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Liz Carter senior contributor

Translation: China’s Government, Not People, At Fault For Selfishness and Corruption

Hong Kong protesters recently amassed to decry mainland-led "patriotic education" in the Special Administrative Region. Via taiyangbao.ca

Have China’s people created her government? Or has China’s government made its people who they are?

Following recent protests in Hong Kong against changes to the city’s educational curriculum–which residents say include overly positive coverage of the Chinese Communist Party and constitute “brainwashing”–prominent microblogger Li Chengpeng took to the blogosphere to ask this question. On Wednesday, he posted the below essay on his personal blog, examining the issue in light of behavioral psychology, not to mention “The Shawshank Redemption.” He also shared the essay on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, which has been reposted over 32,000 times and generated over 5,300 comments as of this writing. Tea Leaf Nation translates.

The bell’s dogs

Pavlov had a dog, and would ring a bell every time he fed him. With the passing of time, the dog would salivate just upon hearing the bell. This is what is known as a “classically conditioned reflex.” I’ve always wondered what it would be like to conduct this experiment on humans. I realized when I watched the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” that that’s what happened to Red. Red was in jail for 40 years, and every time he went to the bathroom, he had to report to the authorities. After he got out of jail, he began working at a supermarket, and would always try to report to the authorities before going to the bathroom; otherwise, he couldn’t make himself pee.

These lines from the movie were particularly striking: “These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

It seems the American imperialists also have institutionalization and laboratories. It must be something we all have in common as humans. The only difference is, things are bigger here [in China], so the entire place is a laboratory, and every minute is part of our conditioning. When you’re spreading out a blanket to sell trinkets on the street, you have to watch out for chengguan [China’s reviled urban enforcers], who could come out of nowhere. Officials’ cars speed through the streets without stopping at lights, and bridges collapse because you are “too fat.” If your daughter is raped and you kneel in front of the courthouse in protest, you could be sentenced to reeducation through labor for disrupting public order. In this kind of place, we have to “report to the authorities” every day. A bell has become part of everyone’s minds. We’ve been trained in the ways of survival.

Li Chengpeng

I’ve wanted to write this essay for a while. Many times, I’ve seen good friends of mine criticize the selfishness and weakness of the Chinese people, their hatred not of power for the privileged few, but of their own lack of that power. They don’t hate the spoils of corruption, but hate that they can’t get their hands on them. When problems arise, they don’t want to handle them according to the law, but think first of how they might get out of them with their connections.

I think this is just the truth, and I’m just as guilty as the next person. But really, it’s only half the truth. The other half is that all of humanity is selfish, corrupt, and dreams of having special privileges. Without the restraint of the system, even an American would be crazy to refuse an expensive bottle of Moutai baijiu and a pretty girl with a dismissive, “I’m not that kind of guy.” Some people also like to say the Chinese are an inferior race, and “deserve to be slaves.” But this is not in keeping with the logic of Pavlov’s dog. Whether a husky, collie, or a Chinese rural dog, if you ring a bell every day [when you feed him], that dog is going to salivate. It’s not that the people must choose to get rid of this corruption and timidity before the nation can make progress; it’s that the laboratory must change before the people’s character can be improved.

This is the world’s largest laboratory, and we hear bells every day. When you’re driving, you notice that the cars that have the easiest time of it are official and military vehicles. In your mind, a traffic map will take shape around the concept of official privilege. When you see that women seeking justice go into the offices for petitioners, and “crazy” people come out, unless you actually believe in [Japanese cartoon character] Doraemon, you must realize that the greatest path to just treatment in the world is through the doors of leaders’ homes. Seeing your own child drink poisoned milk and eat gutter oil [slang for unclean recycled cooking oil] every day, out of the desire to protect the survival of the species, you’ll most certainly want to become an official yourself. This is conditioning, and has nothing to do with the state of your ideology. People are animals who want to seek pleasure and avoid punishment. They are whatever you are. If you tell them how to protect themselves, they’ll protect themselves.

China’s [system of] special privilege is getting worse and worse. In the past, getting enough to eat was a special privilege, and now being able to eat safe food is a special privilege. In the past, having a second child was a special privilege, but now, being able to secure a foreign nationality for your second child is a special privilege. Everyone’s trying to see whose dad is the most powerful, but that’s not enough anymore now that everyone’s pinning their futures on their “godfathers”…

Through this kind of conditioning, special privilege becomes a dream for many people, and a nightmare for many more. For example, when you are trying to determine whether or not military political commissioner Fang Daguo hit the flight attendant from China Southern Airlines, a plane seating a couple hundred passengers becomes like the deserted plains of Hoh Xil [the least populated place in China]. No one was willing to stand up and bear witness, so in the end, it was an African exchange student named Princelione Doubane who confirmed that the commissioner “pinched” her. This reminds me of the time a woman jumped into Hangzhou’s West Lake to save a drowning woman–the brave soul was from Uruguay. There was also the time that an American girl helped up an old lady who had fallen on the street.

