China’s reform was not prompted by the fact that “the nation’s economy had come to the edge of collapse.” Instead, it was a result of several forces joining hands. Among them were the general public’s desire to improve their living standards, intellectuals’ desire to change the status quo, and more importantly, the request of those who lost power during the Cultural Revolution to regain power. There were two groups of people in the last category. One group wanted to go back to the years before the Cultural Revolution; and the other group wanted to advance to a new civilization. The reform of the early 80s was conducted by this group of people. They were confident (to lead the country to a better future), because what they left behind was the absurd era of the Cultural Revolution. This confidence brought about the enlightenment atmosphere in the 80s. However, this appearance of open-mindedness concealed the fundamental deficiency of the reform — it lacks a goal of advancing toward a new civilization and embracing new values.


17. Maintaining stability has become a tool to safeguard the structure of vested interests.


[The translation is now complete.]


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