Wei Zhou is a rare voice in the world of WeChat public accounts, keeping his critiques of contemporary Chinese society just vague enough to stave off censorship (most of the time), yet relevant enough to amass a steady following. This March 30 post, translated in full below, lands in the midst of a nationalist boycott of H&M and other international brands in protest of their pledge not to use cotton from Xinjiang. Several internet users responded to the boycott by calling on their compatriots to “not just support Xinjiang cotton, [but] support Xinjiang people too.” Without mentioning the protests, or even Xinjiang directly, Wei Zhou writes about Chinese society, “In this system, people pay attention to their own feelings and interests, and have a hard time understanding the suffering of others.” There is also a timelessness to Wei Zhou’s analysis, showing how the regime and its purported emphasis on the collective interest in fact turns the collective on its own.
Translator’s note: The term “sophisticated egoists” (jingzhi de liyizhuyizhe 精致的利己主义者), which appears in the middle of the essay, was coined by Peking University professor Qian Liqun to describe university students who are trained to use displays of loyalty for personal advantage.
I’ve said before that there is a sort of “empathy for authority” that is universal in Chinese society: people easily adopt the perspective of those in power, emphasizing that it’s not easy to “be in charge,” or that various methods of control are just and rational. Thus the existing mechanisms appear to be unproblematic. If you do have a problem, then you best find the source of that problem within yourself.
Someone once confided in me that they themselves have the tendency to “empathize with authority,” and that in conversation they tend to defend those in authority, stressing that in a particular instance there are no better options. “I always feel that it’s a little wrong for me to be that way, but I just can’t change.”
Actually, this is understandable. In Chinese families, this is not only extremely common, but also encouraged. From the parents’ perspective, “empathy for authority” proves that a child has gained “maturity” and can see things from the parents’ position. I’m also a father; if my child could appreciate the predicament of their parents and not make a fuss, it would without a doubt save me a lot of worry.
This is definitely not limited to males. A lot of women have been this way from the time they were young. They are even more “mature” than some rebellious boys. A male friend of mine said the invasion of privacy during the pandemic period has created deep divisions among his close friends, and that those who defend these measures are mostly female—“So what if they’re looking into your business?”
However, when considered on a deeper level there are actually two different types of “empathy for authority.” One type adopts the vantage point of “the master of the house.” The other manifests as a dependence on authority, an internalization of rules, a convincing of oneself that the status quo is the best arrangement for everyone, and that in order to obtain security and other basic needs, one must unconditionally conform. Males tend towards the former, whereas females mostly tend towards the latter.
The “thinking about the big picture” so prevalent in Chinese society is its logical extension, emphasizing that every individual should “take the big picture into account” to achieve the optimization of the collective interest. This [idea] certainly has its believers, but the problem is that when it comes to reality, the ones who ultimately compromise are usually the most vulnerable individuals, who have no other choice.
This is not to say that there’s no individual benefit at all, but rather that one has to fend for oneself. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that “the little streams overflow” only after “the large rivers have been filled.” That being the case, this approach is to be more focused on equality of distribution, because the best way to optimize personal benefit is by appealing to the collective interests. This is where so-called “sophisticated egoists” come from.
Herein lies the paradox: a community that appears to be built on the ideal that “every person puts the other first” and that considers the interests of the collective will in the end give birth to a society in which people have difficulty empathizing with others, because the community does not accept the legitimacy of the pursuit of one’s personal interest. Therefore, personal interest cannot help but grow in the constricted space it is allowed.
If you pay even a little attention you will discover that in many situations, the unspoken subtext in China is “why should I care about others’ feelings,” “if worse comes to worst, I’ll do it myself.” This all demonstrates a lack of empathy. The whole of society doesn’t seem to know how to cooperate with others and achieve a win-win scenario. That is because in a closed power structure, others are often seen as potential adversaries. Therefore, people firmly believe that in order to optimize their own personal interest, they must build a power structure with themselves at the center.
In this system, people pay attention to their own feelings and interests, and have a hard time understanding the suffering of others. Sympathy can even be a product of feelings of superiority, sometimes without any real basis—for example, when people feel sympathy after reading reports of “untold suffering” in foreign countries, or when they see that others are single and think these women are “forlorn and friendless.” In other words, this can become (often condescending) “self-centered sympathy,” hence the saying that “an honest man won’t take handouts given out of pity.”
