Mainland musings: Perils of a “pragmatic” society

In the mainland, there’re an increasing number of elements about society that I find troubling. One of these is self-centered pragmatism, which seems to be a key driver of many people’s behavior here. By pragmatism, I mean doing whatever is the most beneficial to oneself in any situation, regardless of rules or ethics. This pragmatism can be experienced in a lot of situations whether it be business, daily interactions or the government’s foreign policy. To be honest, that’s also an  attribute that’s often used to describe Chinese people in general but I’m sticking to the mainland for this post. I don’t think this is a good thing at all, and a few months ago, I said this in an article I wrote about pragmatism in China.

Recently I came upon an article in the NY Times about pragmatism and China. The author, a Fulbright lecturer living in Beijing, sees pragmatism as a necessary and essential aspect of getting things done in China, such as parents paying bribes to surgeons before they operate on their children, which the parents justify as ensuring the safety of their offspring as well as signifying the love. The author tries to look at pragmatism in China through a philosophical lens, and questions whether actions in China like giving bribes (hongbao or red envelopes filled with cash) is actually unethical.
Which is fitting, because pragmatism was originally a philosophical idea that was actually developed by Americans in the 20th century, and along with one of the founders John Dewey, has become somewhat popular in China. Admittedly my definition of pragmatism is based on the word as how it’s used in regular life and not so much the philosophy, which I don’t have a strong background knowledge of.

The motivation behind those parents offering doctors bribes* is understandable when you have an unjust society where rules are not observed (as I found out firsthand with my renting debacle last year) and the law is ambiguous or useless, but it’s also very problematic. Not least because by continuing to take these sort of pragmatic actions, you are not changing anything but ensuring the faults of society which forced such actions to be done in the first place continue to thrive (a few commenters on the article also make this points). Bribery is very common in a lot of areas, from dealing with bureaucrats to trying to get accepted into schools or even getting pass marks in university, and yes, even passing a driving test. In this sense, I think pragmatism in the mainland is different from the author’s argument that pragmatism is a force for improvement. Pragmatism gets things done, gets one ahead in life in the mainland, but it doesn’t improve things, at least not significantly and positively.

In simple terms, Westerners such as Americans live in a more rule-based and law-abiding society with morals (and laws) as a force while Chinese society is more ambiguous and self-gain is a strong force (not that it isn’t elsewhere but not to the same extent). The author, himself an American, thinks people, especially Americans, should perhaps be more open-minded and not be so certain about the absolute righteousness of their values and beliefs. The author deems American ethics and foreign policy as too religious and finds American democratic ideals are “asserted with dogmatic gusto.”
There might be some truth to those claims and the idea of not being too self-righteous with one’s culture or values is valid. In this sense, pragmatism can be valid. However, Chinese society is the wrong example to use to defend and uphold the concept of pragmatism. Pragmatism can be taken to justify any self-serving act and propagate the notion of self-interest as the main, or only, ideal in life. This is something that seems to have spread widely in China. Furthermore this perpetuates a sense of ambiguity which is detrimental to society especially when you have a lot of people can’t differentiate or refuse to acknowledge right from wrong.

The blame cannot be only be put on regular people. China has several substantial problems that cause people to have an every-man-for-himself mentality – a developing nation with over a billion people and a lack of adequate social resources such as medical and affordable housing, unreliable authorities, unclear or unregulated rules, past tumult (cultural revolution) that wrecked social relations and so on. As China develops and become more modern, more prosperous and more connected in terms of social media and networks, more Chinese should be able to understand the problems with pragmatism and self-profit at the expense of others, and not justify illicit actions by claiming they’ll “surely uses any means necessary to protect loved ones.” There are of course, Chinese who know about these issues and are very critical, and hopefully this can result in a substantial shift in behavior.

To see how utterly despicable pragmatism can be, read this article or this one. As obscene and calculating as it sounds, drivers have deliberately run over people, after first accidentally hitting them, to kill them because paying compensation is cheaper than paying hospital and rehab fees if the victims had survived.

