Monday, August 27, 2007

Musings on my interest in Chinese Social Welfare

When I was a child in middle school in the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States had just established relations with the government in Beijing. I remember going to see a performance of a Beijing Opera company in Oakland with my grandparents, either in 1977 or 1979, but whenever it was, the exposure to Chinese culture made a big impression on me.

I became interested in China as my awakening interest in politics and economics was growing. While in sixth grade I had an interesting art teacher who was also my social studies teacher. This man had been in the Army infantry during the Second World War, and he had fought on the front lines for many months, and survived some of the worst battles in Italy, France, and Germany. He was a teacher who was dedicated to peace, and he often encouraged his young students to think of people in “the enemy” countries of the Communist Sphere as potential friends. He was of course very enthusiastic about freedoms and advantages of our political system, but he always urged us to think about social justice and peace as well. I also had a Korean War veteran as a social studies teacher in seventh grade, who again taught us to consider American history and politics from a point of view that emphasized the concerns of workers and oppressed groups. These two teachers were echoing things I picked up in my family, about the importance of looking out for the interests of the “little guy” and seeing everyone with unprejudiced eyes as equal.

Well, in the early 1980s we had a horrible president named Ronald Reagan. He was awful, but not as bad as our current president [George W. Bush]. In fact, Reagan was a nice person, with some good values and idealistic ideas, but he wasn’t very smart and he was surrounded by bad people. And really, his ideology was stupid as well. At the time the USA and USSR were poised for war, and the possibility that any day we could all die in a nuclear conflict was weighing on our minds. I knew the horrors of the Soviet Union’s purges and police-state, and I was aware of the problems China had with the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Great Cultural Revolution,” so I had no illusions that Communism as it was practiced in the USSR or China was a good thing, but I read Marx and Engels (when I was 13-14), and I read other radical social theorists (like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Trotsky), and I was impressed. I wasn’t a “true believer,” but I was impressed. I figured that there were some good ideas at the root of Socialism, but these ideas had been wrongly and brutally applied in the Communist nations, something like the way Christianity was twisted and distorted during the crusades or the religious wars and persecutions of European history in the 12th to 17th centuries.

I learned about the successes of Marxist parties in the Indian states of Kerela (and, to a lesser degree, in West Bengal) after my father married a woman from Kerela. My step-mother was no radical, in fact she was a sort of Ayn Rand conservative, but her experience coming from Kerela gave her a fresh look at the American political system, and her deep criticism of America seemed sometimes right to me.

So, with my disgust with the Communist countries and my dissatisfaction with the economics and politics of America, where could I turn for an example? Well, in the 1980s China seemed like a promising place. It seemed for a time as if China would show the world a third way, keeping the best aspects of socialism or communism while embracing some of the advantages of capitalism, and there was hope in the 1980s that China might move toward more democratic and liberal politics as well.

When I was in college I became friends with a classmate from China whose father was a professor of American studies. Dan Pan told me his perspective on China and America, and so I learned more about China. Another friend of mine, John Wells, spent a summer in Hong Kong, and he also had some interesting views about China and its future. I talked a lot about China with these friends, and I read some Chinese history. At the University of Redlands I took a course on Chinese history from Robert Eng (the economic historian who is an expert on the history of silk) and a course on political development in East Asia from Michael Ng-Quin.  I learned that the Chinese government had guys I didn’t like, such as Mao Tsedeng and Li Peng, people I thought were better, such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Hsiao-Ping, and people I actually admired, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang. Modern Chinese history had heroes like Liang Shu-ming and Sun Yatsen, and villains like Yuan Shih-kai and Jiang Qing.

Anyway, in the 1980s the people I liked most, such as Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were in the ascendancy, and China’s future looked bright. I thought China might find a “third way” and surpass the Communist and Capitalist nations in terms of human development and human-centered economics. As I got into high school and became active in the peace movement in protests against nuclear weapons and American support for terrorists and evil governments in Latin America (and our stupid undeclared war against Nicaragua) I became less interested in traditional socialism and more interested in the Green Movement and the Green Party, which was then forming and establishing itself in Europe. The American Green Movement wasn’t yet a political party, but I liked the basic core values of the Green Movement and thought of myself as a “Green Democratic Socialist” in my political thought. I knew enough about Chinese philosophy from Taoism and Buddhism to Confucianism and Chinese Humanism to think that China might evolve into a nation that embraced many of the best values of Democratic Socialism and the Green Movement. In the late 1980s, this seemed a possibility.

