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My development logbook

Wrong Question?

There is this interesting article, China’s Class Divide, by Daniel A. Bell in NT Times. Here is a brief summary of the content.

“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. Once again, I was forced into the strange position of cutting off debate before it got out of hand.

After the Sichuan earthquake, I was due to lecture on John Rawls’s theory of justice. 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. 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.

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 while the questions is worthy of critical examination and scholarly discussion, the timing of raising it in the class cannot be worse. It is as if asking a class of American students why USA foreign policy caused the hostility from aboard right after 9/11. I don’t think there are many of us who are capable to deal with the weight of the question rationally.

This question, I think, also highlights a difference in the Eastern and Western moral values: In the East, as exemplified by Confucius’s teaching, the care for others are radiated from an individual along the axis of the distance of relationship. An individual is expected to care for himself and his family first, then his country, and lastly the universe. (修身,齊家,治國,平天下 – “Cultivate yourself, Maintain your family fair, Make your country peaceful and prosperous, Bring eternal peace to the World” )

The Western moral value is strongly influenced by the Christian faith. The value is deeply rooted in the culture and manifested as belief in Universal Values such as Human Right, even though more and more European, and to a certain extend, American, are turning their back to organized religions,

In China, A similar view has been taught by Confucius’s contemporary rival school, Mohism. Confucius has refuted this as preposterous because he did not believe one can love a stranger as much as one can love his parent.