The Wax and Wane of Community Spirit in China

The Wax and Wane of Community Spirit in China
Sep 06, 2014 By Elaine Pang ,

community spirit in China
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In stark contrast with sword bearing martyrs of ancient China riding off to battle, a Chinese acquaintance once remarked that although she works for the government, she would never put her life on the line for the Party. Broadly speaking, throughout the dynasties, the Chinese held values like patriotism and loyalty in high esteem, while the subsequent rise of Maoism kept community spirit in China at high levels. Marxist-inspired ideology encouraged nationalism and working for the common good of the community. Yet today, a cursory glance at China-related news hints at the erosion of these community-centered values. Are Chinese really becoming more individualistic of late or was this community-orientation already lost some time back?

Community spirit through the ages

Ancient Chinese history is filled with heroes, selfless and fearless, who were immortalised in literature, operatic performances and even temples. Conversely, traitors were similarly vilified. Furthermore, Chinese philosophy by and large encourages individuals to put others first. Confucius may have prioritized the family above the community but loyalty and altruism were among traits he valued most. This community orientation can be seen in the time of Mao as well, where socialism provided a basis for promoting national pride. Prior to socialism, the anti-Japanese resistance served to unite the Kuomintang and the CCP, although they turned on each other upon the removal of the external threat.

The government’s role in fostering community spirit (and xenophobia)

As seen in the Kuomintang-CCP cooperation earlier, external threats are a quick unifier as individuals puts aside their differences to fight a common adversary. Anti-Japanese sentiment has never been allowed to die out on TV channels or school textbooks. By and large, attitudes towards the Japanese are still a unifying factor among Chinese, as the demonstrations over the Diaoyu Island dispute in September 2012 and the endless media coverage since have both amply proven.

On the other hand, many efforts to drum up Maoist-inspired nationalism have met with much less success. While the CCP has been similarly glorified in the media and history textbooks, efforts to return to blatant nationalism a la Mao seem strangely irrelevant today. Fallen politician Bo Xilai’s high profile Maoist revival campaign against corruption in Chongqing in 2010 was popular with many locals, but received its share of critics and detractors outside the city, some from high levels in the government. Similarily, last March a new movie about Lei Feng—a PLA soldier during the late fifties idolized by the Party in recent years for his selfless deeds—reportedly failed to sell a single ticket in some domestic markets, even though it was released on the much-hyped “Learn from Lei Feng Day (学雷锋日).

Community spirit or collectivism?

Before discussing the eroding community spirit in China today, it may be best to take a step back and examine if the apparent contradiction between traditional Chinese values and modern behavior can be attributed to collectivism. Individualism and collectivism, terms coined by Dutch organisational behaviourist Geert Hofstede, describe “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” China scores high on collectivism, or placing the interests of the group above their own. At the height of Maoist collectivism the country’s interests ranked first. But in today’s collectivistic organizations in China, hiring and promotion decisions favor one’s in-group of family or friends—in Chinese terms, a guanxi-based culture. This would explain the anecdote at the beginning of the article illustrating Chinese public servants’ underlying lack of loyalty to a party that is outwardly nationalistic.

Forces eroding community spirit in China

Probably it all started with the introduction of capitalism within a communist model. The emergence of Western-style individualism is inevitable as self-serving human nature is the invisible hand behind capitalism. Also, the shift from hutongs to highrises removed opportunities for communal interaction. The old generation may still gather in squares for group dances or singing—a comforting show of community spirit harking back to the early Mao era where the lack of space and entertainment forms pushed citizens to such gatherings—but the well-heeled new generation, weaned on technology, is more likely to find comfort before the silver screen of a TV or smartphone, even in the company of others.

Other policies, most notably population controls, also had the unwitting effect of promoting individualism. Every little emperor is typically served by two parents and two sets of grandparents. As these little emperors grow up and transition into society, they naturally put themselves first, whether in the workplace or in their new families. The media is rife with stories of domestic strife compounded by in-laws siding their own offspring and concentrating their attention on precious grandchildren.

Is the Internet a hindrance or help?

A big challenge that the CCP has to address is eroding faith in the leadership helped along by microblogs circulating news of the latest and greatest graft cases and food-safety scandals. The same technology that ignites national sentiment can similarly extinguish the flame of national pride. As citizens increasingly perceive leadership serving the party for personal gain, the trickle-down effect of commoners likewise looking after their own interests is unavoidable.

Images of isolated individuals mesmerized by their screens and oblivious to their surroundings may be frequently associated with technology, but the recent mushrooming of online communities has developed in another trajectory. Netizens may be clueless as to who lives next door, yet have like-minded friends all over the globe. Recently, human flesh search engines are an example of online strangers uniting as a community against a perceived injustice. Heartwarming stories of virtual strangers working to locate lost family members are not uncommon.