As a passage in the first article says: “With a rapidly increasing wealth gap and little emphasis on morality, money has become more important than anything, experts say. China’s younger generations frequently view money above all else, so make decisions often not based on what’s right or wrong.

And near the end, a Chinese sociologist says: “What is more, there is a lack of respect and fear of life among the people. They think life has different values, that, ‘Mine is more important than others,’.”

I’ve mainly focused on morals so far, but pragmatism also affects other aspects of mainland life such as finding mates, where wealth and looks are openly and proudly touted as key factors to judge a potential partner, as well as business, where there is rampant copying and a serious dearth of innovation and creativity.

As I’ve written about the superficiality with romantic relationships in my article (please read it below), let me touch on the latter. China is famous for its fake products, whether it be knockoff clothes or watches or antiques. Fake and imitation products are so common that there’s even a name for it in Chinese – shanzhai. Even stores and hotels are not immune from this shanzhai culture – there are actually fake Starbucks and imitation Hyatts. And of course, there’s a lot of copying in arts and entertainment as well – movie plots (even movie posters), TV shows, paintings and logos. Despite the pathetic and hilarity of such actions, there’s a pragmatic aspect to this copying. Why spend effort and money to figure out your own ideas, which may not even work out, when you can just copy something, especially if it’s from the West, that has been proven to be successful? It isn’t laziness either – some effort goes into this copying, which makes it more ironic. Perhaps it is mental and creative laziness, as well as cultural influence – copying somebody was perceived as a form of flattery, even respect, and acknowledgement of the skill or talent of that person being copied. And of course, plagiarism is common and not considered as bad as it is in the West either, not that plagiarism doesn’t ever happen there.

Pragmatism might be a key aspect of Chinese culture, but that doesn’t make it beneficial or essential. Whatever the fancy philosophical or cultural arguments, I feel it’s easy to see how society is adversely affected, whether it be perpetuating unfairness and corruption, or an unhealthy reliance on foreign, especially Western, ideas and products. It’s good to be pragmatic at times, but not if that’s your most important value in life.

* Interestingly, my mother told me in Taiwan, decades ago it was common for bribes to have to be offered to doctors and surgeons in many hospitals before undergoing an operation or other major procedures. That is why when I went to a hospital a few years, there was a sign at the door to the ICU stating that giving gifts to doctors is absolutely forbidden.

This is my pragmatism article:

One word that is sometimes used to describe Chinese people is “pragmatic.”

This refers to the trait of choosing the option that is practical or advantageous for any situation or problem, rather than be guided by set rules or ideals. I think in many aspects such as making decisions, day-to-day behavior or even the nation’s international relations, there’s a strong sense of pragmatism. This does have benefits such as flexibility. On the other hand, it also brings about negatives.

First, take the issue of how people often treat each other in society. From dishonest housing agents to people selling food made with dirty oil, one can always experience unscrupulous behavior regularly, maybe daily.

Yet many of these same people often treat their family and friends very well. What it comes down to is pragmatism – help your own kin and friends, be subservient to your bosses or superiors, but don’t waste an ounce of consideration for strangers.

Even love isn’t immune. There’s a prevailing notion that having loads of money is a key factor for a lot of girls looking for a mate, as well as owning a house and a car. There’s even a well-known term to describe the desired man – gaofushuai or tall, rich and handsome. There was a famous example a few years ago when a girl on a dating show proclaimed she’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle, indicating her preference for an unhappy relationship with a rich man than a happy one with a poor man. Of course, this is materialistic and superficial. However, it stems from a pragmatic reason – in a competitive society where social resources (urban housing, good health care) are scarce or expensive, women need men who can easily provide for them and their offspring.

This can definitely be seen with arranged marriages, still common in many places, that try to pair up men and women whose family backgrounds, education and job status match well. Whatever the scenario, the prioritization of practicality over romanticism leads to a lot of unhappy relationships or worse, the lack of relationships when people can’t find anyone “worthy” enough.

Being pragmatic is not always a bad thing but perhaps it’s time to reconsider its merits. We could do with a lot less pragmatism in a lot of areas.


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