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:


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.”

  1. Interesting. Many expats often criticize Chinese apathy towards other human beings but I think you might be on to something with this religion theory. I’ll ask some Chinese friends about it.

  2. Is it really a belief in Hell specifically, or just a belief in punishment? It seems very plausible that real-world punishment for misdeeds being likely would be just as effective as belief in supernatural punishment at encouraging people to behave.

    • sinostand says:

      Hell is just another form of punishment. The only difference is it’s omnipresent, unlike anything the government or law enforcement could ever hope to achieve.

  3. Raka says:

    What about karma?

  4. […] religion with the lack of concern for human life. While I am a Christian, and I would like to think things would have been different if one of those people believed in heaven or hell, there is no evidence that one of the people who passed the girl by didn’t hold those […]

  5. Ryan says:

    Great post Eric.

    I like to think that morality and basic human goodness are qualities we all have in us from the get-go, and I certainly don’t credit mine or that of the ones I love to any fictional supreme being. However, perhaps morality is something that needs to be cultivated more than I thought — whether it by religious beliefs, or secular humanism. Perhaps what’s missing in China is not religion, but simply an emphasis on moral instruction from a young age. From my experience, the exact opposite is usually what is taught — fight to get ahead, step on whomever you have to, mind your own business, protect yourself…

    • sinostand says:

      Thanks for the link Ryan. It’s funny, I think they actually devote a ton of time to “morality” education in China from primary school to high school, but it’s usually in the socialist context. My friend said on his college entrance exam he had a question that asked, “How come human being ourselves are essentially to blame for most problems?” A correct answer would show how we just haven’t had the correct (socialist) system to keep people good. Then there’s even a whole good Samaritan holiday for (the much politicized) Lei Feng. But I assume for most students this all just gets thrown out with the rest of the political white noise they have to memorize for tests, but not actually think about.

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  7. Chia-fu Chen says:

    As a person who received 18 years of education in China, if If I reflect deeply upon the psychology of myself and those around me, I would attribute the lack of empathy to one thing: people place too much emphasis on mental superiority over others.

    This is not an easy thing to explain. In many cases, people actually take pride in being able to surpress one’s instinctive urges (in this case, altruism). You will not find them talking about it publicly, but it is evident by a philosophy called Thick Black Theory that has recently gained tremendous amount of popularity.

    Sure, we have a lot of education on morality, and we were taught to be like Lei Feng. However, this is neutralized, and even reversed by our parents’ informal teaching: don’t help others unless the act is somehow beneficial to you, otherwise you are acting like an idiot. Many of the Chinese parents constantly give their kids this kind of mental reinforcement. Over time, kids of average IQ will learn this implicit rule:

    Protect yourself by agreeing with the social norm, but never BUY INTO IT.

    I’m not saying this only happens in China, but I have not seen another country where such parenting practice is so prevalent. Correct me if I’m wrong about this.

  8. […] wants the Chinese to come to Jesus. OK – that’s a misquote. This is what he writes: 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 […]

  9. justrecently says:

    This could be true, Chen. I’ve seen this in Hong Kong and Taiwan, too – stuff like “let’s be realists”.
    Or, as Gustav Amann, a Siemens sales engineer, put it almost a decade ago: “Probably, what is treason to us, is to them only human nature. They escape it by never allowing themselves to be caught in unconditional devotion.”

  10. Guest says:

    @Chia-fu Chen
    Very well articulated. I’m an overseas Chinese and I still get this kind of reinforcement from my parents. “Agree with the morals so no one will criticize you, but in reality do whatever benefits you most”. Of course they don’t actually say this, but the message is pretty clear.

  11. Hugh says:

    Very interesting article & interesting comments. I followed this story in the mainstream media but I believe you could have a better understanding of the motivation of the witnesses to the incident.

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