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The Changing Attitudes and Values in the New China
No More Iron Rice Bowl

Before reform and opening-up everyone got a job by arrangement. Once in that job, one became a member of the institution. No more need to worry about income, medical care, housing, kindergarten for the children or even life in retirement.

By the 1990s however people found they had more and more freedom in finding a job. A Beijing Morning Post report on December 15, 2000 showed that 100,000 university students without Beijing hukou (residence registration requirement) were employed by high-tech enterprises in the capital’s northwest suburb of Zhongguancun, dubbed China’s “Silicon Valley.”

There are four main areas of change for today’s young people facing a career choice.

First, they pay more attention to looking for opportunities to develop their potential and so realize their true worth. In other words, people want a job not just to make a living but also as a stepping stone to future development.

Second, as the iron rice bowl fades from sight, people are becoming more aware of risk. The job security, which was given such a high priority in the past, is witnessing a declining importance in modern society.

Third, in choosing where to work, people are now much less attracted to the various government institutions. The market economy system coupled with a raised self-awareness leads modern youth to favor occupations with more freedom and autonomy.

Fourth, in these modern times people are free to change their jobs so promoting new levels of job mobility.

These trends reflect the diversity of occupations resulting from the division of labor in the social structure and are the inevitable outcome of the new values.

The Value of Money

In ancient times when “the superior man was concerned with what was right and the mean man with gain,” even talking about money was seen as possibly rather shabby or at least an indication of a weakness in character. Now we are in the market economy, as people become more and more practical, they no longer hold back from talking about money. This is indicative of a changing set of values and attitudes to society.

A survey showed that some 18 percent thought money was “very important”, 56 percent thought it was “relatively important”, 24 percent thought it was “not that important” and 2 percent thought it “very unimportant.” So most thought money was important.

On the issue “Money will do anything”, some 25 percent said they “don’t agree very much” and 24 percent “don’t agree at all”. Another 28 percent were neutral on the issue while 8 percent “totally agreed” and 15 percent “comparatively agreed.”

This shows that most people, while recognizing the important role of money don’t overestimate its importance. Though different groups hold different attitudes towards money, the overall attitude of society as a whole remains healthy.

Love and Marriage

In love and marriage what really matters? Is it money, car, house or deep feelings? Along with social development have come attitudes that are more open, tolerant and rational.

About 10,000 senior high school students were surveyed in 2000. Some 16 percent said they would either “agree” or “comparatively agree” with sexual activity before marriage. Support was stronger among urban than rural students. It was also stronger among boys than girls. Overall 23 percent reported having love affairs in high school and the rate here was also higher among boys than girls.

In another survey of Beijing youth also in 2000, only 30 percent opposed the idea that “both parties to a loving relationship could have sex relations even if they didn’t go on to marry.” Younger people were more tolerant of such relationships with the under 20s reporting support which was 16 percent higher than that of their elders of 30 plus.

And what’s more, younger people were shown to be more supportive of the idea of privacy even between husband and wife. Over 80 percent responded with “agree” or “comparatively agree” compared with only 8 percent who were actually opposed.

Property notarization before marriage is also favored by youth. Over 70 percent thought it beneficial to both sides and 90 percent of youngsters would accept divorce when love became lost.

Women’s thoughts on childbearing are also changing. A survey was conducted in 2000 in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Nearly 20 percent did not want a child even if they were to marry. On this issue younger women were less inclined towards parenting as were those of higher educational attainment. Besides, the traditional views of “raising children as a hedge against old age” and “more sons, more blessings” are being abandoned.

A 2001 survey showed that Chinese farmers are now likely to have fewer children. Only some 12 percent of the farmers agreed that “More children bring more prosperity” while 85 percent were against with 4 percent neither for nor against.

All in all a new more rational approach to parenthood can be seen emerging.

Declining or Strengthening Morals?

There is an ongoing debate on morality in the academic world. Some see morality in decline while others think it is moving forward. But how can we tell?

An investigation was conducted in rural areas in 2001. It showed some 25 percent of farmers agreeing with the view that “morality is no longer of any use” but 63 percent disagreed and 12 percent just wouldn’t say. This supports the view that most people would still seem to attach a real importance to morality in life.

Asked another question “Would you have the courage to break the law?” 28 percent said yes, 58 percent said no and the others sat on the fence. So it seems most people still appear to value the special social significance and regulating role of the rule of law

The Basic Education Department of the Ministry of Education together with Beijing Normal University conducted a survey among 10,000 senior high school students in 2000. They put the question “whom do you most admire (idealize)?” It was an open question with no given choices and some 24 percent answered “Zhou Enlai.” No more than 20 percent selected singing or movie stars as their idols. This shows that the youngsters of today place a value on moral qualities in selecting their idols.

Some traditional moral values are still held by present day youngsters. A survey in 1999 showed that 43 percent thought they had “done very well” and a further 41 percent had “done well” in their treatment of their parents. Another 14 percent thought their treatment was “average.” Hardly any admitted to treating their parents “badly” or “very badly.”

Also, frugality is still cherished by most young people today. A survey in 1997 showed that 19 percent “agreed completely” and 63 percent “agreed” with the statement that “one must live an economical life even if wealthy”. It seems these young people had successfully carried forward this traditional virtue into their modern world.

Neither a pessimistic “moral decline” nor an optimistic “moral progress” view represents a wholly satisfactory statement of the present status of morality. To hold a polarized view and especially to do so to extreme would run the risk of militating against any worthwhile efforts to advance moral standards. A reasoning approach founded on engaging the new morality as it actually is today would seem the best way forward.

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

(China.org.cn by Li Jinhui, September 29, 2002)


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