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Human Rights & Social Issues

Modern Chinese ethical dilemmas


The number of Chinese over 60 is expected to triple before 2050

Two pieces of news out of China in the last few weeks really caught my eye. I specifically focus on these as neither is directly related to the upcoming transition of power, the Bo Xilai scandal, or the current Sino/Japanese tensions. Unfortunately items such as these typically get lost in the headlines of larger stories. These types of stories do provide a necessary snapshot of ethical issues facing China today.

In early September the NY Times reported on the new “modern” version of the 24 Parables of Filial Piety. The original by Guo Jujing is a collection of 24 morality tales representing acts of undying love and sacrifice by children for their parents. It is over six centuries old and while still popular in modern Chinese literature, most would agree it has lost its effectiveness and bite as a tale of morality. The China National Committee on Aging felt it would be beneficial for Chinese society to issue a new set of 24 “guidelines” geared towards examples of modern filial piety.

There has been a lot said bout these new parables in the Chinese news and via social media. Many scoff at such an act by the CCP saying it stinks of social engineering. A common refrain is that these new guidelines are out of sync with society. The worse critique thus far have been that this is a callous attempt by the Party to offload any government responsibility for the aging Chinese population. This situation is far too complicated to paint an issue such as this with simple brush strokes.

Many of these new parables are grounded in actual societal needs. Visit your parents during your vacation, call them weekly, and help them learn to use the Internet are sage advice for an adult child in any culture. There is an actual need for guidance to help bridge the gap between generations. A gap created by China’s headlong rush into modernization. China needs to do something to make sure family bonds and the older generations are not abandoned as part of modernization.

Easily a hundred million adult children no longer live in the same city as their parents and an even greater number live in the same city but not with their parents. Empty nests are a brand new phenomenon in China. One to which there are no historical landmarks or experiences to guide the way. This leaves the Chinese people facing an unexpected challenge. How does a society where it is the law to care for your parents in old age deal with the phenomenon of empty nests?

China is too large and culturally different compared to the US and Europe to try to mimic our solutions for this issue. Nor do I think many of our solutions are deserving of being mimicked. I commend the Chinese government for attempting to introduce viable, uniquely Chinese, examples of how adult children can support their parents in modern China. I think the real issues with these new parables lie less with the actual content and more with the way in which these ideas were introduced. More and more people in China do not want to be told what to do by the CCP and these guidelines smack of fifty years of ongoing “campaigns” for the betterment of society.

At the heart of this problem is the creeping loss of legitimacy the CCP has with the average citizen. Many of the middle class and working class no longer want to the see Chinese government involved in social issues. They are content to have them manage the economy. When a new campaign is announced it is usually met with derision and willful neglect. Even a very light-handed attempt at steering social issues is met with similar disdain. Because of this I worry the message of the 24 Modern Parables of Filial Piety maybe lost.

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The other news of note was this report I read on CaiXin a few weeks ago. In the end the situation boils down to a corrupt privatization scheme gone wrong. This type of situation is not uncommon in developing nations or unique to China. It is however a great cautionary tale of the ethical issues facing the Communicate Party in this decade and century. While it pales in comparison to the scope of the Bo Xi Lai scandal, it is actually more indicative of everyday corruption in China and how it impacts the average person.

Three things stick out as worthy of mention. First, it appears this Wang Guoqiang was in on a questionable privatization deal from the inception. Second, it appears that either the deal was going bad or he knew all along it would go bad and planned for years to flee the country. Third, a corrupt party official with an illegitimate passport and stolen funds can get a visa to the US, but honest hard-working average Chinese citizens get denied with no explanation more than 50% of the time.

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About Shawn Mahoney

Shawn Mahoney is the Managing Director of EP Consulting Group, a consulting and training firm focused on developing culturally savvy interactions between China and the world. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has nineteen years of experience in the business and culture of China.

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