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A lack of empathy in China


9 minute read

Uighur men in chains

There is a general lack of empathy in the culture of China. I'm being careful with my words here. I'm not saying that people who have Chinese ancestry lack empathy, but that the people who grew up in China on the whole lack empathy. So not everyone, but a majority.

Last year I attended an English-Mandarin language exchange event in London. I got talking to a woman who had recently arrived from China. We had a productive conversation and shared shared information about each other. She asked me if where I was from and I told her about my background, as a British-born person of Indian origin and what that meant in terms of my identity. I went on to relay my experiences travelling around the world, living in Taiwan, learning Chinese, amongst other things.

After about twenty minutes, as we were nearing the end of our conversation, she asked me "So when are you going to go back home to India?". In that moment I realized that my entire explanation to her of being British but ethnically Indian had been utterly pointless. In her mind all brown-skinned people were from countries full of brown-skinned people and that was that.

This wasn't the first time I had experienced this "phenomenon". Even more recently a a friend of a friend who was from China asked me where I was from upon meeting me. I replied with "England". "Ah where are you originally from?". I again replied "England". They then smiled coyly and ended their questioning. I already half-knew what they meant when they asked me the first time. They were definitely wanting to know which country of brown-skinned people I was from. I simply refused to take the bait.

I always felt uncomfortable during these sorts of incidents. At the time I asked myself whether these were caused by prejudice and/or racism. It's hard to tell. On on hand, I'm well aware of the general prejudice that exists towards people of colour in China. On the other hand, these comments directed at me didn't seem to be accompanied with any sense of vitriol or desire to hurt.

It was almost as if these individuals weren't aware of the full impact of what they were saying to me. I wondered whether they lacked the intelligence to understand this. Or whether, due to lack of prior experience, they weren't aware of the need to be more sensitive about such issues. Or perhaps both.

I spoke to a friend about this, who was also from China. He initially couldn't understand what the issue was. Once I explained it she understood. Yet I could tell he still didnt't see why what they had to me could be seen as problematic. This struck me as being quite odd, until we got onto other topics such as the tensions driving Black Lives Matter protests. He had never experienced that sort of prejudice herself whilst growing up, and thus he felt that the protestors were just unnecessairly complaining about things which they were ultimately responsible for fixing. And he certainly couldn't understand why the people who were protesting were so upset.

I've finally realized that the key word I was looking for in order to describe all of these interactions I've had is "Empathy".

What my friend and the other people from China that I had met lacked was empathy. Not to say that they didn't have any empathy but that they didn't have it as much as I would normally assume, having grown up in a Western cultural atmosphere myself.

Empathy is essentially the ability to mentally places oneself in other person's shoes and thereby understand the other person's feelings, desires, fears, etc, which then helps one to connect and communicate with that person better. Empathy makes us care about the plight of people who might not look like us or come from the same background as us, as an example.

A quick google search revealed that I'm certainly not alone in thinking this about China. One article I found covers the story of a 2 year old who got run over by motor vehicles, with no one coming to her aid for several minutes. Note one of the reasons the author gives for people not wanting to help...

In 2006, in the capital of Jiangsu province, a young man named Peng Yu helped an old woman who had fallen on the street and took her to a hospital and waited to see if the old woman was all right. Later, however, the woman and her family accused Peng of causing her fall. A judge decided in favour of the woman, based on the assumption that "Peng must be at fault. Otherwise why would he want to help?", saying that Peng acted against "common sense". The outcry from the public in support of Peng forced the court to adjust its verdict and resulted in Peng paying 10% of the costs instead of the total. Since that incident Peng has become a national cautionary tale: the Good Samaritan being framed by the beneficiary of their compassion.

Extraordinary. Essentially, the judge determined that the samaritan must actually be guilty of abuse because very few people in China act as good samaritans in the first place. Read i in this way it makes for damning verdict on China's society in general.

Of course, some commentators may argue that the reason people don't jump to another person's aid immediately is due to the above judgement as well as due to past occurrences of "fake" victims who go on to claim compensation from the person who helps them.

In response to all of these sentiments, the Chinese government introduced various laws to penalize "fake" victims, protect and encourage "good samaritan" behaviour, and to even mandate it in such circumstances. And there have been numerous examples_ over the years of people in China coming to the aid of their fellow citizens. And yet, shocking incidents of the opposite nature still do occur.

You may wonder how people not willing to help a stranger in need is related to people not willing to be more sensitive to racial issues or how another person may feel if you question or negate their identity. But to me it points to the same cause - a lack of empathy.

