The Chinese are inclined to contend — at least, those with the loudest voices in positions of power who profit from them are inclined to contend — that China has ‘characteristics’ that are somehow unique and eternal. Very often, those same characteristics are seen in the outside world as inimical and yet, again, somehow uniquely Chinese, somehow eternal.
The reality is those characteristics — though now being fostered by vested interests well beyond their sell-by date — are neither singularly Chinese, nor eternal.
Much of what we see in China, much of that which is dying out, can find its parallels in European and other histories. Thus, for example, listening recently to a talk given on behaviour in the fourteenth century in Europe, the speaker told of people wanting large families, as many boys as possible, and of female infanticide being a regular occurrence.
This is not particularly surprising. Child mortality in less developed societies is higher than in developed societies. Societies are largely agricultural, and the more individuals in the family the more the land that can be worked. Boys are favoured both because societies tend to be patriarchal, boys tend to stay ‘in the family’ rather than marrying out and because boys have more physical strength for labour.
In developed societies, large families are not favoured. Rather than producing, children tend to consume resources. Child mortality is relatively low. In an urban environment, girls are as well-equipped as boys to serve as producers and families, tending to be increasingly nuclear, tend to ‘lose’ their boy children and their girl children equally as adults after marriage given that expansion of the household in an urban environment tends not to be an option.
Japan and Singapore are two examples of places where not so long ago large families were the norm but which now are having to introduce governmental incentives to encourage people to have more children in the face of declining populations.
Whatever their parents may think, I can’t recall a student here in China ever talking to me of wanting six or eight children, but I can think of many who have spoken of wanting one or two; some, now, who have even expressed the desire for girl-children over boy-children; and even the occasional individual who has said he or she doesn’t want to have any children at all, including women who say they would far prefer to focus upon their careers.
Regardless of history and culture, there is an inevitability about certain aspects of change that occur as any society becomes increasingly urban and increasingly developed. Smaller families is one. Other things that the Chinese feel is something that always has been Chinese and always will be such as guanxi, (connections), and mianzi, (face) have their own counterparts in the history of European culture, (‘the old school tie’ and ‘honour’ for example, remnants of which we still see today), and these too will change. Mianzi is an aspect of any strongly hierarchical society where complicated shows of adherence to the societal structure are required to reassure those with authority that their position is secure. What others may think of them is immaterial; it is the showing of respect that is important. As societies become increasingly reliant upon cooperation the hierarchy tends to break down, and gaining the genuine respect of others becomes important. Guanxi secures the kinds of ties that are required both to keep one’s position or to elevate oneself in the hierarchy, but development leads societies more in the direction of meritocracy. The idiot son of a local official in one’s organisation was once an asset in any society, but as societies develop — not only such that organisations within societies compete but also such that societies compete between themselves — such people became increasingly a drain on resources rather than an asset, thereby decreasing efficiency. Other forms of more apparent corruption become increasingly curtailed for much the same reason.
My personal bugbear in China — that upon which I am inclined to blame all China’s ills — is the propaganda department and its related bodies. This, today, is China’s most blatant anachronism, and without its controls many of China’s woes would be rapidly extinguished. However, their maintenance continues as a valuable tool for those who profit from the system as it stands as those in positions of political power abuse their privileges and reformulate themselves as individuals with economic power. Again, however, go back a few hundred years in England and you find much the same thing happening. Then and there the church was used as an organ of state for the dissemination of propaganda and church attendance was compulsory. The means of transmission may have changed, but the attitudes underlying CCTV and China’s distorted history text books are further hallmarks of any underdeveloped society the world over, or a developing society in the hands of a corrupt elite. However, on this one I am more cautious. Clearly the corruption of political power is not something limited to developing societies; nor is the use of propaganda arising out of that corruption. There are times, unfortunately, when China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, scores in the credibility of its reportage over the likes of Fox News.