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The Changing Attitudes and Values in the New China
When US President George W. Bush became the 374th foreign leader to climb the Badaling Section of the Great Wall in February 2002 he spoke of the wall standing still and of a present day China very different from that of the past. A changing China has been attracting the attention of the world over the past ten years or so.

The 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will be held in Beijing this fall. It will put forward guidelines for China’s future development and will represent a milestone in the history of the progress of the Chinese nation.

To help readers better understand the real significance of the congress, Beijing Youth Daily, in cooperation with the Humanity and Social Sciences Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, invited 16 scholars to report on conditions in China. Their responses tell of fundamental changes as viewed from the perspectives of their various academic fields. In reviewing the past ten years they have dealt frankly with the problems encountered on the road to reform.

How far has China developed in the last decade? What changes have taken place in the social structure? What influences will these changes exert on individuals? What are the opinions people express about their conditions and what are they really like? What opportunities and difficulties lie in store in the years ahead? All these were topics for the scholars. So what did they report? This article provides an insight into some of the areas analyzed by the scholars in their review of a decade of change in Chinese values and thinking.

Reform, Opening-up and Market Economy

There have been two watersheds in the history of China’s social development since its foundation in 1949.

The first was the Third Plenary of the 11th National Congress of the CPC in 1978. This established the policies of reform and opening-up. Along the road to development, China has seen evolution from an agricultural to an industrial economy, from a rural to an urban people and from a traditional society restricted by etiquette and custom to a modern society subject to the rule of law. Modernization has become the main theme of social development and long held attitudes have been changing.

The second watershed, which helped to further liberate thinking, was late leader Deng Xiaoping’s “South Tour” speech at the beginning of the 1990s. Deng’s speech removed the fetters that had been holding back innovation and reform and provided a new standard against which to measure progress in social development. At the 14th National Congress of the CPC in 1992 the goal of a socialist market economy was set. This sparked a new round of reform in China and economic, social and cultural development leading in turn to new ways of thinking.

Since reform and opening-up and especially after Deng’s “South Tour” speech, the people of China have experienced fundamental changes in what makes them what they are. The focus on values has moved from ideals to practical things, from obligations to interests and from the collective to the individual.

This is a culture, which had once been closed but is now open. There has been a move from the emotional to the rational and from sameness to diversification. The mood of the people is now one of tolerance and pragmatism and there is a new willingness to consider alternatives.

Small Streams Run Dry When the Main Stream Is Low

At one time the Chinese placed the emphasis on the interests of the group rather than on the wishes of the individual. However a recent survey reveals that values have been changing somewhat. The research explored opinion on the issue of “what to do when collective interests are in conflict with individual interests.”

Some 30 percent of those surveyed responded by saying “individual interests should be subordinated unconditionally to collective interests.” A further 58 percent said, “collective interests are important but individual interests must not be ignored.” Another 5 percent said, “individual interests are important but collective interests must be considered” and 2 percent thought “collective interests should be subordinated unconditionally to individual interests” while others declined to give an opinion. The results demonstrated that collective interests are still highly valued by most people. However a rather higher value is now placed on the individual than would previously have been the case.

The survey also inquired into views on giving and taking. Responses showed most people seek to establish a balance demonstrating a willingness to find personal fulfillment in working for society.

In dealing with their relationships with others, some 45 percent approved the principle of “benefiting oneself but not harming others.” Thirty-three percent agree with “putting others before self.” Twenty-one percent said they would “put themselves before others, while taking into account the interests of both sides.” Only 1 percent chose to “ignore others while benefiting oneself.” These results suggest the market economy has stirred motives of self-awareness and self-interest. Many people now favor seeking the win-win option of mutual benefit to themselves and others.

All very reminiscent of the Chinese saying, “The small streams run dry when the main stream is low.” Words which serve well to illustrate that individual well being, depends on collective prosperity.

Inspired by Pavel Korchagin but Following Bill Gates

A TV series adapted from How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky was broadcast by China Central TV in 2000. It stimulated a remarkable response throughout China and the media picked up on this by launching a debate to compare Pavel Korchagin with Bill Gates. Both were regarded as heroes but one as a spiritual idol and the other an icon of the material world.

A survey undertaken in the colleges and universities of Beijing shows that some 45 percent of students view both Bill and Pavel as heroes. A further 20 percent chose Bill on his own and 18 percent opted for Pavel. As to the question of “Who’s example will you follow,” the split was 44 percent for Bill, 27 percent for both together but just 13 percent for Pavel on his own.

These young people adopted Bill Gates as their model to emulate for reasons relating to society, economy and culture coupled with aspirations for their own development. But they are still inspired by the spirit of Pavel Korchagin. This holds a mirror to the characteristics of modern youth. Their hearts may be drawn to a soaring spirit but their feet are firmly on the ground when it comes to material values.

Another investigation revealed the order in which Beijing teenagers placed six “admirable” occupations as scientist, entrepreneur, movie or TV star, soldier, teacher and model worker. But when asked to grade them as occupations for themselves the order was different. This time it was entrepreneur, scientist, movie or TV star, teacher, soldier and model worker. This serves to further demonstrate a gap between ideals and practicalities.

The second part of this review will be published here tomorrow.

(China.org.cn by Li Jinhui, September 28, 2002)

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