issue 170 - April 1987
Bamboo curtains of the mind
Capitalism versus communism, self-interest against selflessness -
we often seem to believe that China is a huge morality play acted out for
our benefit. Anuradha Vittachi contends that our view of China tells
us more about ourselves than about the Chinese.
The Yellow Peril approaches. The Oriental hordes descend from the mountains in their invincible thousands, uniform and uniformed, their bodies clad in identical blue and their minds dyed identical red, leaked from the cover of Mao's little book.
This racist fantasy clearly tells us more about the mind of the fantasist than it does about the Chinese: they are seeing what's happening in China through the lens of their own fear. But it's not just racists who dislike having their beliefs threatened: we all prefer to keep them safely cushioned. Indeed, we go to great lengths to keep our beliefs intact, surrounding ourselves with people whose values we imagine to be similar to ours, and carefully padding and bolstering our beliefs with 'facts' that 'prove' they are the 'right' beliefs to hold.
China is a favourite resource for such 'facts'. China's present political churnings, for instance, provide fodder for a lot of Western arguments that tell us only a little about China but a good deal about the beliefs of the people doing the arguing.
Consider the following questions and answers:
Question: Which country has done most in recent years to 'prove' to the West the value of selflessly placing the good of the community above the self-interest of the individual? Answer: China.
Question: Which country has done most in recent years to 'prove' to the West the value of the irrepressible individual spirit, even in the face of totalitarian pressure? Answer: China.
How can it be that just one country has proved that selflessness is best - and also that it isn't? And which view is right?
Pro-collectivists point to China's health and welfare miracles. They claim that virtually no one starves in China now - though just a generation ago, a Western child who wouldn't clear her plate was reminded sternly of the starving millions there. They claim further that VD has been virtually eradicated, drug abuse ditto; and that mental illness is enviably rare.
These improvements are claimed by the pro-collective side as factual, practical proof of the correctness of their beliefs. According to this view, such miracles came about because the Chinese were willing to do what we in the West are too selfish to try: put the community before ourselves. It's hard to test out the validity of selfless collectivism in the West for every friend who is willing to join you in a selfless living experiment, there will be three who laugh all the way to the bank - but a billion satisfied customers in China can't be wrong.
So China for those who believe in selflessness as an ideal has been not just a fascinating country in its own right but an essential symbol of their beliefs. Which makes it deeply embarrassing when China appears to get bored with the rigours of selfless sacrifice and starts to show signs of the dread disease of selfishness.
What's to be done? If China has decided to step outside the framework of beliefs she herself has exemplified - what happens to the theory? It has to be hastily rethought. Is there some way to stretch the theory a little, unpick a seam or two, so that the alterations in China's political shape can be accommodated? But if China has decided to change its ideological contours so drastically that the old political fabric has to be ripped up, then it may have to be rejected as beyond the pale by those who formerly looked to it for inspiration.
Meanwhile the pro-individualists, of course, are delighted at the shift in China's ground. Apparently the Left's pet symbol of successful collectivism has seen the light, it has grown out of an adolescent attack of socialism and matured into understanding the importance of the individual. This is seen as proof that pro-individualist and anti-collectivist views were the 'right' ones all the time - and that the opposition's views, however charmingly idealistic they might sound, were hopeless in practice.
In fact what these arguments 'prove' more than anything else is that someone who really wants to project their view onto any situation can find a way of doing so. And it also tells us something about people's urgent need to prove that one view or another is 'right'. Simply to hold a view as a possibility - to hold it in suspense without deciding if it is good or bad, right or wrong - is culturally awkward: it feels like having a foreign body floating around in your brain.
Some psychologists believe that our eagerness to grab urgently for a simple 'right' answer is a need left over from our childhood, when parents told us the 'right' answers which we needed to agree with in order to be approved of and cared for, and that this was a pattern later confirmed by our educational system, which tells us that problems have 'right' answers that you need to find out if you are to succeed.
Our fear of the unknown keeps us jammed in the known. The unknown unnerves; ambiguity causes anxiety. So the game of projecting our narrow, well-tried beliefs onto every situation and having them comfortingly reconfirmed goes on. We need to recognize how our fear-filled urge to protect our old beliefs may be stopping us from opening up to new visions. We need to be prepared to take the risk of hearing whispers from other camps which may shake our mental edifices.
Whatever China is doing, it does not exist to prove anything to the West, it proudly goes, as it always has, its own sweet - or sour - way. Perhaps all we can fairly do from this distance is to observe it - and glean from what we project onto it some freeing insight into the nature and quality of our own hopes, fears and beliefs.
Anuradha Vittachi, formerly a co-editor of NI, is now a freelance writer and psychotherapist.