China’s Failing Cultural Mindset | Nathan Wilson

As a follow up to my first mini talk about Chinese Demographics and why this will result in China not becoming a major superpower, I thought I would write about a different key factor that almost never gets talked about. This reason I argue is a lot more abstract and more complex than finance or demographics, but just hear me out. This being the cultural mindset of China. It’s not something you cannot truly understand through Wikipedia or a mere passing of the topic. Subsequently, I will try to condense a two-hour speech/paper into a ten-minute mini-talk.

For those of you who have gone to university, you may have noticed something very different about Chinese university students. You very rarely see them in supermarkets, pubs, or other places, when compared to other Asia-Pacific students. This is a trend found not just in London, or England but across nearly all Western higher education institutions. When you notice it, you probably will never be able to unsee it. Now of course, I know that Chinese students do take part in universities as institutions, they nearly always have their own student societies for themselves, but I am talking about this as a general trend found within a specific context.

Firstly, a comment from the West. Westerners and attached civilisational worlds have a similar cultural mindset when it comes to interacting with a different civilisational culture. When people from the UK move to China, India, or Japan; they often embrace the cultural aspects of that world. They celebrate the festivals of the nation, its food, and its history – ‘when in Rome, do as Romans do’, as the proverb goes. It is a part of how people from these ‘civilisational worlds’ interact with the ‘outside’. Some people have this, and some do not (this can be thought of as an extension of both Paul Colinvaux’s ecological ‘niche’ and Pierre Bourdieu’s version of ‘Habitus’).

In contrast, Chinese people in the UK or Sub-Saharan Africa, see themselves as Chinese first and foremost, and so on. What this means is that they reduce their open ability to interact with a different civilisational state. This is the core reason in my opinion, to why China and its citizenry is in a mild term ‘weird’. This weirdness in its cultural attitude will also set the nation onto a course of failure as it represents a wider problem with the nation’s more ‘collective’ mindset.

Now the real first question that should come to mind is that, why is this a thing?

This ‘Chinese mindset’ is largely the result of two central government policies (which themselves are an extension of much larger socio-cultural trends). Firstly, the one-child policy and the maintenance of certain cultural values and norms within the country.   

With the introduction of the one-child policy in the 1980s, the government sought to stem the tide of vast overpopulation with the state. As mentioned in my previous articles, this has generated massive economic implications within the nation till this day. What I did not mention was the societal implications this has generated. In the West, we have something often called ‘Only Child Syndrome’, which refers to the perception that children without siblings are more likely to act spoiled and be badly socialised. This is due to the idea that they have never had to share, nor be placed second, to a sibling during the foundational years of their development. Such ideas are mirrored and taken to the extreme in a society that encourages only-child homes.

Well of course, this is a dramatic stereotype. You likely know people that do not fit this stereotype. Indeed, you yourself may be an only-child and behave in the exact opposite manner. However, in China, they have something even more damaging: they have the ‘Little Emperors’, and it is more common than one might initially believe. With state-enforced single child households, both the government and the people believe that the people who were the products of the one-child policy are filled with materialism and lack social skills. One might think of it like this: you have two parents for every child and four grandparents for every grandchild, that means every child has (at most) six direct senior figures in their life who can focus solely on going forward. If we add an additional layer of catering to every whim of this sole child from birth to adulthood you may start to see problems emerge. They are often rude, they rarely share, and they struggle in forming non-familiar relations with others.

This is supported in the dramatic reduction in ‘social status’ within China, placing more emphasis on materialism to fill this social void. Weirdly enough, this may have become institutionalised with the introduction of child permits in China, which arguably has created an informal relation between parents, their child, and the state itself.

These ‘Little Emperors’ are exceptionally shallow, materialistic and remain shunted going forward. Although many would argue otherwise, I will argue that ‘Little Emperors’ exist, and they make up the bedrock of the last thirty years of China’s citizenry. The effects of this, I would argue, are bigger than anything financial going on within the nation. 

You might ask ‘why have we not got it, and China does?’ Well, this moves into the next section, but effectively, it is because the Western world – specifically, its children – have not lived under strong state-enforced conditions for the last 30+ years. Although we have a similar effect within the Upper Middle-Class branches of society, it’s not as widespread and chronic as it is in China (Little Emperor’s = Spoilt Brats).

The second section is a lot looser as I do not want to go in-depth about Legalism and Confucianism and how they are still major forces within the China’s zeitgeist, but I will say this: the current government, I would argue, is a legalist state going through a communist/nationalist gender transition. 

As such, within Confucianism one of its core values is that of social responsibility and love (altruism (Let’s call this Ren or 仁)). Ren is what inspires an individual’s motivations for not just himself, but for the family and the nation. When you have a sole child and six adults answering to its whims, often the child will get too much love and energy spent on their development. The parents have too much Ren spent on their child, which results in coddling. Subsequently, this restricts the child’s ability to learn and spend adequate time on their education; unacceptable for the six adults controlling their lives. After all, the family’s heritage and economic future is based on the success of this sole child, as well as its subsequent lineage.

If we incorporate that with a strong legalist government structure, we are presented with a weird place where only-children find themselves in China. A family that has overindulged their personal whims with Ren because so much has been riding on them being a success for the rest of the family and a state that has placed out nothing but restrictions on their day to day life. The result of this is the production of many children who are fundamentally unprepared for the outside world; the nation has placed too many restrictions and the parents have placed too much love onto them.

However, these children do not stay children forever. They eventually grow up and enter the wider world. More importantly, some of these little emperors enter the government. When they do they bring this cultural mindset with them.

As a result, China lacks the ability to critically self-assess itself, because the individuals within the government have never had to personally do that. They have never had siblings to compete with, nor have they had the parents to critically assess them. Combined with a nation that is obsessed with maintaining control over every aspect of society, we add further to this disastrous recipe. This cultural mindset reflects the previous articles’ larger trends and arguments that have emerged in the last thirty-forty years within the country. In the past, I have spoken at length about the need for honest self-assessment. Without it, individual people and entire nations fail to understand and deal with the issues they are facing. When this cannot be achieved, they almost always lead down a path of ruin.

What I am arguing, in short, is that these joint cultural mindset problems, when interlinked with the factor of not critically assessing problems, will only ever result in collapse.

These are issues which are not just on observers but rather on how China views itself and how it interacts with the outside world. What we can infer from this cultural mindset is one of failure, from top to bottom within the nation. We can see the results of it going forward and will feel it for decades to come.

In October this year, we witnessed the CCP’s Party Congress in Beijing. What we observed was an unofficial shift from focusing on the economy towards the political within the party. But more importantly, we are going to witness further shifts from the Chinese Government as its problems start to build up, when interlinked with a lack of self-assessment and this cultural attitude. This lacking ability to absorb information from the outside into the system will only get worse as those who were born under One Child start making up most government class. If China can survive under the future turmoil of Xi, then the subsequent generation will almost certainly be amongst its last. Ultimately, this cultural attitude will be what underpins China’s downfall.

In conclusion, the follow up to this, will be looking at China being an ‘hydraulic state’ and how certain educational emphasis ruined the nation from the outside. This will explain why engineering degrees and managerialism/Confucian bureaucratism doomed China to begin with. This will also feature Leo Strauss and his impact on China and what this has meant going forward.

Photo Credit.

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