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How Bad Is China's Moral Crisis?

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Their test scores may be the envy of the Western world, but Chinese children face plenty of challenges: burdensome parental expectations, gender imbalance among their peers, the ill effects of air pollution. Here’s something else to add to the list: navigating a changing moral landscape. According to Chinese anthropologist Jing Xu, China is in the throes of a moral crisis.

“The moral crisis is something that everyone in China talks about,” says Xu, a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. “There is no way to prove it objectively, but it’s something that’s circulated in the public discourse and in people’s daily discussions.” The rapid modernization of a country whose social structure was traditionally determined by strict hierarchy has “ignited enormous anxieties in the society,” Xu writes in a paper published last week in Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. The “moral crisis” has occasionally drawn international attention, such as during the embezzlement trial of party boss Bo Xilai or the “Yue yue incident,” when the two-year-old victim of a hit-and-run was ignored by over a dozen passers-by.

“When people fall in the street, people dare not to help them,” says Xu. “It’s not exactly because people are amoral. There’s a kind of vigilance.” People are reluctant to trust strangers, she says, and perhaps for good reason: There have been cases of “Good Samaritans” being exploited by the very people they’re trying to help.

Xu carried out ethnographic research at the Shanghai preschool her son attends to figure out which values teachers and parents seek to cultivate in young children. Xu spent a year observing children’s classes and extracurricular activities, as well as sitting in on informal conversations among students, teachers and parents, administering questionnaires and conducting in-depth interviews. She noticed that teachers went to great lengths to emphasize egalitarian sharing, requiring children to bring in toys and snacks to divide equally among their peers. Sharing, wrote Xu, “is seen as the first step for the promotion of sociality and generosity, given the pervasive fear that single children will become or remain too selfish.” Teachers arranged regular “Sharing Days,” for students to practice sharing; on students’ birthdays, teachers praised children for bringing in cake to share equally with their classmates. Although students complied with their teachers’ expectations, Xu saw that kids as young as two years old also mimicked the calculated behavior they witnessed among adults—behavior typical of guanxi, the system of gift-exchange that pervades politics and personal relations in China. Once, Xu saw a two-year-old advise his teacher to give the school director a piece of birthday cake, saying, “You know you should cotton up to your boss.”

Can Chinese children's generosity be reduced to a variation on How to Win Friends and Influence People? Xu then designed an experiment to try to understand the children’s motivations for sharing. She offered children two pieces of candy and gave them the option of giving one piece to another child; almost all the children agreed to share. Xu then gave them the option of sending the gift anonymously or in a signed envelope. Ninety percent chose the signed envelope. They then had to make another choice: They could give the candy to a student who was only visiting for a day or a new student who would remain at the school. Seventy-four percent opted to give the candy to the student who was staying on, and sixty percent said they expected to become friends with the recipient. Whether that's evidence of nihilism or precocious social intelligence, I'm not sure.

We need more cross-cultural research to know how much of this behavior is specific to Chinese children. The tension between altruism and independence is something teachers and parents around the world struggle with, but it may play out more dramatically in a society undergoing rapid change.