Tension Between Spiritual Improvement and Economic Development

As we mentioned above, the pursuit of pleasure is in competition with the spiritualization of the self; however, there is a third relationship that was brought up by officials during our interviews: the relationship between accelerated economic practices in China and moral degeneration. As a midlevel official from the disciplinary department argues: “I think we have spent too much time on making money, and we have spent too little time of reading books and listening to music and arguing about politics.” In this discourse, it is seen that there is competition between material accumulation and spiritual and intellectual advancement. This discourse on modernization is not restricted to the perspective that the opening up of the economic markets have introduced Western values into China, but rather, it has caused a spiritual vacuum. Thus, it is not the introduction of Western values that has caused corruption per se, but rather the inability of officials to maintain their spirituality and morality in the process of modernization. Or more precisely, it is the tireless modernization process that makes it difficult for officials to cultivate and sustain their morality, alongside the cultivation of their human capital for the purpose of achieving material wealth and social status. A mid-level official from the disciplinary department explains this dynamic:

Because a person’s energy is limited, if you take more care on one thing you will focus less on other things. If you pursue more the material, you definitely can’t take the spiritual things into account that is a contradiction.

The emphasis on materiality would thus result in neglect of the pursuit of spiritual improvement. Another official (from same department) went on to explain that the process of modernization in China, as a practice, produced an emergence of “a kind of change of values, which is money worship ... I think now in China it is about money worship, power worship and material worship.” Weber in Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues, it is “a danger of relaxation in the security of possession, the enjoyment of wealth with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life” (Weber 2012: 96). Another official from the education department reflected on the vacuum in values in contemporary China as leading to a reinforcement of wrongdoing:

Why are some people crazy enough to commit the crimes, such as food safety issues? Why do so many people break the law? Because the punishment is relatively weak, the cost of illegal crime is very low. The businessman will use unscrupulous divisive tactics to achieve profits. It is as if there is something wrong with your mind if you didn’t violate the moral values or laws to achieve profit.

In this sense, the pursuit and accumulation of wealth by the Chinese people has led to an imbalance between the development of the economy and the improvement of morality. As Weber finds, in the West, unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace; God commands the individual to work as a religious duty for divine glory, and what God demands is not labour in itself, but rational labour in a calling that is the proper calling of God (2012: 98-100). However, proper calling or duty in the Chinese context is about being conscious and righteous in one’s relationship with others (Ackerly 2005: 560). It is the fulfilment of the duties associated with the different roles in Chinese society that carries the most weight, rather than one’s relationship with God. This relationship was explained to us thus:

So the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius should be restored, and that is why our society can only rely on the laws. People ask why do the Chinese dare to do evil, the reason is they do not have a sense of fear. Foreigners believe in god and they fear whether they will go to heaven or hell after death. In China, there is no such fear. In the past, the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius could control you, they expected everyone to be a gentleman. But now, many people simply do as they please without fear. (High-ranking official from the propaganda department)

In the West, moral individualism is the foundation of a modern civil society, whereas in China, where there are no such principles, such as impartiality, fairness, equal opportunity, people encounter each other qua individuals (i.e., as strangers) (Kim 2010: 476). In China’s tradition, relationships between strangers, such as the impersonal relationship between citizen and citizen in a shared public sphere and under a common rule of law can be hardly operational in the modern market economy (477). As a result, along with accelerated economic activities in China where human relationship is a means to an end for economic actors, the traditional duty of individual roles towards each other (and the wider population of China) can be easily manipulated or disregarded. An official working in higher education told us:

Sometimes, I feel that I can’t evaluate the Chinese moral bottom line. We train students in the so-called scientific spirit, humanistic spirit including etiquette in University, honouring the elderly, and respect for teachers. Originally, these should be learned in the basic education stage. As you mentioned, to encourage everyone to care for the young, respect the elders,

I feel we in our modern times are more backward in this aspect than ancient China. Compared with ancient China, it is clear that modern people feel empty spiritually and experience a lack of morality.

This in turn further encourages a utilitarian motivation as seen in early Puritan tendencies (Weber 2002: 99). Thus, as an official from a county government says, “Why do some officials want to work while some others don’t? It is all about self-interest. If he can benefit from his work, he is willing to do it, but if there is nothing to be gained, he is not willing to do it.” In this sense, to reiterate the point we made above, it is not Western values themselves that have contaminated the Chinese value system, but the accelerated economic activities that has brought about moral turbulence among Chinese people. Just as the anti-four undesirable working styles (also see Chap. 6) were perceived as an attempt to stabilize “the orders” within the Party, the rampant modernization and perceived moral degeneration in China in the context of rapid economic development, and the symptoms of this in terms of inappropriate extravagance and hedonism amongst Party members is viewed as being a direct challenge to the Party’s ongoing legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

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