China 80 years later

In his essay Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness, Russell described a China as a country  that was  mild-tempered, adhering to Confucianism, and people were kind to each other. When I read those words, I fee like visiting another world — a golden age that is lost forever. China today is almost the opposite of Russell’s description. What happened to China?

Before the communist government took control of China in 1949, Confucianism had deep influence on Chinese society , where people followed the traditional lifestyle, respected their elderly and were courteous to each other. All that was changed by the deliberate destruction from Mao and his communist party upon taking over China. The communist ideology did not tolerate any ancient competing philosophy like Confucianism. Neither did they tolerate Taoism, Buddhism or any other belief. All of these are considered as heresies by the communists.

Communism ran against the traditional value of China. Instead of respecting your elderly, you are supposed to hate your father if he was a landlord and therefore a member of “reactionary class”. In numerous political campaigns launched by the Chinese government from 1949 to 1976 (the year Mao died), fathers and sons were turned against each other, siblings are supposed to report on each other, and husband and wife split up. The communist party demands absolute loyalty from individuals, which means turning against your family members. The toxic relationship is particularly prominent at workplace, where your co-worker can report on your “reactionary speeches”. During the anti-rightist campaign in l957, more than 1 million people were sent to labor camp, based on the report from their co-workers on their reactionary speeches. Such campaign was organized by the government to root out the so-called rightists.

In fact, Confucianism was the biggest enemy of the Chinese communist party. During the Culture Revolution (1966-1976), Confucianism temples were destroyed, effigy of Confucius were burned, books were banned and the newspapers published articles ridiculing and vilifying Confucius almost daily. This hysteria was almost comparable to the vilifying of Dalai Lama by Chinese media today. Apparently there was deep fear from the government that Confucianism teaching may win over the heart and mind of the ordinary people. Children grew up in that period were told that Confucius was a bankrupted landlord, a wanderer who unsuccessfully lobbied the kings for his political proposals, and a downright reactionary who wanted people to live backward lives. The school textbooks had cartoons ridiculing him, and stories that made fun of him. As a child at that time, I could not help wondering: Why do we spend so much time on criticizing a man who lived 2000 years ago? He seemed so remote. Today I realized how much fear the government had for this ancient man.

Mao’s reign of China for almost 30 years has left its deep scar on Chinese society. The basic value of Confucianism is mostly destroyed. The change is irreversible. Today if you visit China, you don’t see anything remotely close to Confucianism teaching. On the surface the Chinese norm of politeness was still there, but the basic values such as honesty and kindness are gone. China has become a cynical society where everything goes. Given the lies of the government, the deep corruption and unfair judicial system, people do not value honesty any more. Cheating and lying almost become business norm. A friend from Malaysia once complained to me that her firm had very bad experience with Chinese counterparts, who did not respect the term in contract at all.

If Russell visits China today, he would be shocked to see how China has become the opposite of Confucianism, and how much it became the worst version of primitive capitalism. Money is God and the only God. In chasing profits, fake products pop up every day: poisoned rice, chicken injected with water, flour blended with lime, milk powder laced with melamine. Fake medicine and fake money are widely around. Greediness is revered as ingenuity.

In addition to the value system, the idyllic lifestyle described by Russell is also gone forever. Up until early 1990s, the Chinese society is slow-paced and idle. Lack of material goods and job mobility keep people in the same town and with the same neighbors. At that time, bicycles were major transportation tools. I still remember watching a fleet of bicycles every morning passing by my windows, where people went to work in the local factory. It’s our rush hour, with a lot of energy and its purposefulness. Other than that, the street was mostly quiet. All you hear is occasional jingling of bicycles bells. As I visited China 10 years later, cars filled the street. People were rushing everywhere. Horns and engine noise filled the air.

Chinese men now work longer hours than almost any western nation. The daily working hours continue until 8pm and after that you are supposed to socialize with your customers. It’s common for a man coming to home at midnight every day, when his child already goes to bed and wife is asleep. The long working hours in China now is quickly catching up with Japan and South Korea. One Chinese businessman I know came to bay area to take vacation. He said it was impossible for him to take vacation in China, where everyone is working all the time. The fanatic work pace create family problems. One of my relative with a small business almost never gets to see his son at dinner time, and never goes to his son’s school parent meetings. The boy’s schoolmates teased him and said he did not have a father. The boy was in tears. Marriage broke up upon such long absence from home. The divorce rate in china jumped several folds in the last decade, and has reached 40% in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Is there a place in China where Russell’s description is still alive today? On broad level, Taiwan is more adherent to Confucius teaching than mainland china. Since the nationalist party fled to this island from mainland, they established a traditional Chinese education system. Books of Confucius are required readings for school children in Taiwan. The basic ethic rules are maintained. Visitors to Taiwan from mainland China remarked that Taiwanese are much kinder, more generous and tolerant. The basic courtesy and respect were maintained in Taiwan. It’s fortunate that the gist of Chinese culture is preserved in this island nation, escaping the wrath of communist hurricane.