Another type of “cultivated empathy” is a product of the same logic: this causes people to express more empathy than they really feel as a way of demonstrating their own virtue. This is also an essential social skill. A lot of people turn up their noses at this and think it’s hypocritical, that it is essentially a sense of superiority or political correctness. However, in a society that has not yet achieved true equality in the distribution of power, the cost of abandoning it would be gross vulgarization, even if you called it by the fine-sounding name of “authenticity.”
The other day a friend of mine told me that he got into an unresolved dispute with someone in his [WeChat] group about “whether prostitutes deserve respect.” He thought that prostitutes were people and that all professions were equal in dignity. However, the person he was arguing with claimed that the profession was “trashy” and didn’t deserve respect. They even went so far as to say that “If you respect it, then you should let your children do it.” But “following the same logic, I’m also not willing to let my children do lots of things, including becoming handicapped, living as vagrants, or being idiots.” Is it reasonable to say that only those who have become this way deserve our empathy?
What should be noted are the group that call themselves the “liberal party.” Most are Trump fans who are discontent with the current situation in China, which seems to prove on a certain level that “freedom” and “equality” are incompatible. However, one can also see that many people’s vision for social order not only includes different social ranks but also provides that different social roles are unable to empathize with each other. Because of this, “respect” is impossible to realize in practice (just like the vast majority of males are unable to become females). The remainder can only be innumerable isolated groups struggling against one another.
This is why John Rawles’s “veil of ignorance” is so important: Only when people realize that they themselves could possibly fall into a weak position or be in a minority group will they finally be moved by others’ predicaments. Given the way power is distributed and structured in society, the difference among roles prevents this type of empathy. People might think that it’s completely reasonable to let those in the minority make some sacrifices to protect the interests of the majority. But what if you are the price that must be paid?
In order to break through “empathy for authority,” individuals should first pay attention to their own feelings and the power they deserve. Taking this a step further, they should come to realize that the status quo is not the only option available and that there are in fact other possibilities. The problem lies here: reflecting on, and changing, structural reality are always the hardest things to do.
Without changing these elements, the rise in consciousness of individual power will sometimes actually contribute to “sophisticated egoists” and an increased disregard for others, as people may just focus on effecting a “self-centered expansion of power.”
In certain situations, empathy can actually be misused—when positions of power are not distributed equitably, the more empathic are more likely to obey others. A couple of days ago, a female reader shared a comment that left a deep impression on me:
I once told a guy that he was not empathetic enough, but that he could practice. He asked me what being empathetic was good for. I said that it would allow him to better understand other peoples’ difficulties. He asked if that would mean that he would be carried away by others’ emotions. I said that this would be true in some respects. He responded, if that’s the case, I’d rather have low empathy.
As can be seen from this exchange, “empathy” is an understanding you gain within the existing power structure, and that considering others’ feelings means you must make some concessions. On the other hand, bullies don’t need to consider others’ feelings. They can carry forward their own agenda without thinking of others. Power really does inhibit empathy.
Empathy means that you put yourself in others’ shoes. However, for a lot of people this interferes with their concept of self. Because of this, strongly empathetic people must also have a strong heart. This, to a certain extent, borders on a religious spirit, or what Chinese people refer to as “compassion” (cibei 慈悲). Otherwise, they are unable to manage or process all the suffering of the world.
Nowadays, the general approach in China is to focus on personal feelings (“I’ll say whatever I feel like saying”). Our ability to empathize with others has not increased to the same degree; in fact, in many cases it has decreased. This has exacerbated interpersonal conflict. Of course, developing empathy is not intended solely for the purpose of resolving unnecessary conflicts. If that was the goal, it could certainly not be achieved through empathy alone. In the end, it’s likely to result in the individual bearing the heavy burden of society’s problems.
What cannot be denied is that empathy is constrained by costs, conditions, experience, and other factors. It is nearly impossible for someone to have complete empathy for everyone. It’s already rare enough to find someone who has real empathy for their close friends or a small group of people.
When more and more people start to consider the power structure and extricate themselves from it, as modern individuals, we can at least understand others’ feelings while understanding the foundations of our own privilege. In my hometown we have a saying that perfectly conveys a subtle principle about how to act: “treat others as you would treat yourself.” The meaning behind this is simply that others will treat us in the same manner we treat them. [Chinese]
For a fictional treatment of empathy for authority, read Te-Ping Chen’s short story “Gubeikou Spirit.”
Translation by Anonymous. Introduction co-authored by Anonymous and Anne Henochowicz.