China Needs a New Ethos

 In China, GDI, Air, Environment

For the last few decades the Chinese gov­ern­ment has relied great­ly on the legit­i­ma­cy of afflu­ence. That is, it has pro­mot­ed a vision of a soci­ety in which every Chinese per­son can have an afflu­ent way of life, defined in terms of an ever-high­er stan­dard of liv­ing, based on increased con­sump­tion of mate­r­i­al goods. Consumerism as a major source of legit­i­ma­cy served the Chinese gov­ern­ment well, as eco­nom­ic growth was very high: Millions moved from pover­ty to the mid­dle-class – from out­hous­es and car­ry­ing water from the town’s well to air-con­di­tioned con­dos in Shanghai. The fact that sev­er­al hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple have not made such a tran­si­tion did not under­mine the con­sumerist legit­i­ma­cy, because it was assumed that they soon would fol­low in the foot­steps of those who already had made it.

Very much in line with stud­ies of aspi­ra­tions that show that the more read­i­ly one achieves one’s goals, the more extend­ed one’s expec­ta­tions – the Chinese pub­lic assumes that the excep­tion­al rise of wealth and accom­pa­ny­ing con­sump­tion will con­tin­ue. Indeed, dur­ing short slumps in the past, Chinese con­sumers con­tin­ued to spend unabashed­ly. Moreover, in recent years, mid­dle-class Chinese start­ed to demand not mere­ly more mate­r­i­al goods but also bet­ter ser­vices, bet­ter health care and qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, and more pub­lic goods, such as reduced pol­lu­tion.

As I see it, the legit­i­ma­cy of con­sumerism is self-defeat­ing even if a nation can main­tain a high rate of eco­nom­ic growth, because peo­ple will expect ever more, and no growth rate could keep up with their explo­sion of wants. In fact, stud­ies of hap­pi­ness tend to show that once a rel­a­tive­ly low lev­el of con­sump­tion has been achieved, addi­tion­al growth pro­vides lit­tle addi­tion­al con­tent­ment. (I sum­ma­rized and ana­lyzed these stud­ies in Happiness is the Wrong Metric, a book one can down­load with­out charge here.)

Consumerist legit­i­ma­cy is par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­lenged when eco­nom­ic growth slows and the slow­down extends over sev­er­al years, as is the case in China now, and there is lit­tle rea­son to believe that China can return to a high-growth path­way. The gov­ern­ment can paper over the result­ing ten­sions by increas­ing spend­ing and urg­ing peo­ple to buy more; how­ev­er, these acts have obvi­ous built-in lim­i­ta­tions. The gov­ern­ment can­not spend end­less­ly with­out either increas­ing tax­es (which would curb con­sump­tion) or build­ing up a debt that would drain cap­i­tal from the pri­vate mar­kets. And peo­ple who save less find their sav­ings emp­tied all too quick­ly.

China has a cul­tur­al his­to­ry on which it can draw to form a new ethos; how­ev­er, to sim­ply argue that it should return to rely on tra­di­tion­al val­ues will not do. First of all, China has sev­er­al dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tions, includ­ing Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism, each of which is open to dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions. Some of these tra­di­tions may well exac­er­bate the prob­lem rather than alle­vi­ate it. For instance, a renewed stress on mianzi (face) is quite com­pat­i­ble with con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion and the lux­u­ry-good fren­zy. Similarly, the call to inte­grate Chinese val­ues with Western con­sump­tion has led many Chinese not to buy few­er lux­u­ry goods, but to pur­chase more of those that are local­ly pro­duced and that have Chinese char­ac­ter attached to them. The anti-cor­rup­tion dri­ve, ini­ti­at­ed by President Xi Jinping in 2012, has a ben­e­fi­cial side effect, as par­ty offi­cials scaled back their con­sump­tion, which led some oth­ers to cut back on their dis­plays of wealth. However, clear­ly an anti-cor­rup­tion dri­ve can­not suf­fice to make an ethos.

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Most promis­ing is the revival of inter­est in Confucianism. Confucianism can be inter­pret­ed, like all belief sys­tems, in a vari­ety of ways. Max Weber famous­ly com­pared it to the Protestant eth­ic, which in effect defined hard work and mate­r­i­al suc­cess as crit­i­cal aspects of moral­i­ty and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. In con­trast, oth­ers see Confucianism as favor­ing mod­esty, inter­per­son­al rela­tions, self-efface­ment, and “being rather than doing.” Out of such val­ues, China may weave a mod­ern com­mu­ni­tar­i­an ethos that does not call for absti­nence, for a life of sacks and ash­es but, rather, for one that calls for cap­ping  mate­r­i­al con­sump­tion by stress­ing the need to bal­ance the pur­suit of mate­r­i­al goods with that of inter­per­son­al and com­mu­nal ones.

China may also find that it can draw on the literati peri­od, in which high val­ue was accord­ed to learn­ing (includ­ing phi­los­o­phy, poet­ry, and cal­lig­ra­phy). A com­mit­ment to life­long learn­ing would suit well the age of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and a world that is chang­ing ever-more rapid­ly.

There is a strong temp­ta­tion to ramp up nation­al­ism as a source of legit­i­ma­cy. Nationalism can be patri­ot­ic, lim­it­ed to love of coun­try, but it also can be cap­tured by aggres­sive urges. Hence, it is  par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to devel­op one form or anoth­er of a com­mu­ni­tar­i­an ethos, mar­ry­ing select tra­di­tion­al Chinese val­ues with self-restrain­ing con­sump­tion, all ideals which are inher­ent­ly peace­ful. Because these val­ues favor acts that are leave a small foot­print, acts that entail lit­tle out­lays of cap­i­tal and labor, they also con­tribute to cli­mate con­trol and envi­ron­men­tal accom­mo­da­tions, impor­tant to China and to the rest of the world.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and pro­fes­sor of inter­na­tion­al affairs at The George Washington University. Click here to watch a recent, four-minute video of “Political and Social Life after Trump, a new book.” His lat­est book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was pub­lished by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is avail­able for  down­load with­out a charge.

Source: The Diplomat

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