In the summer of 1985 I visited the Soviet Union, and met lovely people from Russia and East Germany. When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union and began his reforms it was clear that things were changing. I admired Gorbachev, and even put a picture of him up in my dormitory room at college in a place of honor. Then, in the summer of 1988 I went to East Germany as a guest worker in a youth brigade to work on construction sites around the Berlin suburb of Mahlsdorf. The people I met in East Germany were extraordinary. But as we cried and waved goodbye at the checkpoint where we crossed back past the Berlin Wall I knew that things were changing, and soon, I thought, the East German Communist Party would have to liberalize and get rid of the wall. About 14 months later this is exactly what happened.

But about six months before that happened, Hu Yaobang died (in April of 1989). He had been forced to resign as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party two years earlier because he had been too “liberal” and sympathetic to demonstrators. The memorial and funeral events were amazing, as so many young Chinese people came out to honor him. And they didn’t stop coming. All through the end of April and May more and more were coming into the streets. My friend Dan Pan was using my phone to call his friends in China and learn what was happening. It was very exciting. John and Dan and I would get up each morning and get together to read the newspaper and talk about what was happening in China.

But things changed in June, and I lost faith in the idea that China would be any sort of an example to the rest of the world.

I didn’t lose my interest in China. The events of 1989 and my friendship with Dan Pan made me admire the Chinese people. Then, in the summer of 1989, I met a Chinese graduate student at Northwestern University, where I was spending the summer, and we fell in love. In 1989-1990 I was a senior in college in southern California while my girlfriend was a graduate student at Northwestern, and she was a couple years older than I was. Her love cooled, and so did mine, and our long-distance relationship didn’t really work out. We were on very friendly terms, and kept in touch for several years, but that experience of being in love with someone from China made me even more interested in China and Chinese culture.

As an undergraduate I was studying world development. I took courses in sociology, history, economics, and political science, but most of the courses I took were related to development in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia. I even spent the fall 1988 semester in East Africa with the School for International Training. My experiences studying economics and politics in East Africa made me feel very discouraged about poverty alleviation and justice in Africa. But the changes I was seeing in Eastern Europe and East Asia looked promising to me. When I graduated, I decided I wanted to go to East Germany (I studied German in college) or else East Asia (Korea, Hong Kong, or Taiwan). I had been a volunteer at the local high school in Redlands, California (where my university was), and I had experience teaching English to children from Mexico, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Romania, and Ethiopia. So, instead of looking for a career in development, I decided to get a job as an English teacher for a couple years while I figured out what I wanted to study in graduate school. I was interested in medicine (I thought I might do research on tropical diseases or work on cures for malaria or water-born parasites), economics, urban studies, and social work. After a couple years teaching English in Taiwan I decided I would study social work, and after I earned a doctorate, I hoped I could return to Asia.

Well, I earned a doctorate, but my wife, who is from Taiwan, does not want to live in Taiwan. She doesn’t mind going back for a month or two on extended visits, but she thinks we should stay here in the United States.

I’ve maintained my interest in poverty in China. I remember how in 1994 my wife and I visited her brother in Dong-guan (near Guangzhou), and we met a group of young children selling flowers and other cheap little items. Some seemed as young as six or seven years old, and the oldest seemed perhaps 11 or 12. I had been studying Chinese in Xi’an that summer, and so I was a little more fluent than I am now, so I looked at those children and started to talk with them. I asked them about their lives, and their families, and their work. It seemed no one had ever stopped and talked with those children, and certainly no non-Chinese person had spoken to them in Mandarin. They were excited to tell me about their lives. The children told me they had been taken from their parents, and couldn’t go back to their parents. They couldn’t go to school or visit their parents because their bosses wouldn’t let them. I didn’t have enough cash or gifts to give the children much, and we were going to dinner. When we came out of the restaurant, one of the children gave me one of the roses he was trying to sell. He wouldn’t accept money, and told me it was a gift.

I’d like to do something in my career that would be helpful to poor children in China. It’s a personal feeling I have. And so, I remain interested in social work in China.

