China’s Class Divide

As tragic as the Sichuan earthquake has been, perhaps it can do some good by helping dispel a widespread myth: that the new generation of Chinese students are materialistic and selfish.

I’ve been teaching political theory at Tsinghua University here since 2004 and I’ve found that almost all of my students are driven to do good for society. So I wasn’t surprised when, as word of the disaster came out, hundreds of Tsinghua students lined up overnight at a Red Cross station to donate blood and supplies. Others went to the earthquake zone, more than 1,000 miles away, to distribute aid.

Now I’m hoping events can dispel another false impression: that young Chinese are xenophobic nationalists who cheer for their country, good or bad.

Tsinghua is one of China’s most prestigious universities and it is known for its politically conservative orientation. President Hu Jintao is an alumnus, and most of my colleagues are Communist Party members, as are many of my students.

Yet the atmosphere is anything but conservative. The most popular lecturers tend to be the ones who openly criticize contemporary China. In private, students are quick to express frustration at Internet censorship and official propaganda. In class, student questions are often critical to the point that I need to introduce some “pro-government” views for balance.

Shortly after the uprisings in Tibet in March, I happened to lecture on Locke’s idea of constitutional democracy. A student asked if the “right to rebel” would justify the use of violence by Tibetans fighting for independence. In the interest of class time, I had to shut off the discussion. The next week we discussed Isaiah Berlin’s concept of freedom, and a student mentioned the cover illustration of a German magazine that depicted the Olympic rings in barbed wire. Once again, I was forced into the strange position of cutting off debate before it got out of hand.

After the Sichuan earthquake, one student told me the disaster was a punishment from heaven and that the government would have to make amends. Another accused the local government of suppressing news predicting an earthquake because it might have disrupted the “harmonious environment” for the Olympics.

A few days later, I was due to lecture on John Rawls’s theory of justice. By then, the huge toll of the earthquake had become apparent and the national mood had turned grim. Before the class, four students came to my office, raising doubts about the relevance of the “abstract” theories I was teaching and urging me to use more concrete examples. So I tried hard to think of an example that the students could grapple with.

Finally I came up with a good one (or so I thought). According to Rawls, the state should give first consideration to the worst-off members of the community. But which “community” matters? Do the state’s obligations extend outside national boundaries? For example, the cyclone in Burma caused more deaths than the Chinese earthquake. Should China help the victims of the Burmese cyclone, even if it means less aid for the rescue mission in China?

When I finished, the class went unexpectedly silent, to the point that I could feel a certain amount of hostility. Finally a student said that of course the Chinese government should help the Chinese first. But why, I said? Another student said, it’s obvious, the victims are Chinese. “But why, why?” I asked, somewhat impatiently. Give me some reasons.

Some students spoke up. There is no global institution that could distribute aid in accordance with Rawls’s principles of justice. The Chinese people pay taxes to the Chinese state, so the state has special obligations to them. The Chinese state couldn’t do much for the Burmese people even if it wanted to.

I responded that the Burmese government is truly awful, blocking aid to its own people, and that the Chinese government could have some influence on it. A student commented that liberal theories may not be appropriate in China. I wanted to reply that Confucian theories can also justify intervention to help oppressed foreigners, but the bell rang. In the past, the ever-polite students would clap in appreciation before leaving. This time, there was no applause

When I got home, I realized that I had trodden on sensitive territory. Chinese TV has been filled with scenes of death and devastation, of Chinese soldiers wading through mud and gore to help the victims. Every conversation is prefaced with concern about the victims. I sent an e-mail message to the class apologizing for the “wrong-headed” example, adding, “It is very admirable what students at Tsinghua are doing to support the earthquake victims and I didn’t mean to imply that we must choose between two tragedies.”

A student wrote back saying, “It is not a wrong-headed example; we just have clear and strong identification.” That seems to go to the heart of what went wrong. It’s perfectly natural to care about people closer to home, especially in times of disaster. I think I have a soft spot for the Chinese, but I still wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to their point of view.

Or maybe it’s just a matter of timing. Imagine a professor in New York, just after the 9/11 attacks, asking students to argue about whether donations are best spent aiding relatives of the victims of those attacks or victims of war abroad. He might well have been shouted out of the room. But a year later, say, it could have been a subject of discussion. The question, I guess, is whether my students and I will be able to debate China’s global obligations a year from now.

Daniel A. Bell, the author of China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.