Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Moral Common Ground in China

This summer, China hosted the 2008 Olympics without a major incident, but barely a month after the Olympic curtains fell, Beijing was scrambling to contain one of the worst cases of milk contamination in recent history. These two events mirror the gap between two images of China. On one side is China as a confident power, rapidly opening not just to foreign trade and investment, but also to ideas, values, and norms from the outside world. On the other side is the developing, more uncertain China, driven by a growing capitalist culture that is filling a moral vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution.

A recent Carnegie Council delegation to Beijing days after the Olympics found that the Chinese want to bridge this gap, and ethics is high on the agenda.

The delegation traveled to Beijing from Sept. 21 to 26, 2008, to lay the groundwork for China-Japan-U.S. dialogues on ethics, energy, climate change, and faculty development. The group included Joshua Eisenman, Asia Studies Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and Ph.D. candidate at UCLA; Jonathan Gage, a Carnegie Council Trustee and Principal of Booz & Company, where he also publishes its magazine strategy+business; Harry Harding, University Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University; Devin Stewart, Director, Global Policy Innovations, Carnegie Council; and Alex Westlake, Managing Director of ClearWorld Energy in Beijing.

Meetings with senior academics, businesspeople, and think tank and government officials revealed that Chinese interest in ethics in international affairs is more cosmopolitan than many may assume. In particular, there is genuine interest in ethical business, in ethics relating to climate change and energy security, and in reconciling Western discourse with China’s traditions. Intellectuals believe that indeed, the tainted milk scandal, which hit a pitch while the delegation was in Beijing, has helped to increase the urgency for an ethical dialogue not only within the country but also between China and other countries, such as the United States. As one of the world’s most important political and economic players, many Chinese feel a growing sense of responsibility and are increasingly willing to talk with other global partners to carry out their global obligations.

As Harry Harding put it, China and the United States both justify their policies on moral grounds; they are ethical powers. China has a long ethical tradition, although the sense that China’s transition from a closed to an open economy and the quest for profits has led to “moral degradation” is widespread. Frustration is growing over the erosion of traditional values, and discussions in Beijing indicate a desire to use these values to create a new culture that can adopt from the outside and adapt to the globalized era, as Alex Westlake put it.

Yet there is also hesitation over what some see as a double standard and the West’s apparent lack of willingness to take into the account the point of view of developing nations. China and the United States, for example, share many values, although they place emphasis on different priorities, as Harding said. China’s involvement in Africa, a topic that Josh Eisenman is investigating, is a case in point. China’s association with the government of Sudan has made it the target of international criticism. Yet some have expressed doubt about American ethical commitments, such as those on climate change.

Many of the themes heard in Beijing indicate increased international engagement for China and increased world involvement in paving China’s next road to reform and a pluralist approach to ethics, based on consensus and compromise. The China Reform Forum is hosting a symposium on the next step to China’s reform next month. The topics include options for general reform as well as reforms in its market-oriented economy, society and government. All topics present opportunities to promote ethics in Chinese reforms.

Our discussions in Beijing illustrate two overarching ethical principles: the Golden Rule and the Golden Mean. Several sources, for example, suggested that China find the best elements from its historical traditions, from the outside world, and from socialist thought, implying a pluralistic mean between the three. The Golden Mean, a theme found both in the Confucian tradition as well as in Indian, Greek, and other philosophies, also could lay the foundation for equity or fairness in negotiations, ranging from trade to climate change. Moreover, a fairer negotiation process is likelier to bring about lasting solutions.

Finally, theses solutions should be based on reciprocity, respect, rights, and responsibility—captured nicely in the nearly universal concept of the Golden Rule. The Carnegie Council looks forward to helping further this dialogue.

(Photos: Carnegie Council delegates meet officials at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, top, at Renmin University School of International Studies, and at the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China)

This summary was prepared by Sheila Oviedo and Devin Stewart.


Kelsey said...

I don't doubt that the folks that the delegation met with praised China's desire to have ethical, environmental, and non-toxic trade. I don't doubt their genuineness either.

But I do doubt their ability and even their willingness to uphold labor laws and trade regulations. I was in China last year and met with some factory workers who make shoes. The law said they could work a maximum of 44 hours a week, but they worked 100 hours per week.

It's hard not to be skeptical of business practices in a country that, in recent months, has disguised protein as poison, swapped a pretty child lip syncing for the not-so pretty one that was actual singing.

I think China can continue to move in the right direction, but perceptions like the ones I've named are going to be hard to move beyond. The PRC needs some good PR.

Warren Wilczewski said...

Devin, while I can see the case for introducing a more ethical way of thinking into Chinese domestic and foreign policies, I doubt this will be possible, at least in the short to medium term.

For whatever shortcomings the US may have in terms of its own lack of ethical behavior on the world stage, it is still a democracy, and as such is endowed with a fail-safe mechanism. We have seen this kick in time and again, as in the time after the Vietnam War, or the recent commitment by both presidential candidates to address the challenge of global warming after 8 years of neglect.

China, unfortunately, is far from becoming the kind of representative democracy that provides a check on unethical government behavior. The opposite in fact seems to be true: in times of political weakness, Beijing appears to stoke nationalistic fervor to maintain support and a semblance of legitimacy. This does not only apply to the numerous cases of scapegoating (particularly of Japan, but also the US), but also the all-too-common argument that "whatever is good for the country is good for its citizens," used repeatedly to confiscate peasant farmland or pollute air, land, and water.

So yes, introducing ethics into Chinese political discourse is a positive development, and fusing this with ancient Chinese ideas such as Mingjun - the enlightened leader - is a hopeful sign. Nevertheless, until Chinese leadership learns to trust the wisdom and values of over a billion disenfranchised citizens, it will also be vulnerable to another Chinese tradition - the cycle of dynastic downfalls. According to Confucius, a leader's loss of the Mandate of Heaven is precipitated by selfishness, lack of respect, immorality, inhumane character, and greed - all of which are addressed at the polling booths in democracies around the world.

Recent coverage of the food poisoning scandals contain at least some elements of Confucian leadership failure, which might be called a deficit of ethics. Looks like some people need to brush up on their Analects.

Devin Stewart said...

What kind of world do we, as a common human family, want?

I would guess that many Chinese, in all sectors of society, are asking themselves the same thing.

It is widely accepted that the Cultural Revolution challenged the ethical education of people in the cities when they faced the "cold reality" of the countryside and the harshness of returning to the cities later to get a job, as one scholar put it. What is China going to do to fill the moral vacuum? Many people are seriously concerned about this. Do we really believe that a society that will do anything to make a profit is sustainable... a society that resembles many countries, including the United States, during stages of rapid development? Remember that democratic countries like the United States, England, and Japan went through this period of rough capitalism too.

Moreover, it is often said, China is a diverse, complicated place. (Yes, so is every country.)

Kelsey, I take your point but it wasn't the "country" that created the tainted milk; it was a few unethical businesspeople. One cynic we visited said that these scandals come and go in China with little societal memory. But these episodes can build up.

Warren, a lack of democracy may be a problem in the sense of lack of representation and accountability. But these are things the government is worried about. And pressures for change can come from several places, not just the polls, including foreign direct investment, international political pressure, the media and NGOs. What we want to do is create a multi-stakeholder, multi-national dialogue on ethics. Our government in the United States and our financial system on Wall Street could surely benefit from this effort.

We could all benefit from a serious examination of what is right.