WASHINGTON—In a book recently published by Brookings Institution Press, Chinese professor He Huaihong proposes a new social ethics for a society that many observers, both inside and outside China, said is in a state of moral crisis.
An historian, ethicist, social critic, and unapologetic defender of Confucianism, professor He proposes an intellectual framework to guide people’s behavior and restore social ethics to China so that it can take its place among other nations without shame. Professor He spoke at the Brookings Institution on Nov. 6 on his new book, “Social Ethics in a Changing China: Moral Decay or Ethical Awakening?”
He Huaihong is professor of philosophy at Peking University in Beijing. The book is actually 19 essays, written, except for two, between 2002 and 2013, and edited for the book.
“Currently, we have quite a serious problem with morality in Chinese society now. The basic issues are that we lack basic trust and we lack kindness,” said He, through his English translator.
It is particularly endemic in the people’s trust for their political leaders. “Whatever the government says, the people don’t believe any of it. Even when they say things that are the truth, the people still don’t believe it,” said He. Members of the Communist Party and state officials are also mistrustful, he said.
“The topic of the moral decay and lack of trust in present day China are not sensitive topics and certainly not politically taboo in the PRC,” said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, who introduced professor He.
In the introduction to the book, Li provides a long list of widespread practices that illustrate severe ethical problems: “commercial fraud, tax fraud, financial deception, shoddy and dangerous engineering projects, fake products, tainted milk, poisonous bread, toxic pills, and the decline in professional ethics among teachers, doctors, lawyers, Buddhist monks, and especially government officials.”
Professor He writes that corruption by government officials is not limited to the top level. Even “Village heads, town mayors, local bank managers are able to accumulate tens or even hundreds of millions of yuan in bribes. A district bureau chief may own dozens of houses.”
Professor He is particularly troubled how kindness is being lost in Chinese society. In his talk he mentioned that if people see an elderly person fall down, a lot of people wouldn’t dare pick him or her up for fear of being extorted for money. They may end up having to pay the medical bills. In the book, He found shocking that when a 2-year-old was run over by two different vehicles, she was ignored by dozens of passersby.
“There have been repeated accidents involving kindergarten buses; when trucks crash, passersby do not save the victims but steal the freight instead,” he wrote in the eighth essay, “Moral Crisis in Chinese Society.”
“There is … widespread indifference to others, a lack of concern for human life, for public decorum, and for the law,” wrote He.
Professor He identifies many historical sources for the moral decay, but none more often than the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when the country fell to the nadir of moral degeneration. The campaign to “smash the four olds”—old thought, old culture, old customs, and old habits—left traditional morality “clinging only by a thread.”
“That battering included the destruction of many ancient and historical books, artifacts, and sites. The tombs of some honored historical figures were wrecked, and sometimes even their remains dug up. … Children were ordered to report on their families and sometimes even took part in beating members of their own families. … Politics completely supplanted morality. The only criterion for moral right and wrong was loyalty to a political leader, Mao Zedong.”
The core of the Cultural Revolution was the Red Guards, who were at their height in the first two years from 1966 to 1968, during which “the country was in a state of virtual anarchy.” They were much diminished after July 1968 when Mao sent most of them to the countryside. He became a Red Guard when he was 12 and witnessed some of its activities and extreme violence. He said he was on the fringe, primarily an observer.
A key feature of the Red Guard movement was its “propensity for violence.” One of its favorite slogans was, “Long live the red terror!” He describes an incident in the book when he became afraid of the “indiscriminate violence.”
“Morality took a backseat to politics,” said He. From the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the war with Japan, values incorporated from the Soviet Union and Stalin, “China in the 20th century went through a complete reversal of our traditional, ancient values.”
In his harsh criticism of the Red Guard, he blames only Mao and absolves the Chinese Communist Party. But criticism of the CCP, while never explicit, lies just below the surface. He refers to 100 years of turmoil before the past 30 years of the market economy, which he said has left a heritage that is suspect. The cries for equality of the last century must be incorporated in a reconstructed ethics, he said, but “extremist theories of class warfare and the philosophy of zero-sum conflict are not the inheritance that we should accept (page 77),” wrote He, referring to fundamental Communist Party doctrines.
Without naming the CCP, He wrote that the old ideology evolved out of a theory of revolution, not a theory of governance. “It started as a foreign import, and in its early incarnations was much concerned with attacking China’s cultural traditions. He said even recent political ideals, such as “the harmonious society,” are “always excessively ideological and are at odds with the reality of Chinese life.”
He said the Chinese people have just emerged from a “convulsive transitional period,” and though it is peaceful now, “we have to be constantly on guard against the return of turmoil.” So there is an urgent need to build a new type of society and the “first step in that process is to lay firm moral foundations,” he wrote.
Demonization of Confucius
As a Confucian scholar, professor He described the uprooting of the “spirit” of traditional culture when, during the latter part of this period, writers, who previously were committed Confucians, joined in the attack on Confucius.
“Among ordinary people, Confucius, the Confucian school, Confucian rites, and Confucian moral principles became dirty words. The effects of that demonization can still be felt today , and the harm that it has done to public morality cannot be overstated.”
Not only Red Guard fanaticism and violence, the loss of education for a whole generation during the Cultural Revolution, but traditional morality has been affected in the last 30 years by the takeoff of China’s booming economy. “Morality got buried again by the economy and market economics,” said He. “That is the main reason we are having these moral issues in China today,” he said at Brookings.
New Framework of Social Ethics
Professor He attempts to synthesize the old ethics that were used for 3,000 years to the modern era. He takes the reader in the first essay, “New Principles: Toward a New Framework of Chinese Social Ethics,” through a mini-course on Confucianism.
His starting point is Mencius, the best known and most influential of Confucius followers. Mencius believed in the innate goodness of people. “Humans all have a feeling of compassion,” wrote He, quoting Mencius.
Professor He takes the “constant virtues” from the ancient classics and shows that they could be applied to the modern era: benevolence, rightness, ritual, wisdom, and faithfulness (also called trustworthiness). The five virtues are still valid and only need new interpretations, he wrote.
So, for example, benevolence can be seen as the source of all morality. When compassion is weakened by outside factors, it no longer drives conduct, as can be seen in the coldheartedness in the contemporary examples given earlier. Ritual involves a commitment to courtesy. “Self-restraint is a prerequisite for proper ritual,” and means limiting our desires, particularly our material desire, said He. Wisdom is about recognizing what is right and the “will and wisdom to make moral judgments … including the wisdom to find balance and to seek the middle way.”
One very fascinating application of Confucian thought is called the “rectification of names.” Professor He said that old political ideologies are way out of sync with social reality. “Empty rhetoric is everywhere,” he wrote. Social trust, particularly between authorities and the public, is strained, provoking a credibility crisis. Professor He said that Chinese “are constantly faced with insincerity; we are habituated to it.”
For example, designating governing “officials” as “public servants” creates a disconnect between the name and reality in China today. Officials use their powers irresponsibly and unethically, which leads to “unprecedented public anger and hatred toward the same officials.” Remedy: “Let officials be officials” and rectify the name, official.
The new ethics differs from the old in one important way. The old relationship between ruler and subject meant set guidelines for subjects and the latter did their duty to the ruler. Today, it is the high status ruler who must do his or her duty to the low status people and be answerable to the “citizens.” Politicians “must accept the people as their fundamental and ultimate master,” he wrote. He sees this as perhaps the biggest shift between the old and new ethics. He writes that it will be hard and long for China, given its current state, to become a democracy under the rule of law, but that is the direction China’s history will have to take.