Tuesday, March 26, 2013

China's Social Trust Crisis

In November 2012, heavy snow closed a highway outside Beijing. A township government sent workers out to deliver free boxes of rice to drivers stuck on the road. Most drivers were suspicious of the workers and refused the rice. Many would not even open their doors.

This is one of many incidents reflecting the collapse of trust in Chinese society. With trickery and deception so common, China has become a giant "market for lemons." How can you have a healthy economy and society if every product is assumed to be defective or fake and every person offering a service is assumed to be duplicitous?
A man steals what looks like a traditional Chinese coin, 
making the Chinese character for "trust" collapse.

In January 2013, the sociological research institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a social attitudes survey that showed a declining degree of social trust. Over 70 percent of respondents do not trust strangers. Their trust in business operators was particularly low. People in eastern cities had a lower degree of trust than those in western and central cities. It found "complicated" attitudes unfavorable for "social harmony" that were nearing a "tipping point."

One commentary on the CASS findings cites the string of food safety incidents, revelations of abuse of funds by the Chinese Red Cross charity, and corruption for fueling the attitude of distrust.
A mother with her baby runs in fear from a can of China-made milk powder.

Another CASS survey of rural migrants living in cities found a widespread feeling that people are treated unfairly. Forty-seven percent of the migrants said they had been treated unfairly and 64 percent said they thought society was unfair. CASS wrote that people will think society is unfair if they perceive that success is due to external influences like luck, connections, or government policies.

A story about distrust of testing organizations circulated widely last week. The 20,000 residents of a town in Hunan Province refused to believe test results from the county environmental protection bureau and disease control center which purportedly showed that the local tap water was safe to drink. Commentary in the article pointed to a widespread suspicion of testing and certification organizations. In this instance, the article pointed out, the interests of the environmental bureau, disease control center and the water-supply company are aligned since they are either government organizations or owned by the government. It cited a series of incidents where testing results were manipulated and the common practice of buying organic food certifications. According to the article, officials complain that people refuse to believe anything they tell them. The article points out that testing organizations have lost their credibility and authority due to their loss of independence.
Inspections, tests and certifications in a 
pharmaceutical factory are depicted as puppets for show. 

In 1999, a Beijing University sociology professor's incisive article, "How Can I Trust You? The Current Crisis of Trust and Solutions," observed that "counterfeits, swindling and corruption became a kind of harmful social pathology," and called it "a crisis of trust." He wrote that, without trust "people live in fear, whether real or imagined." If you see wine, the first thought is whether it will make you blind. A friendly smile makes one think of a wolf in sheep's clothing. You can't set foot on a bridge without fearing that it might collapse under you. If you go to the hospital to have your appendix removed, you worry that your stomach will be cut out.

He commented that the troubling thing is that such things are happening all around us. The article cites examples of counterfeit products, shoddy construction, swindlers and cheats going back to the early 1990s. Today, nearly 15 years after the article was written, it still accurately describes the pervasive distrust in Chinese society.

The Beijing University Professor observed a declining sense of morality and trust among younger generations. He commented that counterfeits had become pervasive and officials were often in league with counterfeiters. "Crackdowns on counterfeits" often became "counterfeit crackdowns." He observed that even trust among acquaintances and family members was breaking down, citing a "cooked to kill" phenomenon in which friends set each other up for a swindle.

The roots of the distrust problem are deep and complicated. A CASS sociologist cited a dynamic transformation of society, changes in social attitudes and diversification of interests. With people moving outside their established social networks they lose traditional mechanisms for trust. He blamed the growing divide between rich and poor which leaves many lacking a voice in society.

The Beijing University Professor delved deeper into the issue. In traditional Chinese society individual trust is established through mutual obligations and expectations in positions of hierarchical networks in families and villages. The traditional trust mechanisms rely on a patriarch who typifies moral authority. It depends on "gentlemen," "sages," and "heroes" who pull along everyone else. Laws are not very important in the mechanism for establishing trust in traditional Chinese society. He cited a deeply-rooted "rule by man" that trumps "rule of law" in traditional Chinese society. The trust in laws themselves is minimal. More important is to trust the people who enforce the laws.

The Professor says this system can mobilize people quite well, but only under certain conditions. People have to be indoctrinated in expected attitudes of self-discipline, leniency toward others, shame in making requests, refraining from advocating one's own rights. Patriarchs must be exemplars of morality, role models, and not face threats from competing leaders.

These traditional trust mechanisms don't translate well to "modern" globalized society. A market economy is based on interactions with large numbers of people and organizations outside one's social network. In contemporary China laws are still not taken seriously, but there are no "gentlemen". If you behave as a gentlemen, you will soon get swindled since you deal with many people who feel no sense of obligation to you. If you expect everyone else to flout the laws and act in their own interest, you will do the same. You can't rely on laws for your protection--it's rule by man, not rule by law. You must give gifts and red envelopes filled with cash to the man (or lady) and build a new network of obligations. Anyone you don't have an obligation to is a mark for a swindle.

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