1 comment:

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

I received an interesting comment on this topic from a friend in China, and I'll share it here, along with my response.

Dear Eric,

. . . I am impressed with all the meaningful experiences you have had, and your pursuit of peace and equality among human beings. I am not sure if I can call the pursuit of peace and equality a kind of idealism, but that's a kind of thought we now lack in China.

About communism, I am not a believer, especially as a witness seeing what is happening in China. Maybe more and more people in China don't believe in it either. Many students in college hold the view that we are not really on our way toward communism. Instead, we are studying from western countries and their capitalism. But, we don't care whether we're communism or capitalism any more (not as people in the 50's-80's), because now we have food, all the stuff for living, and more money. I think that's an important reason why the Chinese government puts all focus on economic development and why we don't feel much concern for social problems as they are. We are all busy producing and making money, there is nothing bigger than these pursuits. We all know this, but we don't talk about it. Since people can benefit from what is happening, we wonder why stop it just because it's Communism or Capitalism? I don't see the difference between the two as long as people have better and happier lives.

About China's lack of a tradition of democracy, it's one of the most important differences between China and America. That's why we always talk about "本土化"(means “localize”) [literally it might be given as: “grounding in the soil of the local culture” -Eric]. But it seems we don't localize stuff ( such as democracy) we drew up from the western well. We are practicing democracy at the root of autarchy; we are expecting a government who is controlling everything to practice democracy; we are expecting people who are used to obeying orders to act autonomously. I am not saying that democracy in the USA is good and China's system is bad. I even feel democracy is not definitely good in anywhere. What really matters is people's feeling about the society and life. We go in pursuit values such as equality and democracy because they can promise a better life. But, we don't pursuit democracy because it's democracy. In another article in your blog, you talked about Carl Rogers and his way of practicing social work, and social work in China. I think culture matters a lot, when you face a client who always thinks you're an authority and expects dependence from you, it's not appropriate to reject such expectations.

There's a consideration about how to get more information about poverty and inequality in China. Since most of the people you talked with or are contacting with are college students, their views (including mine, of course) of society may be much different from the masses, and we are always saying "the best knowledge is from practice and life." So, I think talking with different people, rich and poor, must be important (like the children who sold flowers in GuangDong with whom you spoke). And I'd like to do some interview with local people, both in Beijing and my hometown, if it is helpful both for your understanding of China's social issue and my study.

I have already done some interviewing with migrant workers in Beijing (the migrant worker, called also "peasant worker," is as some of the scholars said, "a new estate in China"). Migrant workers are treated unequally, and problems about migrant workers are attracting many scholars, both in China and abroad. Maybe those interviews I did with them are helpful.

If you are interested, I can translate them into English and send to you.

Thanks for your thoughtful article, it makes me think a lot.

Thank you so much for offering me such a thoughtful and kind response to my post. I’m delighted to hear from you, and I am glad to have an opportunity to respond.

You begin your remarks with a discussion of the loss of ideological vision or idealism, and that leads to a discussion of pragmatism and the view that the results for human happiness and social relationships are more important than the means used to achieve good results.

This reminds me of an essay by Ursula LeGuin I read as part of a class on utopias and intentional communities I organized and took as an undergraduate. For the most part I am also a pragmatist, and a utilitarian. Yet, the economic and political systems of vast societies such as China’s and America’s will always have injustices, inefficiencies, and problems. Each society has had some nadirs. What can the Chinese have to compare with their experience today? They can look at the political unrest and rebellions of the 19th Century in China, the Imperial conservatism and the persecution of progressives and intellectuals by the Qing, the humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, the usurpation and abortion of early democracy by Yuan Shi-Kai and later the fascists in the Nationalist Party, the war with Japanese imperialists and militarists, the civil war of the 1940s, the slaughter of the property owners after liberation and the war with the United Nations in Korea, the environmental destruction of the Great Leap Forward and the hideous famine that wiped out millions in its aftermath, the unrest of craziness of the Great Cultural Revolution, and so forth. With a modern history like that, the Chinese people would probably be overjoyed and satisfied with anything that was minimally decent and fair and tranquil, and in fact, the Chinese government today exceeds minimal standards of decency and fairness in most areas (but not all). Whenever it seems that things are working well, we must be aware of our comparison group. Things are working well in comparison to how they have been failing to work in the past, or how they are failing to work in other societies, but are they working well in comparison to a feasible optimal situation? What is a feasible optimal situation?