Like every country on the path to development, China predictably faces threats to traditional community values. Headed by a leadership that wishes to avoid the pitfalls of “Western-style” development, it will be interesting to see how it tries to stall the inevitable onslaught of individualism that’s seemingly inherant to capitalist societies.

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Keywords: Traditional Chinese values Community spirit in China


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Somebody need to read a little history! Socialism worked out great for the millions lying in shallow graves in Siberia, did it not? Oh wait, I forgot, they were all counter-revolutionaries and got what they deserved, right?

Sep 09, 2014 12:15 Report Abuse



Is that Stalin in the picture? I forget.

Sep 06, 2014 11:05 Report Abuse



@laowaigentleman Yeah, but they'd have to change all the money!

Sep 07, 2014 16:32 Report Abuse



Samsara is right. When you teach your children to hate others, don't be surprised if they also hate you. China teaches hate, hate foreigners, hate Japanese, hate people who are different, hate people who do not follow the cultural norms, hate people from outside of your province, hate different ethnic groups. The result is a hateful bunch of people.

Sep 06, 2014 09:08 Report Abuse



No, Capitalism (a "self-serving" ideology) is not responsible for Chinese people's shit behaviour towards each other. Neither is "Western individualism". During Mao's CULTURAL REVOLUTION, people were compelled (through fear and brutality) to denounce their neighbours, resulting in the public humiliation, torture and execution of TENS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE. Sorry, Elaine Pang, I guess the Cultural Revolution wasn't in your textbook. Forcing people to turn on each other for their own survival did not, in fact, foster a great deal of "community spirit". It caused self-preservation to become deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche, where it has remained. The Cultural Revolution (and periods of mass-starvation, also caused by the government) was responsible for Chinese people's "me first" behaviour and utter lack of interest in other people's well-being. I am greatly amused when Chinese people try to blame their garbage dump of a society on "Western values". In every Western country I've traveled to, there is a sense of community. People understand that if we all treat each other with respect, everyone benefits. And guess what? They're all capitalist nations that promote individuality.

Sep 06, 2014 02:35 Report Abuse



The Party has slowly been distancing itself from the majority, and now they've realized it's time to get that relationship back. But things have spiralled into a completely different model. I hope they have the sense to reconnect with the common man instead of constantly pandering to the rich and powerful, as so many other countries have done (mine included). The divide is becoming more intense each passing day. A tipping point will be reached if it's not handled. You can't stay locked in an ivory tower forever...

Jun 26, 2013 23:06 Report Abuse



even if there's a "peasant revolt". What are they going to fight with ? Sticks and stones ? The party will continue to do what it does as will the rich (in many instances both I mention are one and the same), and the poor will be and stay just that...poor.

Sep 06, 2014 10:25 Report Abuse



REGARDING WAX AND WANE: I do not believe that Chinese are not individualistic. Chinese individual want to be Heros. In the recent past, there were certain ways of being recognized; now there are a lot more ways to gain face. This is a country where beyond anything, face issue takes precedence. It is not about saving the hutongs and the old communities; change is coming so fast and sacrifices are made...this happened in all developed countries. I do not see this as a unique phenomena for China, it has happened and it will happen everywhere. Things will get better as people will look back to the communities eventually.

Jun 26, 2013 20:15 Report Abuse



Agree almost entirely.What other country having smelt capitalism ,rushes to the bright lights and the devil take the hindmost. Not really conducive to community. I think people who have never been to China have no idea what is happening.Hyper capitalism is in action. A city in Oz is "sleepy hollow"in comparison. I think It's frightening and I think it will all end in tears. You cannot adopt a totally new system at such a break neck speed and in such a short time without massive social disruption. I'm glad I've experienced some of the last vestiges of Chinese community in the squares and other public areas. But the bulldozers are coming.

Jun 26, 2013 15:56 Report Abuse



You're probably right about the lack of community spirit evident among the Chinese today. It seems to be a blind acceptance of everything, a community in which either people are so busy trying to survive or past experience of complaining has resulted in little or no action and hence why bother? And yes, capitalism has been good for those that found ways to make money but the vast majority are trapped in poor paying jobs, ever increasing costs and usually the added burden of looking after other family members. The rich? They really don't care at all as long as they are making enough money to be able to live in a nice apartment, drive a black Audi, buy more apartments and continue to spoil their one and only little emperor who then adopts the same values as the parents! Change will come. It has to - but the people will need to develop a desire to make those changes. Voices will eventually be heard and those in power here might come to realize that their way is not necessarily the best way. Community spirit can only be fostered if the people that make up that community have a voice that is listened to. More importantly, true community spirit will be the result of people actually caring for each other!!

Jun 26, 2013 12:23 Report Abuse