08 November 2006

This is a country without religion for 40 years

A few days ago, I read a NYT article about the adoption system in Guatemala being abused. I emailed the article to Y and asked aloud:

What does one do in a world where trust, charity and goodwill are abused? This is a very prevalent problem in China - you never know what is real and who is honest here - and I am trying very hard to find a robust rule of thumb to live by.

I had an oxymoronic thought the other day: communist China is probably the most capitalist country of all. Living here, you get the tingling vibes that as a people, as a culture, people are driven by only profit and self-interest. My cousin who has been doing business in China for the past 15 years, put it very pithily to me when he first visited me in Shanghai: "You must remember, this is a country without religion for 40 years. They do not believe in retribution."

That was the first time I have heard it being said that way. It is a simple, but a surprisingly powerful way to explain the phenomena. A more sophisticated, and possibly less controversial manner of saying it might be to put it in the context of game theory: they do not believe in repeated games. The sub-optimal equilibrium of the prisoner's dilemma has reared its ugly head: it is every man to his own.

In the world of no tomorrow, civic-mindedness, ethics and honour do not matter. Who cares if I cut someone's queue or swerves into someone's lane? Self-interest rules. Who cares if I am selling fake DVDs, fake teapots, fake eggs, fake milk powder... I have made all the money and I have no music to face. Who cares if I continuously prey on others' charity by begging on the roads with my baby? Sorry, you said honour meant what again?

The first case needs no rule of thumb; it just requires accustomization, maybe a dash of oblivion for company.

For the second, I have decided that outside of groceries, it is a matter of "pay what you would pay for, never mind real or fake". (For groceries, you just try to shop at the nicer Japanese* supermarkets, and keep your fingers crossed that the Japanese have not lost their native obsession with quality.) It is no use paying too high a price for things in China, unless you are really a conoisseur on "quality". They are so glib, so convincing, that PVC turns into leather and horse hair into cashmere. It is a depressing way to lead life, and a downward spiral - but there is no tomorrow right?

The last case is the one that gets me. I have consistently failed to find a robust response with respect to the phenomenon of begging. For now, I have decided that I will give to whoever I come across.** Partly because begging is not that prevalent in Shanghai (so I'm not innundated), partly because it is just 1 RMB (so my wallet is not dented). I figured that even if I am fleeced half the time, at least the other half of the time, I would have contributed to a warm bun for some hungry soul.

Yes, I know. I can hear the economists whispering in the background now: "But you forget that the world is a dynamic system and iterations come into play; You are feeding the begging phenomenon with your multiple 1 RMBs."

I know. I did not forget. I know my rule of thumb assumes a static system, but I can find no other conscionable way to live in as bipolar a place as Shanghai.

There, my first sobering entry on China. Life is not all glittering, not even in Shanghai.

* I really love the French, but sorry, Carrefour is a mess here in my experience. Even Parkson from Malaysia is a much more pleasant shopping experience.
** Unless they are (a) outrightly healthy and really should not be begging, or (b) plying cars in the middle of the road (this is too much of an emotional blackmail - Shanghai roads are so merciless - and somehow I feel I cannot condone it).

1 comment:

  1. For all cases, seek not the answers outside but within yourself.

    First case:





    Ask not who is real nor who is honest. Ask am I real and am I honest. For the value of your life and thence your happiness depends on what you have in you, not what others have in them.

    Abide by the principle of:


    And you will be doing just fine. They do not believe in retribution, you do!

    Second case:

    You must have found the answer to this case by now.

    Last case:

    I was once in Southern China. This guy was doing some kind of Kong Fu/Freakish Feat show, if my memory serves me right, it started off somewhat innocuously, he did a few acts not too unusual. Beside him, a toddler girl, 4 to 5 years old, playing with a few simple wooden toys or perhaps a doll. Then it is her turn to perform. Perhaps she did a few simple feat, but the most enduring impression on me that day was when without warning, this grown adult man suddenly gave her arm(s) a sudden jerk and dislocated her shoulders! Turning the arm(s) beyond its normal configuration. And that was suppose to be impressive? It is obvious from those who can see her face, this young little girl was in pain, perhaps almost ready to shed a tear or two but she just bit her teeth and there was no cry. After a while, the man popped her shoulder(s) back into position. The girl return to her toys, head bowed, not a word. What kind of Freak invented this Feat? I threw down (I think) 10 RMB that day, hoping that perhaps my money will buy her a longer period of respite, although I still doubt that human greed has boundaries.

    Perhaps all freaks should be outlawed.

    Another adage:



    :) You get to live with yourself for the rest of your life. Do what you think is right. :)