I have not experienced it too many times since being in China, but I do find it somewhat disconcerting when I do. And that is when a lǎo bǎi xìng (老百姓), a common person, so classified by themselves and society, shows extreme deference to a point that verges on humiliation.
We had an incident recently where a drunken neighbour made a couple of mistakes. He did though of his own volition rectify the situation by apologizing for his actions. However, he was to end up doing so in a manner that his actions had not deserved or any act for that matter probably does deserve. He was exceptionally deferential, to the point at one stage of wanting to get down on his knees and place his head at my girlfriend’s feet. While also repeatedly showing embarrassment that a person of his low culture, his words not mine, that he just a worker, his words not mine, could have troubled us so much.
What he did however do, once we had gathered him to his feet and made it clear that his simple apology had been enough, was to outline his own circumstance and that of his family and extended family. He seemed to do so for no other reason than through a simple desire to articulate what was inside him, and on the basis that he had some people willing to listen. He had after all been assured his apology was sufficient and that we wouldn’t be taking the money he was trying to give us, on top of the gifts of food he had already given. So he had no need to make us feel sorry for him or earn any more forgiveness, that had been done and we were now just trying to talk with him.
He made a number of points about the life of the lǎo bǎi xìng, who he noted, in this world of plenty for some, are still predominantly living hand to mouth. And that for most it is an exhausted hand to a hungering mouth. He pointed out that the wages were basically just about enough to put food on the table and a roof over ones’ head. We can of course all basically accept that that is indeed enough, but we are also at the same time constantly persuaded that much more is needed. And that what is needed needs to be re-evaluated and repurchased at reasonably frequent intervals.
He did at one point comment on the property prices in Beijing and Shanghai that he had heard about, doing so as if they were figures of fairytale or tragicomic proportions. He may of course not be too far wrong in that appraisal. It was obviously a world so far from his own, but in seeing that fact so clearly, straight out of his mouth, it gave me a greater sense of the perversity of it all. And that’s not simply because this is a country being governed under the blazing banner of party communism.
This issue of income inequality is one of the things that has always got me about our free markets, laissez faire governance and our perceived world of choice.
That and the fact that we need to keep growing to allow this intuited super model of economic and political governance to work. But, as we need to keep growing we also need to keep feeding a desire for choice and choosing, but not choice in all its guises and not the same choice for all the choosers. It is one that predominantly manifests in the peoples’ power to purchase and the ability to produce. Although whether it is done using cash or some loaned/ credit driven way or another has not, until recently, seemed to matter too much.
This brings me nicely around to this year’s festivities, particularly to Christmas Day at Canterbury Cathedral in England where the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his annual sermon.
There are some comments that he made that I think we are able to take, consider and apply outside the aegis of the church.
In his sermon he stated that:
‘There are at least three things we might ponder… seeking to understand ourselves better in the light of the Christmas story.’
I will concentrate on the first:
‘[O]ur solidarity with one another, in our society and our world, our solidarity with and loyalty to our fellow-citizens and fellow-human beings. Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together?
How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others? As has more than once been said, we can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out.’
It is these societal considerations that the Chinese government may do well to heed, if not on the basis of any political philosophical reasoning then for practicalities sake. Based on the idea that a mutually supportive coexistence, that is in essence socially harmonious, something still apparent here in China, is central to a safe, secure and healthy society. With a corresponding desire from the citizenship to make sacrifices for it, or at least; maintain belief in that society so to continue contributing to it, seeing and knowing full well it is returning to us what we are putting in. This is the need.
It is early days in the development of this modern China but as the Archbishop’s words hint at, our western societies have failed to share that load, as our systems haven’t allowed it. There are some big decisions ahead here in China if Mr. Lǎo Bǎi Xìng isn’t to conclude that his time has may be not yet come after all. That time is being put off for now, there are more acts of faith than simply the religious kind, but they won’t be put off forever. Faith may well only go so far before we end up being woken by the bright light of reality.
Again, as the Archbishop’s words point towards, once the social fabric of a society has been eroded; when the mutual sense of responsibility that is embedded within the people has gone or has been diluted, it is a big question of whether or not it can brought back: can that trust be rebuilt, can the bonds between same community strangers be harnessed again, can belief in the State and the system be re-energised? These issues may themselves hint at other reasons why Christianity is being allowed to creep into the social make up of present day China.
Big questions, but these, and I will allow myself a pithy conclusion or two this time, are big question times. I would say from my own experiences back at home and from my experiences here so far, China really doesn’t want to reach the point where it is asking those questions in reaction to circumstance, because then it may well be far too late. May be it won’t ever have to ask, but I think with the society it is creating now it is going to have to be more careful with the direction it is going than may be some people believe. Big questions indeed.
They say you can’t have your cake and eat it but I have never quite liked that saying. Though that is actually more for the fact I never quite understood it. I always thought that if you have a cake of course you always want to eat it as well. In fact, ironically, we may just need to share a bit more of it than we have been doing.