In mainland China, you can probably find some pockets of Confucian legacy among small isolated towns. In Southwest China’s Yunnan province, you can visit a small town where people have tea together in the afternoon, visiting their neighbors and trading stories. Tourists from big cities in China come here to enjoy a leisurely vacation. It’s a lifestyle people in big cities have left behind.  Such places become rarer and rarer.

Commerce and insatiable desire for better living conditions such as electricity, running water and TVs have transformed most Chinese villages. The more you desire, the longer you work. As machinery replaces bulls that plow the field, as motorcycles replace the walking bare foot, as cell phones reach normal households, the society is deeply transformed and the old lifestyle is gone forever.

There are two things I deeply miss in that old lifestyle. One is clothes made at home. My mother used to buy a beautiful piece of cloth, then draw lines and cut it into pieces. She worked on our old sewing machine at night, with its hum I fell asleep. In a few days, I had a brand-new clothes to wear. However, clothing and fashion stores mushroomed in China by early 1980s. Well-made clothes became so cheap to buy, my mother no longer made them at home any more.
The other thing I miss is preparing dinner at home for Chinese New Year celebration. I remember it was a magic time when we watched adults turn those flours into beautifully shaped dumplings, meatball rolling in the boiling oil. Today, people don’t make dinner at home for Chinese New Year any more. The rapid development of restaurant business has made it more economical to have New Year celebration outside home. The joy of making dinner at home is gone. In its place is a private room in a restaurant when waitress brings dish after dish, and Coke and Pepsi are served as major drinks.

Today’s China is bustling with energy and speed. The new high-speed rail has shortened the trip from shanghai to Beijing from 17 hours to 11 hours, and another rail will further reduce it to 5 hours by 2011. China is almost exactly like the United States in late 1920s, growing and prospering, albeit chaotic and irreverent.

Confucianism has a comeback in mainland China, related books are sold and lectures are given on TV. Temples were restored and the birthplace of Confucius was designated a national heritage. The need for spiritual fulfillment has driven young Chinese to explore Confucius teaching, along with Taoism and Buddhism. Confucius is recognized in China again as a great philosopher and educator.

Despite an industrialized lifestyle, China is getting in touch with its root again. Let’s hope that the thousand-year-old Confucianism will bring morality and harmony back to China again.

News on recession

The radio and TV are obsessed with bad news. Economic recession now is their favorite topic. You can hear from the excited voice that discusses how many people are unemployed; you can hear from discussion on bad business sale, or on people who simply cannot make ends meet. The more the media talks about recession, the more dismal people feel. The bad news keeps magnifying.

While some people lost their jobs, more than 93% people are still going to work every day. While some business does poorly, many transactions are happening every day. While some people cannot make ends meet, many more people can easily afford a new computer or new car. But the media does not want to talk about those people. They never interview a Silicon Valley millionaire (there are thousands of them here, just inside Google or VMVare) who never worry about job security and daily living. They never interview a university professor, whose job security is guaranteed and whose income is sufficiently comfortable.

For some strange reason, good news seldom appear in our report. The picture being painted is called “bleak”? The media uses such sensational words to drive panic into people’s heart. I keep wondering what psychology drives them to do this.

Recession is partly natural and partly man-made. In an unstable time, it might be more fitting for the media to inject confidence, hope instead of panic mood.

在旧金山迎奥运火炬的现场观感 (Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco)

翘首以盼,等了整整四个多小时,结果发现火炬改了道,是何等失望。与我一样失望的一万多站在街道两旁挥动红旗的支持者,一千多高举标牌的抗议者,和仅仅有好奇心的上千旁观者。

因为怕出乱子,旧金山市长作了个懦弱荒唐的决定,金蝉脱壳,到个没人的街上去跑火炬。他逃避了乱子,也逃避了责任。因为政府的功能是维持次序, 使得一项大型活动能顺利进行。现在“活动”进行了,但大型不在,而且欺骗了那些等在现场的上万观众。一场活动草草收场,闭幕式取消(苦了那些等在闭幕现场的无数观看者),火炬被直接送到机场。

The following is tranlation by Google (surprisingly pretty good):

Highly anticipated, and so a full four hours, the torch was found to change the Road, what a disappointment. I am disappointed with the same standing on the street more than 10,000 flag waving supporters on both sides, more than 1,000 protesters holding signs, and just a curiosity of thousands of spectators.
 
For fear of something going wrong, the mayor of San Francisco made a cowardly decision absurd, withdraw its role to the one no one to run the streets of the torch. He escaped trouble, but also to evade responsibility. Because the government’s role is to maintain order, making a large-scale activities can be conducted smoothly. Now “activities” were, but not large, and fooled thousands of other spectators at the scene. An event in a hasty end, the closing ceremony canceled (those who suffer in the closing scene of countless other viewers), the torch was direct to the airport.

Happiness in Different Countries

smiling_african.jpg Some people claim that people living poor countries are much happier than those in rich countries. Their argument is that people in rich countries are more depressed (and have higher obesity rate) because they live far away from each other and have more stress. To test this hypothesis, we need to look at real data. One measure of unhappiness is depression rate. Unfortunately, data for depression in poor countries are very scarce, mostly because people are struggling with basic health care, little do they have access to mental health care. However, we can take a look at an extreme form of depression–suicide. World Health Organization (WHO) compiles suicide rate of different countries, and publishes it on its website.

