Revenge of the Tiger Children

China's young, spoiled kids are rejecting traditional values. But can the state make Mao or Confucius seem relevant again -- before it's too late?


View a slide show of China’s little emperors. 

HONG KONG – Samuel Johnson, the great English author, once quipped that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." In today’s China, however, state-mandated patriotism is not seen as such a refuge, but merely as one among a range of options being test-marketed by a ruling Communist Party anxious to install a code of values to replace the discarded tenets of Lenin, Marx, and Mao.

Nowadays, of course, a government seeking to clarify its nation’s values is nothing out of the ordinary. Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought to reach a definition of "Britishness" for the 21st century (as usual with the British, the result was a muddle, including tolerance, liberty, fair play, and civic duty). And in France, Nicolas Sarkozy has been engaged in an ongoing debate about Gallic values, particularly the country’s devotion to secularism.

Both of these efforts were manifestations of a growing unease among ordinary British and French people at what they see as a failure by immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, to assimilate into the national culture. The fears that have stimulated China’s search for values, however, are purely homegrown: a young generation that seems adrift between the rabid nationalism of Internet chat rooms and a globalized materialism unconnected to traditional family responsibilities.

So worrying is the behavior of today’s "little emperors" — the products of the country’s one-child families — that Beijing is preparing a law to impose a legal duty on young people to visit and care for their aged parents. Indeed, the proposed amendment to the "Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Aged" would allow elderly people to go to court to claim their right to be physically and mentally looked after by their children.

Filial piety has long been a tenet of traditional Chinese culture and is a core concept of Confucianism. Today, however, many young people not only shirk this duty, but insist that it is actually the duty of parents to do all they can to care for them, even as adults. Small wonder, then, that a popular insult hurled at the current generation of young Chinese is to call them ken lao zu the generation that sucks the blood of their parents, i.e., the vampire generation.

So how are today’s young Chinese to be motivated? Patriotism is one possible tool. But because any sign of Beijing manipulating nationalist sentiment is bound to set alarm bells ringing among China’s neighbors, the sort of patriotism it is peddling to the young is mostly kitsch, not xenophobic bile. In Chongqing, for example, Bo Xilai, the city party secretary, has been enforcing a Maoist cultural revival in schools and public workplaces. People are called upon to sing Mao-era "red songs," and Bo himself frequently sends text messages to his underlings that are strewn with quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book. The quasi-sacramental impact of these efforts is fawned over to the extent that Chongqing’s television stations and newspapers now point to the singing of Maoist songs as a cure for depression and other mental illnesses.

Another device that party leaders have been deploying as a way to tame the powerful forces that modernization has unleashed — lack of morals and identity, rampant materialism — is Confucianism. So confident was the leadership that a revival of Confucianism was a way forward that, in January, a monument to the sage was installed in front of the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square. A 31-foot-tall bronze statue of Confucius sat just across from the mausoleum of Mao, who had once demonized the sage and the traditional values for which he stood.

From the start, this state-promoted Confucian revival has had detractors within the party hierarchy. The sayings of Confucius that emphasize social order, family harmony, and deference to the existing political system are no doubt perfectly agreeable to today’s party elders, whatever their ideological leanings. But the problem with Confucius is that awkward elements in his thinking — his stress on the virtuous rule of the government and the possibility of losing the "Mandate of Heaven" through which a ruler possesses the legitimate right to govern — kept bubbling to the surface as intellectuals explored the full range of Confucian thoughts, not just the fragments offered by the party. So, in the dark of night earlier this month, that Confucius statue disappeared from Tiananmen Square without any public explanation.

Although both patriotism and Confucianism have their obvious limits in the party’s eyes, they are still superior to the other system of values that some Chinese intellectuals seek to promote: universal values. Indeed, an ideological debate has been smoldering across China for the past five years about whether universal values — freedom, democracy, and human rights — have any role at all to play in today’s China.

That debate reached its peak in 2008 when, following the Sichuan earthquake of that year, the Guanzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend published an editorial praising the government’s actions in response to the tragedy, singling out "its commitments to its own people and to the whole world with respect to universal values." That mention of universal rights enraged party hard-liners, who feared the possibility of democracy protests breaking out in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. When the games ended, the party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, denounced the supporters of universal values as people trying to westernize China into a place that would no longer uphold "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

So China’s search for values continues, clumsily and uncertainly, with no school in the lead. Even the leadership seems uncertain about which direction to take, though the soon-to-be president Xi Jinping did offer praise for Bo Xilai’s Maoist revivalism on his recent visit to Chongqing. How that search ends is important, for the values that China eventually identifies and adheres to in the future matters not only to China, but for the wider world. For these values — whatever they are — will help to shape the actions, and the reactions, of the new Asian superpower.

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