[OBSERVER]Touting China’s moral minority

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[OBSERVER]Touting China’s moral minority

At first glance, retired Chinese civil servant Xie Liang and security officer Xie Haibao may not seem to have anything in common apart from their family names. But recently, both have emerged as models for China’s latest nationwide political campaign, which officials hope restores good old-fashioned socialist values amid the country’s rapid economic and social transformations.
Xie Liang, 76, recently became a minor celebrity when he received an award for providing directions to passersby in Beijing’s busy Dongcheng district for 15 years, without taking a single cent. When asked why he had chosen to take on what many see as a thankless job, the Beijing native reportedly said, “I believe that no matter how humble a job may be, it is still worth doing if it is helpful to the masses in any way.” Indeed, so conscientious was the indefatigable septuagenarian that he even started learning English so as to better assist the many foreigners living and working in the district.
As for 30-year-old Xie Haibao, the plainclothes security officer’s claim to fame is apprehending thieves and burglars ―more than 360 ― since taking on his job as a security guard at Beijing’s busy Wangfujing shopping district 10 years ago. The Shanxi native is said to be so dedicated to his work that since arriving in the Chinese capital in 1996, he has not spent one Lunar New Year holiday celebration with his family. He reportedly noted, “Even though my 5-year-old daughter hardly recognizes me anymore, I am proud and honored to play my part in helping to secure law and order in Beijing.”
Xie Liang and Xie Haibao are just two of countless individuals singled out by the Communist authorities from time to time not just for their purported selfless dedication, but also for the inspirational role that they can provide to countrymen.
But the latest campaign to hit the streets of China went beyond ritualistic but sometimes empty slogans such as “Raise high the banner of Deng Xiaoping thought” or “Let us build socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Rather, the campaign seemed to be comprehensive and down-to-earth, aimed at correcting the ills and vices of the Chinese people and exhorting them to return to basic traditional socialist values, or simply put, to observe tenets of good citizenship.
Known by its Chinese acronym of ba rong ba chi (or eight honors and eight disgraces) and unveiled at the National People’s Congress last month, authorities say the campaign is aimed at promoting socialist ideology and morality building “so as to lay down a firm ideological and moral foundation for the construction of a harmonious socialist society.” So apart from exhorting people not to engage in corruption and superstitious behavior, and to believe in science and avoid taking personal trips on official expense, calls have also been made urging people to refrain from buying pirated goods and to practice honesty in trade and commercial transactions. Largely devoid of empty and pompous slogans, there are even basic exhortations calling on people to return lost goods, to obey the law, and even to avoid throwing cigarette butts on the floor and to clean up after walking their dogs. What’s more, the campaign has also actively targeted the young, where catchy poems and nursery rhymes have been composed to make it easier for the young to be imbued with the desired values. Such nursery rhymes remind children that “One must never be selfish,” “One must strive to be honest and dependable” and “Laziness is something to be ashamed of.”
While some have suggested that the latest campaign is aimed at creating a positive image for the country ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, it is clear that in the middle of the country’s rapid transformation, basic values such as honesty and integrity have been compromised, and it is certainly time to remind the Chinese to not lose sight of those values. Indeed, with countless opportunities making their presence felt in the country’s burgeoning market economy, and in view of the lack of necessary safeguards and legal protection, many Chinese have cast basic decency aside in pursuit of wealth. This prompted many ordinary Chinese to wonder why they should bother being “good” when goodness does not seem to get them anywhere. Rather, it is the crooked, unprincipled, unscrupulous, self-serving and money-grabbing types who seem to enjoy the finer things in life.
The ba rong ba chi campaign is also one of the first major nationwide political campaigns launched by President Hu Jintao since he took office in 2002, and can be seen as an attempt by Hu to put a distinctive mark on his legacy, or at least to move away from campaigns launched by his predecessor. But given that public perceptions of public officials remain negative, even disdainful, particularly in the area of corruption and personal morality ― the same values that the leadership wants to inculcate among the populace ― there is the risk that for most Chinese, the latest morality campaign, despite its good intentions, runs the risk of appearing just like another campaign which many would observe only with perfunctory, but not lasting or substantive, interest.

* The writer was a journalist in China for around 20 years and is studying Asian politics at George Washington University in the United States.

by Maria Siow
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