5 (Harsh) Things China Can’t Live Without
Some outsiders look at China and see a strange land with an anomalous culture and mind boggling rules, policies and laws. However, not everything is so black and white. Some of the things Chinese people do (no matter how harsh or brutal they are in foreign eyes) are not only necessary but beneficial to society. In some instances, China couldn’t possibly live without some of these cultural/political institutions. Listed below are just a few of the most prominent things that appear rough on the surface but in reality make China a better place in the long run.
A hukou is China’s legal household registration system. Apart from registering births, deaths, marriages, etc., it categorises citizens as either rural or urban. So if you’re classified as a farmer, the act (even after recent reforms) still makes it difficult for you to migrate to a more prosperous city. Many see the hukou system as callous since it denies freedom of movement and, like the Indian Caste system, refuses peasants the opportunity to climb the social ladder.
However, it would be hard to imagine China without such a law. If this system weren’t implemented, a large portion of China’s 800 million peasants would move to the industrialised coast. According to experts, such a migration would likely cause an increase in crime, burden city authorities, overpopulate strained metropolises and drain the agricultural sector dry. It would be similar to abolishing passports, causing a wave of immigrants from impoverished nations to the developed world. So while many complain about China’s hukou system, passports in the international community more or less serve the same purpose. The hukou system can be seen as discriminatory and unfair at times, but it plays a crucial role in the long term development and greater well being of China’s future.
2) The One Child Policy
The One Child Policy is a touchy subject inside and outside of China since many claim it’s responsible for forced abortions, female infanticide, sterilization, a gender imbalance and preventing 300-400 million births since it was first introduced in 1979. Despite negative international press, the One Child Policy, according to PRC officials, has contributed to China’s outstanding developmental success.
The radical law was first implemented for economic purposes to reduce unemployment, excess consumption of resources and increase GDP per capita. Controlling fertility has also allowed the country to curb overpopulation which, in return, reduces disease/epidemics, extreme poverty and pollution emission. In a cross country comparison, the One Child Policy may even explain why China has done a better a job at reducing poverty than India (another overpopulated nation faced with similar developmental obstacles). With no population control measures in effect, India, according to the World Bank, has 37% of its population living in poverty while less than 15% do so in China.
It seems that the One Child Policy, along with other crucial institutional changes, have greatly helped transform China into a major world player, a factor which may explain why 75% of Chinese approve of it. In contemporary times, however, many governmental officials are calling for an end to the policy since the country has now reached a level of stability and prosperity, making the end of this controversial plan with close reach.
3) Educational system
When I was a teacher, my Chinese students couldn’t believe I used to ride my bike, play soccer and hang out with friends after school. Their childhood is very different. Many Chinese students go to boarding schools away from their families, attend class from 7:00-19:00, go to school during the weekends, are dished out hours of homework a night, attend cram-schools (or extracurricular courses) and are given lengthy homework assignments during their short summer vacations. Even more astonishing is the fact that universities place early curfews on their students!
Family and society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the youth to perform well, so much that it makes their social life and non-academic pursuits almost nonexistent. Indeed, the Chinese education system is tough, but that’s probably why Shanghai ranked first place in all subjects in a recent OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) administered international examination. In retrospect, sacrificing a “little bit” of leisure time for a brighter future is worth it, especially when it contributes to the country’s three decade economic miracle that’s brought hundreds of millions out of poverty.
Guanxi means “relationship” and it’s a fundamental characteristic of Chinese society. It’s similar to the English expression “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Guanxi (or personal connections) is essential in the dynamic world of Chinese business and, for that matter, all other aspects of Chinese society as well.
On one hand, guanxi has a dark side. It’s associated with nepotism, cronyism, stealing, bribery, collusion, exchanging insider information and other immoral/illegal acts. It can be unfair and even infuriating when you offer the best deal in a negotiation and lose to someone who purchased the associate a Ferrari.
On the other hand, guanxi in theory has its benefits. According to Forbes, in a working culture where lying and cheating is part of business, guanxi allows two entities to build trust, work together and uphold one another to a mutual respect. Guanxi is also reciprocal, so it’s understood that a favour done for you should be repaid at some point. This notion helps strengthen and maintain personal bonds between two parties for future endeavours. It’s apparent that guanxi undoubtedly undermines meritocracy, but in the end it helps companies and people alike get things done effectively in a cut throat environment.
5) Chinese characters
Chinese characters make Mandarin one of the world’s most difficult languages. But if you think about it the only thing harder than using characters to read Chinese would be a system that didn’t use them at all. With so many homonyms, using an alphabet or pinyin (the Latinized writing scrip for Chinese) would be a catastrophe. The word “shi,” for example, has over 140 different characters meaning anything from scholar to animal feed. Even if you denote its tone in an alphabetical system (as you do with pinyin and the Taiwanese phonetic writing system called Bopomofo), there’s still numerous homonyms with the exact same tone and pronunciation but possessing completely different meanings.
Realising the convoluted nature of characters, the government has taken controversial steps to make the written language more accessible. In 1952, Chairman Mao simplified hundreds of characters from the 2,000 year old script to improve the country’s poor literacy rate. Now 96% of Chinese are literate, but traditionalists are furious over the change. Recently, the PRC reduced and regulated the official amount of characters that can be used in names. The decree definitely limits personal freedom of choice, but it’s ultimately necessary to prevent people from using obscure, ancient characters that are unknown to the masses. Indeed, learning characters is a daunting task and the simplification process (despite making it easier) has ruffled a few feathers, but when it comes down to it they’re essential for a homonym structured language like Mandarin.