Based on WHO data, the countries with the highest suicide rate are neither too rich or too poor. These countries are mostly in Eastern Europe: Lithuania, Belarus, Russian and Hungary. russia_walking.jpgBehind them are Japan and Sri Lanka. Except Japan, those top countries’ suicide rate can be explained by one thing: economic hardship. After Soviet bloc collapsed, unemployment rate rose sharply in these countries. Living standard dropped significantly. It is therefore not surprising that there is sharp rise of suicide rate in all these 3 countries: Lithuania, Belarus and Russia after 1990 (see per country chart at
http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/country_reports/en/
).  Sri Lanka’s high suicide rate comes from poor farmers. Report on their abject poverty and lack of access to employment explains the reason. Similarly we see high suicide rate in Indian farmers recently, who cannot repay huge debt after drought. These data suggest that suicide is closely related to ability of making a living and access to social safety net.

The United States is ranked a mediocre 45th among all 95 countries listed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_rate), while an extremely poor country Zimbabwe is ranked 55 in the list, also in the middle. This suggests that the wealth level of a country has little to do with its suicide rate. In poor countries like Zimbabwe, if people can get by with meager food, there is no reason to commit suicide.

The lowest suicide rate comes from Latin American countries (Jamaica, Honduras) and Middle East countries (Egypt, Jordan). In these countries, religion probably play a big role in preventing suicide. Catholic belief considers life sacred, thus forbids suicide. Islamic belief also forbids suicide.

japanese-worker.jpg Culture certainly plays a role in suicide. This can be seen in the high suicide rate in Japan (24 per 100,000 people) and South Korea (18), and the low suicide rate in Singapore (9.5) and Taiwan (7 in 1994) with similar income level. Even here, both Japan and South Korea have sharp increase of suicide rate after 2000, with the onset of their economic crisis. Japan also see significant drop of its suicide rate in 1960s after its economy took off: In 1955, the suicide rate was 25, while in 1965, it was only 15. The data for South Korea starts from 1985. But we also see a drop from 9 in 1985 to 7 (suicide per 100,000) in 1990.

By now, we can safely draw a conclusion that employment opportunity plays a big role in suicide rate of a country. The best way to combat suicide is economic relief and debt relief. When people have a way of making decent living, they will have hope and will less likely take their own life.

Movie Review: Office Space (1999)

I am disturbed by the message of this movie. Toward the end of the movie, arson and stealing are extolled as a good way for retaliation. I wonder what this movie teaches to our children. The moral message is simply not right.

This movie reflects the workplace conflict such as the interference from a boss and his disrespect for the worker. He encroached on their weekend time, he pestered the worker on a small mistake, and he can fire anyone immediately.

Our main character is an extremely nice, non-assertive guy. He is simmering inside, toward his bosses, his co-workers, and his girlfriend. When he became much more assertive due to hypnosis, things turn around for him. He assertively cut off his abusive girlfriend, he aggressively asks a woman out, and he refuses his boss’s unreasonable demand. All turn out to be well except he carries the simmering anger from his previous life (before hypnosis), and his anger of the company’s firing of his co-workers. That led to his scheme of ripping off the company.

So the lesson is a simple one: Be assertive. If you don’t like something, don’t tolerate it. We don’t need hypnosis to be brave and go after what we want, or do we?

Pioneers of social reform

Michael Bloomberg gave a speech at “Slate 60” Conference that honors 60 biggest Philanthropists. He talked about the gift of giving, and how his father’s $25 donation inspired him to donate millions years later.

Bloomberg talked about how philanthropy fulfills a role that government cannot do. Private philanthropy is more flexible. They can experiment with new ideas quickly without the burden of beauracracy. Private philanthropy is not subject to public concensus, and therefore can touch on controvertial subjects such as stem cell research. (Potentially, this can mean funding some very conservative movement) Furthermore, private philanthropy can complement the government projects, where funding is sorely lacking, like school systems.

Bloomberg talked about the projects of New York city after he became mayor. There is initiative to give poor people emergency money so that they can make better decicision. There was training for school principals to that they can lead public schools, and so on. The innnovative approach is very interesting and eye opening. It reminds me of San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom, who will launch universal health care for city residents, the first in the nation. Newsom also pioneered gay marriage approval by a city goverment.

If a society is moving toward change, it takes brave men and women who started the change. After endless proposal and discussion, it takes these passionate and insightful pioneers to set the example. I marvel at the innovative spirits of Bloomberg and Newsom, and those who appeared at Slate 60 (Just name a few: Ted Turner, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates).

The booming of private philanthropy also suggests the strong democratic foundation of America, where private citizens can yield significant influence on public life. The power of private money ensures that new ideas can be preserved and promoted. It ensures social change can happen when the government is dragged by inertia. Through Slate 60, I see the undeterred innovative spirit of America. That gives me a lot of hope for this country.