An unprecedented number of people are getting rich in a single country in the world today. The effects of this phenomenon on society are widespread. Money changes personal values and the relationship one has with its peers and with its country.
It is evident that China is getting richer. Fewer people are poor, and more money is available for consumption. More cars, bags, sunglasses, watches and jewelry are being sold in China than ever before. According to Bain and Company, a consultancy, the growth of the domestic luxury market has picked up speed in the second quarter of 2009 and reached 68 billion RMB, while this year is expected to be even more prosperous for luxury goods in China.
More money influences the relationship one has with his surroundings, whether it is at home with a spouse or a child, or outside with co-workers or with service providers. When one has money he or she tends to look at the world from a different perspective. A famous Chinese saying is: “安贫乐道” which means to be content with poverty, caring only for one’s principles or the way (the last character means dao, which means ideas or way of life). Along with the evident advantages of the rise of social standards, an ongoing concern for solidarity was brought to my attention by some of my Chinese friends. A deep concern was raised by them when a deadly earthquake hit Sichuan province in May of 2008, killing approximately 68,000 people while leaving millions homeless. My friends, as many other Chinese, were worried that the decrease of level of solidarity in Chinese society will cause many people to stay indifferent to the deadly results of the earthquake. They were happy to find out that people from all across the country swarmed to Sichuan with food, water, presents and anything else thought to be helpful. At some point, the government had to seal the area due to the large number of people who wanted to come to help.
Nevertheless, concerns for solidarity are still very much prominent. Solidarity means stability, and stability is crucial for future growth. In that context, cultural values are very important to preserve. However, cultural values are difficult to preserve when society is changing, especially when money is the cause for the change.
Let me share a story that describes such a clash between cultural values and money: I rented an apartment last year in Beijing. During winter, Beijing gets very cold, so apartments are heated with gas. As I was planning a trip to go back home, to Israel, to visit my family and friends, the landlord asked me to buy gas to keep the pipes heated while I am away, so they would not freeze. He promised to pay me back the money once I return. I agreed. After my return, the landlord came to see me. I asked for my gas money back, but the landlord refused to return it, claiming that the decision to spend the money was mine and that I should be responsible for my own decisions. After arguing for a while, I realized that I might be able to convince him to pay me back by causing him to “lose face” – to feel ashamed. In Chinese culture, to lose face means to feel embarrassed or ashamed in front of other people. This is usually seen as a signal that one has done something wrong. I thought to myself that I needed to do something drastic. So, I got angry and tore up the gas bill while saying to him “I don’t want your money. I would prefer to pay for it myself than to get money from a person like you”. The landlord was confused. Obviously money was important enough for him that he was willing to cheat me, yet his cultural values caused him to second guess his actions. Eventually, he did not pay. Obviously, in this case, money was more important than cultural values. This incident, to me, was a perfect example of the changing values in China. Money is more important than “saving face” even if the amount of money is relatively small.
Confucius is known to have delivered current Chinese cultural values such as respect for elders or the relationship one has with his peers. These cultural values have survived in China for thousands of years, and now they seem to be changing. These changes will influence relationships among individuals. The challenge now facing China is how to preserve cultural and ancient values while a growing number of people is becoming rich and thus more separated from the overall group of citizens. This challange is a very difficult one to overcome, since China is growing economically and is getting richer. Social change is inevitable. I wonder whether the government will take action in preserving cultural values among its growing rich upper class or whether these values will simply disappear.