Many friends of mine have said that the Chinese are selfish and cowardly, but I think you shouldn’t blame the Chinese, you should blame the laboratory. When righteousness is punished, and you must remember that to help someone up might mean to help someone for life, your best choice is to be part of the silent crowd of onlookers. Human nature has its share of weakness, and the system determines the behavior of people. The dog doesn’t run the laboratory; it’s the laboratory that runs the dog.

I think I’ve been clear enough. Surely some people are going to get riled up and say I’ve called Chinese people dogs. The illustration is a colorful one to say the least, and I thought about it for a long time before I became comfortable with it. This is just one part of the conditioning.

Some people have become their own laboratories, their own bells. That takes us back to the old topic: does a certain kind of people create a certain kind of government, or is the reverse true? Due to years of conditioning, I’ve also become one of those dogs, so it’s best to come at it from another angle. In that American movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” there are Americans, Italians, blacks, whites, and Asians in the jail, all for different reasons, but by living under the same harsh conditions, they all become a single kind of person, the kind that must “report to the authorities” or else find themselves unable to pee. Do you think the jail makes the criminal, or vice versa? Of course Andy is an exception; he digs and digs, using a small hammer hidden in his bible to dig out a great tunnel, and escapes. In the end, he makes it to the Pacific Ocean, and finds it as blue as it was in his dreams.

There will always be Andys who are able to escape through their own hard work. That’s why fewer and fewer people are turning to the evening news to find happiness, and more and more people are turning to Weibo to find the truth. Even critics like me must admit that this country is more open than it was several decades ago, otherwise I might be “reporting to the authorities” right now. But the bell is still there, and as a consequence, people dare to take to the streets and smash their countrymen’s Japanese-made cars, but not to bear witness to an incident on a plane. [By contrast,] Hong Kong is filled with Japanese cars, but [still] on the front lines when it comes to defending the Diaoyu Islands…

On the subject of Hong Kong, it’s worth looking at recent events. As a final note I’d like to share a story with everyone. Ran Yunfei introduced me to a young man born in the ‘90s from Chengdu who had just gone to Hong Kong to study. He told me that the school had decided to fire the people who worked in the cafeteria and hire another company to manage it. The students got angry: They put up posters every day, and harshly criticized the school on their college website for infringing on students’ rights. They said only students had the right to decide the matters that affected students, and they called for a boycott to protest the school’s arbitrary decision. The school, in response, meekly reversed its decision. The boy from Chengdu was a little excited as he told me, “Most of the people taking part in this boycott were mainland Chinese students. Before they may not have dared to do anything like this, but now they’ve not only done it, they’ve succeeded.” The students are the same as they ever were; they’ve just left the laboratory. This example might show us a way out of the chicken-and-egg debate over the people and the government.

In my opinion, those students may not have thought that the food in that cafeteria was better or worse before, but they just didn’t want to be dogs responding to a bell, salivating whenever they heard a chime. In my opinion, that’s the measure of good education. Good education teaches independent thought; it teaches us not to salivate whenever anyone rings a bell.

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    agenda? what is the purpose of this article?

    • ebcarter

      I enjoy translating Li Chengpeng’s work, and I think his is an interesting way of reframing a lot of questions people get side-tracked on.

    • Teaspoon

      The purpose of this article is to show that the way that a people commonly behave or act in a given society is not because of inherent traits, but more responses to the system that they are in.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    agenda? what is the purpose of this article?

    • ebcarter

      I enjoy translating Li Chengpeng’s work, and I think his is an interesting way of reframing a lot of questions people get side-tracked on.

    • Teaspoon

      The purpose of this article is to show that the way that a people commonly behave or act in a given society is not because of inherent traits, but more responses to the system that they are in.

  • http://twitter.com/paulguogo Paul Guo

    I enjoy reading this. I’d be interested in Lu Xun’s thoughts on Li Chengpeng’s article.

  • http://twitter.com/paulguogo Paul Guo

    I enjoy reading this. I’d be interested in Lu Xun’s thoughts on Li Chengpeng’s article.

  • Jahar

    I think it’s funny that this isn’t obvious to everyone here.

  • Jahar

    I think it’s funny that this isn’t obvious to everyone here.

  • Guess

    Haha…most if not all of us live in some kind of lab, the difference being some labs are bigger and more comfortable while others are not. I agree with the author’s point of view regarding how the society is being conditioned, it is a bit like how we are conditioned by all the advertisements, commercials, movies etc.. It is really nice to know what the common people in China think.

  • Guess

    Haha…most if not all of us live in some kind of lab, the difference being some labs are bigger and more comfortable while others are not. I agree with the author’s point of view regarding how the society is being conditioned, it is a bit like how we are conditioned by all the advertisements, commercials, movies etc.. It is really nice to know what the common people in China think.