The Road to Individualism

Collectivism is any philosophic, political, economic or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals. Collectivism in China means that an individual does not work to accumulate wealth for himself but rather for his family and for his community. In 1978, China decided to take a more individualistic road towards its future, and the government has slowly begun to reduce its grip on social and collectivist processes; New policies aid in creating a society in which capitalism serves as a leading social value: Personal wealth is becoming more important than other social values.

In general, wealthy western cultures emphasize the accumulation of wealth over work (with some exceptions). China is undergoing enormous changes towards obtaining a more “western” culture. A great example for this phenomenon, in my opinion, can be seen in the way that older people, compared with younger ones, spend their time. In city parks, hundreds of elderly people are engaging in many social and collectivist activities such as martial arts, gymnastics, singing, dancing, playing various board or card games, etc. Nevertheless, whether it is work or leisure, younger people possess a more individual outlook on life: They need to find jobs and to pay for their education themselves, whereas not long ago, it was the government who mandated these issues. Government policies have essentially changed the way people live their lives, and the younger generation, so it seems, is preoccupied with work and with the accumulation of personal wealth.

“不敢告劳” (bù gǎn gào láo) is a Chinese idiom meaning to be willing to work hard without complaint. This idiom represents a state of mind that was once prominent in China. However, as China is getting wealthier, material possessions are playing a more important role in modern society. The willingness to work hard is still evident, yet a reward is expected in the forms of increased wealth. Working hard without complaint (or without a “reward”) is more difficult, especially as the cost of living rises.

Another example can be seen in a new amendment to a 1996 law on rights of the elderly that might be considered by the National People’s Congress, China’s government-appointed legislature, when it conducts its annual session in March. The law mandates that adult children would be required to regularly visit their elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them. The New York Times writes that “The notion that adult children should care for their aged parents is deeply ingrained in Chinese society. Offspring who shirk their responsibilities are met with scorn — and sometimes legal judgments.”

As a foreigner, I envy the sanctity that Chinese people attribute to relationships in general and to the relationship one has with his/her family in particular. The situation in which the government needs to interfere, by law, and to force young adults to visit their parents can symbolize that young adults are over occupied with their own lives: As society ages and as younger people are getting older, the burden of supporting elderly parents is increasing. In addition, young adults are under a great deal of pressure to succeed at work, to support their children and to deal with rising prices of housing, food and clothing.

One might think that this law was created (it has yet to pass), because young adults have neglected their familial values. The truth, rather, might be that young adults spend long hours at work in order to support their parents financially and simply lack the time to visit them. Ironically, it is the time these adults spend at work to support their families financially that prevents them from offering other ways of support.

China is evidently influenced by western values, such as individualism, that are viewed by many in China as successful and necessary for future economic growth. Nevertheless, I worry that during the adoption process, China is losing some core cultural values that are unique solely to China. One can only hope that familial values will not be left behind on the expense of the accumulation of wealth.

Those who work hard to accumulate wealth should remember this quote: “I have long been of the opinion that if work were such a splendid thing the rich would have kept more of it for themselves.” – Bruce Grocott