Some months ago, there was a flurry of articles and stories surrounding a particularly horrible tragedy in China where a young girl was hit by a vehicle and then ignored by multiple passersby as she lay in the road. This terrible incident took place in Foshan, one of many cities that has recently experienced rapid economic and industrial growth, leading some to use it to exemplify a decline in moral values in China caused by a reckless pursuit of the almighty renminbi during the economic boom.
However, such incidents, while appalling, are isolates; China’s adherence of the common good drastically outweighs any sense of ethical corrosion. In fact, the peaceful coexistence of morality and hyper-competition is demonstrated on a daily basis.
Many Chinese do not hide their ambition to make money. This leads to a level of fierce competition in China that dates back 30 years with Reform and Opening-up, when the government began implementing more liberal market economy reforms. This competitive force can be felt pulsating in local grocery stores, textile factories, and the thousands of import and export companies of every variety.
Part of this palpable competition is due to the sheer population in China. Companies and individuals are faced with a massive number of competitors in every market. Another part is due to the development of the education system. Approximately 30 million (and rising) Chinese, aged 18 to 22, are enrolled in college, and, consequently, the competition for graduates is becoming increasingly steep. Job fairs in universities and urban centers around the country are inundated with applicants. And, highly qualified ones at that. Students are by and large extremely driven because of this mass competition but also for another fundamental reason.
In speaking with students from high school to those in graduate programs, their goals for the future almost always focus on the ability to start their own family and support their extended one. In order to reach this goal, they need to have a lucrative career. Rarely do students voice self-centered pursuits, but rather have the well-being of those around them firmly in mind.
Chinese students also demonstrate this consideration of others in their interactions on campus. As is common in grade school and universities, students often stay with the same group of classmates throughout the day. This creates a high level of camaraderie among students, who look out for one another in every way, in and out of class. One might assume that because these students are always with the same group, they would be competing for grades, but this practice actually cements a fraternal mentality. Individual concerns are often shelved in observance of the whole.
This moral consciousness is apparent in all levels of society. Chinese are usually very informal which allows people to interact more comfortably with one another and simple exchanges between strangers exude a closeness that is rare in the West. Many foreigners (myself included) are benignly chuckled at for an overuse of please and thank yous. Chinese often forgo superfluous niceties for the same reason Americans might not say thank you to family members: It's mutually understood and therefore unnecessary.
Neighbors interact with a familial intimacy and regularly take care of each other’s children. Tellingly, younger Chinese often address their parent’s friends with the title of “uncle” despite having no relation. This closeness between those outside of one’s immediate surroundings is demonstrated constantly and ensures a zealous moral awareness.
Finally, on a macro level, there is an aspect of national pride in which citizens want China to produce the next Nobel laureate or the next Steve Jobs. This can only be achieved by a combination of homegrown competition and national support, of which China currently lacks neither.
Competition and morality are not mutually exclusive. China’s continued economic prosperity and its citizens’ aggressive pursuit of monetary gain do not portend moral deterioration. Rather it is clear that on an everyday level, people want their success to be matched by those around them and, as a nation, progress together.