Nation of moral dilemmas

Xi Jinping looks to Confucius to combat waning morality

Nation of moral dilemmas

Is China suffering from a moral crisis? Two very different men think so.

The first is Liu Pengfei, an interior designer, from the southeastern city of Fuzhou, who has opened a restaurant where customers only pay for their meals if they want to.

The Fuzhou Trust Restaurant is a self-service style canteen with no price guides and no staff to clear tables after customers. Instead the clientele is expected to wash its own dishes and leave as much cash as it sees fit for the food consumed.

The idea, says 51 year-old Liu, is to build trust by giving freely and having faith that people will respond correctly.

“I want to inject some positive energy into society and let people know that trust is not a luxury,” he told the Strait News.

Liu, a Christian, dates China’s moral decline back to the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s when Mao Zedong encouraged people to “smash” the Four Olds: old culture, old habits, old ideas and old customs.

Those who clung to the Four Olds were denounced as counter-revolutionaries, often by neighbours or even their own family members.

“I wish people could leave behind this state of selfishness and teach others to trust,” Liu told the Daily Telegraph this week.

He is not alone in hoping so.

The other man talking about the need for “higher moral standards” is none other than Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

Analysts say that this “moral” message is part of Xi’s anti-corruption drive and also a step towards fleshing out his vision for the future, which he calls ‘The Chinese Dream’.

Many Chinese feel they live in country where they can only trust family and friends – and that only connections or cash will help them if they get into difficulties.

The case of  Yue Yue, a toddler run over by a van and then ignored by 18 passers-by in Guangdong in May 2012, strengthened this feeling of unease (see WiC136).

As did the case of Tang Hui, a mother from the southern province of Hunan who was thrown  into labour camp for protesting against alleged  police complicity in the kidnap and rape of her 11 year-old-daughter (see WiC218).

A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published last year showed that only a fifth of the population says it trusts strangers.

To help remedy this deficit, Xi is planning to give more freedom to those who practice traditional Chinese ‘faiths’ such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, a report from Reuters has claimed.

“Xi understands that the anti-corruption drive can only cure symptoms” and that “reform of the political system and faiths are needed to cure the disease,” an insider with ties to the leadership told the news agency.

The report went on to say that Xi was worried by “the vacuum created by the country’s breakneck growth and rush to get rich” and that his own family was believed to have Buddhist leanings.

The Chinese Communist Party officially espouses atheism and often clamps down on religious organisations seen as a challenge to its primacy.

Some of the Reuters story seems to have been borne out by Xi’s recent visits to a Confucius temple in the eastern city of Qufu.

He used the occasion to call for others to “uphold ancient moral standards and wisdom and pursue higher moral standards”. Xi added: “A nation without virtue can’t be prosperous; a man without virtue can’t stand up straight.”

How about restaurateur Liu? Has his trust in his customers been repaid?

Liu says that most people pay something towards their food but usually pay less than what he regards as a fair amount. A few customers don’t pay at all and Liu had particular problems with one group of men who came to eat regularly but refused to pay a penny. After he reasoned with the men, they now make a contribution and Liu is hopeful that others will start to pay more too. Having lost Rmb100,000 ($16,424) in his first  month of operations, the monthly deficit is now down to Rmb60,000. “Things are getting better,” Liu said.  “More people are leaving money now.”

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