America has had a system that has "worked well" for many generations. We are a very wealthy nation, a very powerful one, and Americans are very happy, in general. In international comparisons of life satisfaction Americas are not the happiest and most satisfied, but we rank pretty high. On one level, sure I'm satisfied with my society. At least I’m not taking up the gun to rebel against my government, as my ancestors did when they joined the Rebellion against the British in the 1770s. On the other hand, I’m not satisfied. My nation has a streak of idealism and benevolence that I'm proud of, but we also have a history of imperialism, racism, and militarism that I’m ashamed of. We have a pretty good system of laws and police and courts, but I'm still outraged by the frequent injustices that occur despite our relatively good system. Our economy and our social welfare system keeps us pretty comfortable, but I’m not entirely satisfied with these things. Why do people in America die because they can't afford medical attention? Why are people driven to bankruptcy because of health problems that would be easily treated if we had a nationalized health care system like the Europeans and Canadians have? Why did our government and military so badly screw up our mission in Iraq, and how did we let a president push us into invading Iraq when there were alternative and better ways to get rid of the threat (if there was a threat) from Iraq? Why are my fellow citizens largely so satisfied with a culture that is moving toward a cycle of production and consumption in which people become economic machines, means to an end of some illusionary consumerist paradise of satisfying brand identification and material accumulation?

It's a good system, relative to the slave-based plantation economy of our southern states before the War of the Rebellion of the Southern Slave Holders. It's a good system compared to the robber baron capitalism and imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when company thugs and local law enforcement would murder labor organizers and striking workers and their families in an effort to keep wages low, and our government would dispatch American Marines to protect the interests of the American companies in Central America or the Caribbean. It's a great system compared to the time of the sundown towns and Jim Crow laws when African-Americans and Jews couldn’t stay after dark in about half of the towns in Illinois, or when my wife and I wouldn’t have been allowed to live in many states because she has the phenotype of an Asian and I have an European phenotype. It's a good system compared to the time when we killed Indians and stole their land.

I think Chinese people can have a similar way of seeing their society. Yes, China is doing very well compared to how it has existed in recent memory. Compared to the past, China is doing so well that I can understand why Chinese people would be very nervous about trying to change anything. After all, if in attempting to make the situation even better than it is now (and heaven knows there is room for improvement) you change the wrong variables you might slide back into some nightmare system like you had for most of the past decades leading up to the 1980s.

Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith, perhaps the intellectual fathers of communism and capitalism (that's debatable), were moral philosophers. They were concerned with what form of social organization would bring about the greatest good and the greatest happiness. They were concerned with fairness and justice. Both capitalism and communism as philosophical ideologies are concerned with the practical matter of making people’s lives happier and more satisfying.

Economic situations don’t entirely determine our happiness and how satisfied we are with our lives. Politics, psychology, anthropology, social work, and medical sciences have just as much to tell us about how we might organize social systems to provide optimal human satisfaction and happiness, while maintaining high standards of justice and fairness.

As to concern about capitalism, it's funny how people these days in America tend to associate capitalism with American democracy. In fact, modern industrial capitalism is not strongly associated with the history of our democracy. Democratic Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were very much opposed to modern industrial capitalism. Both men hated banks on principle, and both wanted to get rid of the Bank of the United States. (We now have a Federal Reserve Banking system instead of a Bank of the United States largely as a result of the strong suspicion against bankers and capitalists that was so pervasive in the formative years of our democracy).

You mentioned that democracy isn't always a great system. That’s certainly true. If you study the history of democracy and read what the intellectuals who helped create democracies thought about it you’ll see the concerns you have were also shared with the earliest democrats. Plato reports that Socrates had his doubts about democracy, and his doubts were based on his perception that the people weren't adequately thoughtful and enlightened in making decisions about how they should be governed. The men and women who created the American republic and tried to move it toward a more democratic system were profoundly interested in the civic virtue and education of Americans. I think they assumed a democracy would depend upon the citizens being well-informed and carefully educated. The Democratic Federalists thought our society should be made up of many small property holders and craftsmen and small businesses. They were fearful that modern capitalism would concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few. When there are great inequalities, the powerful tend to conspire against everyone else, money and wealth and status can become more important than reputation and honor and quality in determining who will make government decisions, and a democracy will decay. This insight was well known and discussed by the generation of my great-great grandparents’ great-grandparents. Adam Smith certainly recognizes the problem in The Wealth of Nations. But, few people discuss it today, although I think most people intuitively know it, and it concerns those who have a idealistic commitment to democracy.

