China‘syoung, spoiled kids are rejecting traditional values. But can the state makeMao or Confucius seem relevant again — before it’s too late?
Samuel Johnson, the great English author,once quipped that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Intoday’s China, however, state-mandated patriotism is not seen as such a refuge,but merely as one among a range of options being test-marketed by a rulingCommunist Party anxious to install a code of values to replace the discardedtenets of Lenin, Marx, and Mao.
Nowadays, of course, a government seekingto clarify its nation’s values is nothing out of the ordinary. Prime MinisterGordon Brown sought to reach a definition of “Britishness” for the21st century (as usual with the British, the result was a muddle, includingtolerance, liberty, fair play, and civic duty). And in France, NicolasSarkozy has been engaged in an ongoing debate about Gallic values, particularlythe country’s devotion to secularism.
Both of these efforts were manifestationsof a growing unease among ordinary British and French people at what they seeas a failure by immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, to assimilate intothe national culture. The fears that have stimulated China’s search for values, however,are purely homegrown: a young generation that seems adrift between the rabidnationalism of Internet chat rooms and a globalized materialism unconnected totraditional family responsibilities.
So worrying is the behavior of today’s”little emperors” — the products of the country’s one-child families– that Beijingis preparing a law to impose a legal duty on young people to visit and care fortheir aged parents. Indeed, the proposed amendment to the “Law onProtection of the Rights and Interests of the Aged” would allow elderlypeople to go to court to claim their right to be physically and mentally lookedafter by their children.
Filial piety has long been a tenet oftraditional Chinese culture and is a core concept of Confucianism. Today,however, many young people not only shirk this duty, but insist that it isactually the duty of parents to do all they can to care for them, even asadults. Small wonder, then, that a popular insult hurled at the currentgeneration of young Chinese is to call them ken lao zu — the generation thatsucks the blood of their parents, i.e., the vampire generation.
So how are today’s young Chinese to bemotivated? Patriotism is one possible tool. But because any sign of Beijing manipulating nationalist sentiment is bound to setalarm bells ringing among China’sneighbors, the sort of patriotism it is peddling to the young is mostly kitsch,not xenophobic bile. In Chongqing,for example, Bo Xilai, the city party secretary, has been enforcing a Maoistcultural revival in schools and public workplaces. People are called upon tosing Mao-era “red songs,” and Bo himself frequently sends textmessages to his underlings that are strewn with quotes from Mao’s Little RedBook. The quasi-sacramental impact of these efforts is fawned over to theextent that Chongqing’stelevision stations and newspapers now point to the singing of Maoist songs asa cure for depression and other mental illnesses.
Another device that party leaders have beendeploying as a way to tame the powerful forces that modernization has unleashed– lack of morals and identity, rampant materialism — is Confucianism. Soconfident was the leadership that a revival of Confucianism was a way forwardthat, in January, a monument to the sage was installed in front of theForbidden City in Tiananmen Square. A31-foot-tall bronze statue of Confucius sat just across from the mausoleum ofMao, who had once demonized the sage and the traditional values for which hestood.
From the start, this state-promotedConfucian revival has had detractors within the party hierarchy. The sayings ofConfucius that emphasize social order, family harmony, and deference to theexisting political system are no doubt perfectly agreeable to today’s partyelders, whatever their ideological leanings. But the problem with Confucius isthat awkward elements in his thinking — his stress on the virtuous rule of thegovernment and the possibility of losing the “Mandate of Heaven”through which a ruler possesses the legitimate right to govern — kept bubblingto the surface as intellectuals explored the full range of Confucian thoughts,not just the fragments offered by the party. So, in the dark of night earlierthis month, that Confucius statue disappeared from Tiananmen Square without any public explanation.
Although both patriotism and Confucianismhave their obvious limits in the party’s eyes, they are still superior to theother system of values that some Chinese intellectuals seek to promote:universal values. Indeed, an ideological debate has been smoldering across China for the past five years about whetheruniversal values — freedom, democracy, and human rights — have any role atall to play in today’s China.
虽然爱国主义和儒教在档的眼中有明显的局限性，但是相对于一些中国知识分子试图倡导的价值观体系（即普世价值）来说，它们仍然是不二之选。中国在过去的五年中，在意识形态领域其实一直在不温不火地进行着一场关于普世价值——自由、民 主和人 权——是否在今日的中国获得一席之地的讨论。
That debate reached its peak in 2008 when,following the Sichuanearthquake of that year, the Guanzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekendpublished an editorial praising the government’s actions in response to thetragedy, singling out “its commitments to its own people and to the wholeworld with respect to universal values.” That mention of universal rightsenraged party hard-liners, who feared the possibility of democracy protestsbreaking out in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. When the games ended,the party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, denounced the supportersof universal values as people trying to westernize China into a place that would nolonger uphold “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
那场讨论在2008年达到高潮。那年四川地震之后，一家广州的报纸《南方周末》发表社论，对政府应对灾难的行动表示称赞，并特别称赞其“向自己的人民，向全世界兑现自己对于普世价值的承诺”。该报对普世价值的提法令档内强硬派大为恼怒，他们害怕在北京奥运会筹备期间会因此而爆发民 主抗议活动。奥运会结束以后，该档官方喉舌《人民日报》公开指责普世价值的支持者试图将中国西化为不再拥护“中国特色的社会 主 义”的国家。
So China’s search for valuescontinues, clumsily and uncertainly, with no school in the lead. Even the leadershipseems uncertain about which direction to take, though the soon-to-be presidentXi Jinping did offer praise for Bo Xilai’s Maoist revivalism on his recentvisit to Chongqing.How that search ends is important, for the values that China eventually identifies and adheres to inthe future matters not only to China,but for the wider world. For these values — whatever they are — will help toshape the actions, and the reactions, of the new Asian superpower.