Morality in China was a hot topic after two everyday workers risked their lives to save others. The heroics of Zhang Lili, a teacher in Heilongjiang, and Wu Bin, a bus driver from Hangzhou, revived praise of the “people’s hero.”
At a time when social morals are deemed to be in decline, their selfless acts touched many people and sparked hopes of a compassionate society.
But can sound morals really be built solely on the acts of kindness among the grassroots? From a wider perspective, the change in our value system – as society changes – cannot be ignored.
People’s values have been transformed by more than 30 years of market and social liberalisation. The state’s retreat in some aspects of private lives, the dismantling of work units, and the growth of a more diverse and consumerist society have all played important roles.
Traits that in the past were seen as negative, like individualism and the pursuit of personal interests, are now accepted, if not lauded. Conversely, some old virtues have lost favour; thanks to reform and opening up, outdated moral traditions and politics no longer permeate every aspect of society.
But there’s a cost to such rapid change. Social morals are on the decline in some corners, where people care only to protect their own interests, often at the expense of others.
Here, scholar Liang Qichao’s thoughts on civic and private morals are instructive. He said private morals are concerned only with the good of one’s self, while civic morals demand people strive for the good of others.
“Morals in China can be said to have been developed from an early age, but these morals are private virtues, while civic virtues are lacking,” he said.
As China increasingly becomes a contract-based society, it must not only hold on to its private morals, but also develop civic ethics. For too long, this has been missing in Chinese cultural tradition.
So it’s painful to see that today’s China not only lacks civic ethics, but its private virtues are also being somewhat eroded. Perhaps public morals are alive and well among the common folk, as the heroics of Zhang and Wu assure us, but merely holding them up as examples for others to follow only goes so far.
We need to build a code of social conduct that honors the public spirit and lift moral standards as a whole. To do that, we must address the flaws that encourage misdeeds and strengthen the laws and institutions that safeguard morals.
We can blame the widespread abuse of authority for the weak civic spirit in China. In a modern society, private rights and public authority are clearly defined, and rights are protected by law. A citizen’s defense of his private rights is regarded as right and proper, and public authority may not encroach on private rights.
It’s important that we have a system of government that ensures officials stay clean. If corruption and abuse of power at the top are not punished, this will trickle down to, and pervert, the rest of society. It will be hard to muster social cohesion.
The government has a duty to safeguard social morals. Its policies and officials’ behavior must remain above board and lead by example. Good governance can compensate for moral inadequacies, while bad policies can speed up moral decline. Thus, the task at hand is to institute checks on official powers.
Besides trying to improve moral standards through education, the government must do the following:
First, clarify public authority and private rights. In particular, private rights should be respected and protected by the rule of law, so as to nurture civic independence and ethics.
Second, exercise public authority fairly and according to the law. Justice and fairness should be practiced so that morals can develop and society can function normally.
Third, strengthen supervision of powers to ensure openness and transparency. Too many corrupt officials have escaped punishment by using their privileged positions or by engaging in back-room deals, trading money for power. In almost every instance of corruption, there is evidence of abuse of power. This must be curbed by improving public scrutiny of official conduct.
Fourth, the government should deepen social structural reform and give a freer hand to non-governmental organisations so civil society can develop. This will lay the foundations for public morality.
People from all walks of life should work together to build a compassionate and caring society. Ever since the heroics of Zhang and Wu came to light, there has been talk that we should not and cannot rely on the intellectual elite to lead us to a more moral society.
Instead, our hopes must rest with the grassroots. This is absurd reasoning. Are moral paragons found only among the grassroots? This falsely pits one group against another.
Let’s leave aside the abstruse concept of a so-called elite ideology. Even if we divide people into distinct groups, we must see that people with high morals are found across all groups, whether among “ordinary people” or “intellectual elites.” Civic morals are not the responsibility of any one group. Making them so will not only be ineffective in improving moral standards, we also risk polarisation in society.
China is an old country that seeks renewal. Our moral growth will depend on whether we succeed in doing so. -By Caixin Online