Hell hath no fury in the middle kingdom

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Chinese Culture, Economics
Tags: , , , , ,

For those who haven’t heard of the horrific incident in Foshan, here’s a link with a video that will absolutely ruin your day and faith in humanity. It shows a two-year old girl getting run over TWICE and ignored by 18 bystanders. She’s not expected to live.

It’s hard to say how much of the bystanders’ ambivalence was universal human psychology and how much can be attributed to distinctly Chinese characteristics, but it’s becoming harder to downplay the latter. This is just the latest in a string of despicable stories to come out of China in recent years.  Consider these, some of which are just one instance of recurring events:

This list, unfortunately, isn’t even close to being exhaustive. It would be very tenuous to connect these all directly to any single factor, as most regard fear of legal liability as the main culprit in the Foshan story, for example, while the one-child policy is oft-cited for the child-trafficking problem. And of course, these things happen in other countries too, but their sheer scale and consistency in China is hard to write off, as many Chinese themselves have noted. There could be one thing at least partially contributing to all of this:

Hell.

Or rather, a lack of it.

I’m a devout atheist and tend to think dogmatic religion plays a largely negative role in society, but I can’t count the number of times in China I’ve shaken my head and wished more people believed in hell.

In any collectivist society, shame among peers tends to have much more influence than internal guilt. So if it’s unlikely that they’ll be caught, punished and shamed, people have less incentive to refrain from despicable actions. There’s even a Chinese proverb alluding to the idea saying “Neng pian jiu pian” (If you’re able to cheat, just cheat). You can couple this with the moral void that’s been left in the wake of socialism’s demise and the tunnel vision focus on money that emerged in the 1990’s.

The idea of hell as a means to keep people honest might be pretty intuitive (if not a bit Machiavellian) but University of British Colombia psychologist Ara Norenzayan published a study entitled Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. He gave subjects a math test they could easily cheat on and those who believed in a vengeful god typically chose not to cheat. “Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counter-normative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring,” the study said.

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Harvard have also separately found a correlation between belief in hell and lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth.

According to the Boston Globe, “[Harvard researchers Barro and McCleary ] collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.[...] Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other.”

“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, told USA Today.

The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally held a less than hospitable attitude toward religion and regarded the Marxist view that it’s “the opiate of the masses” as a bad thing. But there are signs they’re starting to see the (again, perhaps Machiavellian) advantages to the opiate concept. This seems especially true with Christianity, given its belief in hell and less potential for the political complications associated with Islam in China.

In Nanjing the government has built a 5,000 seat mega church and given other funding to help boost Christianity. In the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou, where it’s estimated as much as 20% of the population is Christian, the government is starting to seriously study the link between Christian enterprises and economic success. One Christian factory owner told BBC, “I’m not saying those people who aren’t Christians are all bad, but from the percentage of the workers who are Christians, they seem to be more responsible. Also when they do things wrong, they feel guilty – that’s the difference.”

During the Mao-era, throwing the doors open to religion would have been unthinkable. Communism was the religion and Mao its god. Any other faith would have been competition. But now, with the death of religious socialism, supernatural religion’s spread is inevitable and SOME in the now strictly utilitarian Party seem to be recognizing that that might be in their best interest.

For many of China’s tens of millions of religious followers, the repression of their faith itself is the biggest grievance with the Party. Standing aside or even assisting religion would likely pay the government far greater dividends than holding the Maoist religion-as-a-threat attitude. It seems it could also have very real economic and socially-stabilizing benefits.

In a 2006 interview with Reuters, Li Junru, deputy head of the Communist Party School  made a very telling statement. When asked why India can handle democracy while China needs an authoritarian government, he explained that India has religion to control the people.

One has to imagine the Communist Party sees the appeal of biblical verses like Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

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