Chinese Riots on Japan Pit Confucius Against Self-Interest

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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What does a Chinese citizen owe the state in times of crisis? For most of recorded history, the answer to that question was simple: everything.

The individual was second to that state in all matters, and was expected to sacrifice self-interest for national interest when called upon. Those who sacrificed the most were the most patriotic. Those who refused the state were selfish, and worse.

In recent years, however, China’s free market reforms have slowly, and subtly, began to change that ancient calculus. After all, a free market system based upon the pursuit of self-interest is inevitably going to clash with a traditional culture that emphasizes collective interest above all others.

Contemporary China is rife with examples of this tension, from the parents who desire more than one child despite the demands of China’s population control policies, to the Olympic athletes who sacrifice everything for a gold medal-oriented national sports administration. But perhaps no event or set of circumstances reveals that tension quite as clearly as recent calls for boycotts and violence against Japan and Japanese companies because of a decades-old territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

The dirt in question is a string of barren, uninhabited islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyu, and the Japanese the Senkaku. In recent weeks tensions over the islands have intensified as Japan has attempted to strengthen claims of sovereignty through survey parties and –- most recently -– an attempt to purchase the islands from their current private owner.   Over the weekend, the purchase effort provoked oft-violent protests on the mainland. In decades past, the call for boycotts would have come from the state media and been greeted with full-throated collectivist acceptance. These days, the calls are made by netizens and met with a range of emotions, from the violently enthusiastic to those tortured by the idea of giving up hard-earned, self-interested materialistic comforts.

Take, for example, a curious but highly representative tweet posted to Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, on Friday afternoon. The author was Tao Xunmin, a self-identified expert in European travel itineraries with the state-owned China Travel Service in Beijing. While the anti-Japanese protests and riots raged, he found himself in the presence of a Chinese business group with conflicted feelings:

The tour group I had this time consisted of ultrasound machine experts and distributors! And what they use and sell is the Toshiba brand manufactured in Japan! These distributors worry that their millions in investment capital won’t have a return if these devilish Japanese keep up like this. From the perspective of national interest, they hope to fight; while in terms of personal interest, they want peace!

Favoring the collective over the individual is a Chinese value rooted in the Chinese state’s Confucian past. The emperors favored it, and so does the Communist Party. It’s a means of marshaling the people in pursuit of the national interest (actual and alleged) while justifying their individual sufferings. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to view China’s collectivism as a value transmitted from the top down. It is, in fact, a value -– or set of values -– long embraced by the grassroots. When it comes to the Diaoyu crisis, at least, it’s not difficult to find online voices expressing those grassroots sentiments. Xu Liang, a Beijing-based television director logged into Sina Weibo last Wednesday to report –- approvingly -- how he claims such attitudes were expressed in a produce market:

I heard an old vendor talking about the Diaoyu Island events while I was buying fruit. Personally speaking, I don’t think her anger will be mollified unless we retrieve the islands! We average citizens are strongly patriotic and individual gains or losses aren’t worth mentioning when compared to national interest and national honor! Remember: "The fate of the nation is every man’s duty!"

Duty or not, forgoing Japanese goods in China is a considerable sacrifice for consumers interested in quality and reliability –- a point made by many Chinese microbloggers over the last few days. Late Friday afternoon, Exercise Book, the handle for a widely followed member of Sina Weibo, offered a tweet that placed that sacrifice in uncomfortable perspective by invoking the never-ending scandals over contaminated milk powder and baby formula in China. Though there are many other food-related scandals in China, poisoned baby food has a particular grip:

“If the Japanese attacked and there were a Japanese gun on the ground -- would you grab and fire it? Imagine you have a child and access to only two kinds of milk powder. The first is manufactured in China, and the other manufactured in Japan. Which do you chose?”

Exercise Book’s provocative tweet has since generated more than 65,000 re-tweets and 37,000 comments which range from the furious to the resigned. It was also, briefly, censored on Sunday afternoon, and then restored hours later after Exercise Book and his followers mocked the censors. Though it’s impossible to say for certain why the popular tweet was censored, it likely wasn’t viewed kindly by authorities who enjoy the security of a state where collective needs still overwhelm individual ones.

Still, it’d be a mistake to think that China’s free market reforms have universalized an appreciation for individual self-interest and what it can buy. Over the weekend, as protests grew violent across China, protestors turns their ire over their government’s lack of aggressive action against Japan into vandalism on Japanese products (especially cars), restaurants, stores, and factories (many of which are owned by and employ Chinese). The ugly firmament was so outrageous that People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, went so far as to publish an editorial calling for “rational patriotism” on Monday morning. Though it doesn’t acknowledge, directly, the vandalism that occurred over the weekend, it does call out those whose collective rage would discount the rights of individuals: “Doing damage to the legal property of one’s countrymen … is extremely inappropriate.”

A more caustic version of the same sentiment was tweeted to Sina Weibo on Saturday morning by a Tianjin-based user of the service:

In my opinion, our nation has forever held on to the notion that the national interest is higher than the individual interest … We take it on faith that we must risk our lives fighting against others, although "others" here may mean Chinese people who have finally saved enough money to buy a Japanese car, or who work hard in a Japanese restaurant.

Indeed, as China’s violent weekend intensified and then reached its smoking conclusion, online commentary began to reflect on what factors could have led to the collective destruction of property that –- in the end -– would only serve to harm the Chinese people. As Monday arrived, news came that several Japanese-owned factories would remain closed in the wake of the protests, inflicting pain on an economy that’s slowing considerably. On Sunday afternoon, Ying Lifeng, a reporter with the Zhujiang Evening News in Guangdong Province tweeted one possible conclusion:

I just want to say that, for years we were educated to put national and collective interest above personal interest. Individualism and liberalism were derogatory terms. We had no love for humanity, and we never lacked in hatred. If you grow up under circumstance like that, violence will be the inevitable result of stimulating the people’s patriotism.

There’s no guarantee that China’s self-interested, middle-class Toyota owners will be any more humane than those who throw trash cans through Toyota windshields. But, for now at least, they’re representative of those most likely to moderate the collectivist impulses that have proved so damaging to China over the last half-century.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)



This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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