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    Why China’s Materially Rich Are Drowning in Moral Poverty

    A violent assault on a sanitation worker shows that we need a better barometer than money for judging social values.

    At around 2 p.m. on Oct. 4, Ge Wanyin, a professor at Shaanxi University of Science and Technology, was caught on camera alongside his wife physically assaulting a female sanitation worker at the Qinyuan residential complex in the northwestern city of Xi’an. Footage from the scene showed that the sanitation worker had parked her trash truck in such a way that it blocked the professor’s car from pulling out. After first demanding that she move it out the way, the professor opted to take matters into his own hands. According to eyewitnesses, the professor’s wife was heard shouting during the assault, “Do you know how much money I make? Do you know how much money you make? You’ve cost me money!”

    Ge got his start working for a research institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences before spending time abroad in both Japan and the United States. He is one of many overseas-based Ph.D. holders to have been lured back to China by rich incentive packages in recent years, and has taken charge of several major research programs.

    Online, the anger directed at him sprang not just from the extreme nature of his actions, but also from how little he seemed to embody the public’s image of what a professor should be. Yet being a professor does not preclude someone from having violent tendencies, and it is worrisome that the backlash seems focused less on the assault itself and more on the professional position of the person who committed it. If it were not for the fact that the perpetrator in this case was a university professor, I doubt it would have been newsworthy at all.

    Recently, Chinese commentators have expressed concern at what they perceive to be growing levels of public violence. Even in supposedly civilized places like college campuses and city parks, fights quite frequently break out over mundane things like access to basketball courts. Instead of merely scrambling to identify the perpetrators in each case, we should be asking ourselves a deeper question: Why has fighting become such a commonly accepted way of resolving disputes?

    Ge spent his formative years in the countryside before testing his way into a brighter future. Despite the fact that he studied for his doctorate abroad and now commands a six-figure salary, in many ways he still comes across as a typical young person from one of China’s small towns.

    It is tragically ironic that those who are most vicious in their treatment of the poor and underprivileged are the very people who climbed their way up from the bottom. This can be hard for us to accept in China, as we tend to think that most people who transcend the strictures of social class via academic prowess also possess strong moral conduct.

    In reality, we as a society are overestimating the quality of a domestic education system that is actually one of the root causes of such conflict. Chinese children grow up amid fierce competition to get into good high schools and, eventually, colleges. Fight off your classmates and, after a few years, your reward is a place in high school. Those who don’t make the cut end up in vocational or technical institutes and face contempt from their high school peers.

    By the time the gaokao, or college entrance exam, rolls around, high school students may find themselves studying from 6 a.m. to midnight. Run this gauntlet successfully, and you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend one of China’s top universities; fail to do so, and you’ll be relegated to some backwater second- or third-tier school. Top-ranked universities in China have significantly more resources at their disposal, both in terms of academics and internship opportunities, and their students often view themselves as superior to those at lower-ranked schools.

    The result is a disturbingly pervasive system based on a no-holds-barred struggle to the top, one in which teachers, parents, and students are all complicit. When society relentlessly drums into you the idea of beating all comers, when you are systematically taught to believe that social status is contingent on a lifetime of fending off the clutching hands of society’s least distinguished, it is unsurprising that violence becomes a last resort to accomplish your goals.

    In the fourth chapter of “The Republic,” Plato quotes Socrates’ vision of an ideal city. “In founding the city we are not looking to the exceptional happiness of any one group among us but, as far as possible, that of the city as a whole,” he writes. “We supposed we would find justice most in such a city, and injustice, in its turn, in the worst governed one.” Socrates returns frequently to the idea that knowledge is the highest good, a conduit for achieving happiness for all; in this, he disagrees with Polemarchus, who in Plato’s dialogues ventures the idea that property is the highest good, or at least the most needful one.

    Unfortunately, the Ge family’s presumed belief in money as the ultimate status symbol is broadly reflected across modern Chinese society. As the country’s wealthy middle class swells its ranks, we are witnessing more and more immoral behavior from those with monetary wealth but moral poverty. We must face the fact that despite all the money sloshing around, China today is still an “impoverished society” as far as moral conduct is concerned.

    Shouldn’t we define the so-called middle class — to which Ge’s family surely belongs — by more than just a set of income brackets? Shouldn’t there be more rational grounds for social inclusion besides money? Shouldn’t we, as a society, condemn the practice of using such inflexible standards to categorize members of society and place them in their arranged seats? Shouldn’t we shun the consumption of what is materially scarce in favor of cultivating what is mentally scarce, jettisoning the tantalizing consumerist newspeak that asserts that what is good is what is “high-end,” “mainstream,” “fashionable,” and “tasteful”?

    The impoverished lust after what is scarce. The true elite, on the other hand, seek what is eternal and universal: virtue, responsibility, justice, truth. The latter refuse to be defined by their income brackets, their educational backgrounds, or their professional positions; rather, they are defined by their quest for happiness and their commitment to creating a happy society. Anyone can join their ranks merely by resolving to do so, regardless of how monetarily poor they are. If anything, Ge’s violent outburst shows that those who blindly pursue material wealth will always be the poorer for it, no matter how much money they have.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Pedestrians pass a homeless woman taking shelter from the sun under an overpass in downtown Beijing, Aug. 27, 2007. Stephen Shaver/VCG)