The Chinese culture has put an emphasis on harmony and unity over democracy and fairness. Tranquility and order were appreciated over most other values. It would be lovely if the Chinese society could develop a democracy that retained this emphasis on harmony and tranquility. In Taiwan I see some hope for a transition to democracy, but the deep spirit of collaborative competition and peaceful opposition and respectful intellectual-verbal combat that must lie at the heart of democracy isn't yet flourishing, and it seems to me that some of the least talented minds in the People’s Party and some of the least democratic minds in the Nationalist Party are now in ascendence, which frustrates me, but I think in the long-run the Taiwanese will show the Mainland how to move to democracy. Already the people of Taiwan enjoy many wonderful benefits as a result of the fact that whatever party rules must face the citizens and answer to them at the time of elections.

I know the mainland Chinese press won’t cover this, and most of the press in Taiwan is controlled by the Nationalist Party or its sympathizers, so even in Taiwan people may not see how they are gaining, but neutral and independent scholars who dispassionately observe Taiwan are impressed by many of the improvements in Taiwan’s society, and I think in the long-run the democracy there will be stable and secure, although it may take another decade or two to settle down.

Even in the United States our early democracy was wild and messy. Our second president’s faction tried to enforce a law making it illegal to insult the president (Alien and Sedition Acts).

In the long run, China will come up with a stable system that does a fairly good job of creating wealth and distributing it fairly. Any system that fails to do this will eventually collapse or be reformed into something that does a better job. The reforms might come from enlightened people in the ruling party, or they might come from a clique in the military that decides to kill off the ruling party and take China in a different direction, or the change might come from the people, as they learn to exercise a bit more autonomy and use their voices to ask for reasonable changes and improvements. The change could come slowly and gradually, or it might be more sudden. Just now it looks from here that China is on a slow course toward a fairer system that meets people’s needs.

I wonder how China will handle some of the crises that will come. In a few decades oil and gas will be too expensive, and China will need to turn to coal, hydro-power, solar, and wind power. But, as China and the United States turn toward coal for power, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, and this could raise ocean levels, which would force China to engage in a massive campaign of public works to build huge sea walls and dykes to hold out the sea from the lands at lower elevation. The Chinese people are, at the moment, cursed with a strong sense of racial identity and nationalism. This could be a problem in the future if leaders in China make miscalculations based on arrogance or irrational pride and ambition. This is really the human condition, and the same can be said of all the states that represent vast nations: Russia, India, China, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, and so forth.

You’ll live to see the world population reach nearly nine billion. Will fresh water, energy, and food supplies satisfy the needs of eight or nine billion people? I don’t think anyone knows for certain. What will happen when China goes through an economic recession or depression? Will people be patient and find ways to solve economic problems, or will people stop tolerating the inefficiencies and corruption when their wealth stops increasing and they start to loose ground? There are so many questions about China. Some are quite frightening. But, on the whole, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic.

As you say, people are busy producing and accumulating wealth. I think this dedication to production and saving for the future will help the Chinese survive. It will provide a good basis for the flourishing of higher culture and the life of the spirit and mind. I think social workers in China have an opportunity to help the Chinese society find a way to integrate life and labor, the mind and creativity, the spirit and human relationships.

By all means, if you have time and think it would be fun, do go ahead and practice your English by translating the interviews you've done with common people and workers. Or, for fun, how about offering to interview some factory workers or migrant peasant workers and offering to let them have their say in English to Americans? You could record their responses, practice your English in translating them, and then we could post the messages here on my blog.

I'm a strong believer in international dialogue and communication as a tool for increasing peace and getting people involved in shaping their own lives according to their needs (instead of giving up their lives to serve the intersts of bosses and lords and masters). Perhaps we could feature dialogues between people in China who produce the goods we buy and consume in America and my students, the consumers are are buying all this stuff from China. That would be an interesting dialogue, wouldn't it?