Although policy changes can make some difference there are more fundamental cultural issues at play. As the author in the previous article states:

The fundamental problem, in my view, lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

The author goes onto state that there is a spiritual vacuum in today's China despite the material successes:

I believe that the lack of a value system is also deepening the moral crisis. Before Mao, the indifference towards others once so accurately described by Fei existed but was mitigated by a traditional moral and religious system. That system was then almost destroyed by the communists, especially during the 10 mad years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Nowadays communism, the ideology that dominated Chinese people's lives like a religion, has also more or less collapsed. As a result, there's a spiritual vacuum that cannot be filled by the mere opportunity of money-making.

In a more recent article on this subject, another author adds to the above point:

Then there is the nature of moral obligation in Chinese society. Rather than being horizontal, where an individual’s obligation to all other members of society is (at least theoretically) equal, in China it follows a pattern of concentric circles, with the self in the centre. The idea that an individual’s moral obligation does not extend equally to all members of society is explored by Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong. In his classic text From the Soil, Fei argues that in the 'Chinese system of morality, there is no concept of "love" such as that exists in Christianity – universal love without distinctions', and therefore 'obligation is also differentiated. Fei observes that the path of obligation 'runs from the self to the family, from the family to the state'. Anybody external to an individual’s in-group is considered a stranger, and the behavioural norms and moral values that apply to the in-group are not relevant.

This paragraph made me think of an acquaintance of mine. He was born in China but came to the UK in his early teens. He's basically British but very much in touch with his background in China. He is very pro-China today thanks to the China's rise as a power and the fact that it's putting up a good economic fight against the USA. He's even considering moving there permanently since there are many business opportunities and it looks like he'll be able to have a better quality of live there than he has in the West.

When I spoke with him about the Uighur genocide in Xinjiang he didn't seem to care too much about it. He agreed that it was bad but he didn't seem to care much beyond that initial expression. And he's not the only person I've met who has this take on it. And all the people I'm talking are from China but living in the West with access to news sources that report on this regularly. Once I even had to painstakingly convince a friend that this was really happening since they at first didn't believe that the Chinese government would do such a thing. Once they accepted that it was happening it was as if a veil had been lifted from their eyes.

This informed me that this lack of awareness and/or interest was due to the suppression of news and media within China. After all, the Communist Party controls what gets seen and said on the Chinese internet. But even with access to news sources which aren't censored people still weren't overly concerned. Perhaps life is hard enough without having to worry about what's going on elsewhere.

If I was to find out that my own country was committing mass genocide against my fellow citizens (let alone anybody outside) I would be outraged. I would expect mass demonstrations on the streets. Of course, in China protests and demonstrations are not allowed. So it could be that there are numerous people keen to do it but simply unable to.

But I think it's about more than that. Decades of economic growth, truth suppression and cultural moral decline have led to the present situation wherein many Chinese citizens simply don't care enough about an issue like this since most of them simply aren't personally affected. This ties into the concept of the path of obligation mentioned earlier, wherein there is no obligation of any sort to a stranger.

This explains why people in China continue to be culturally insensitive to issues regarding race. Of course, racism is everywhere, and Western colonialism was intertwined with racism. But at least in Western countries there is has been a genuine effort to reduce racism over the long-term, and this has borne fruit. In China such efforts would fail due to the general cultural indifference and lack of moral obligation, which can be summed up as a lack of empathy.

Thanks to the absolute control the Chinese government wields over online and offline expression and thought this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. And I wonder how such a culture would play out on the international geo-political stage.

Western countries have used international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to further cement the power inequality between themselves and others. At the same time they have helped lay the foundations of the global financial and trading sytems which have enabled numerous countries around the world (including China) prosper economically. What would these and other institutions such as the UN look like if China had been leading the charge? What will future insitutions founded by China be like in comparison? If the Chinese government wages war against an other country and Chinese soldiers commit war crimes, how will the Chinese public react? Will there be the same condemnation that one finds within Western countries when their armed forces do the same?

All around the world many countries are producing more isolationalist, nationalist and right-wing governments. As a result, empathy for the "other" is on the decrease in these countries too.

The future

I expect Chinese society to be come empathetic over time. As stated earlier, people within China are already discussing the apparent "moral decline" in society and the government is itself attempting to stem this somewhat. Furthermore, as China further develops and begins to assert itself on the world stage I would expect increased immigration into China as well as increased emigration from China, resulting in the domestic population having increased encounters with foreign cultures and non-domestic ideas.

This combined with rising inequality and social problems inform me that the long-term solution can only lie in a more empathetic vision of society that takes into account diverse voices and needs. I would even expect the Communist Party to adopt this approach as an essential means of maintaining social stability.

Having said that, I could be totally wrong.

Mixed-culture musings.