inside thoughts on China and beyond

Table Talk

All progress has a price. Well known are of course the issues of over-population and pollution and corruption and spoiled kids. But not often mentioned, surely not in China, is the issue of equality. Yes, you read it correctly: the issue of equality. Equality as an issue.

So I called Alain de Botton. Not really, of course -for who am I?- but real enough to include this philosophical thinker and popular crowd speaker on this matter in an imaginative roundtable talk. I also invited Panda, a bright young Chinese lady with the, for Chinese, rather unusual quality to speak up her mind as thoughts come up. I’m not sure who gave her this English name (all young Chinese like to have an English name, but be sure this doesn’t reflect their patriotism!), but it would have been more meaningful -and truthful- if she was called Tiger or Blunt or, ah, well, you’ll understand.

Panda: “The Chinese society is an anxious society. Anxiety to earn. Anxiety to learn. Anxiety to prove themselves. Especially the young generation is burdened by these mostly external pressures from parents and grandparents and all other family members; and all want to see good future returns. No one wants to be left out; do less then the neighbors. Tiu Lian we call it. Loose face; who wants that? It’s only a thin line that separates this all from jealousy. And where anxiety and envy comes in, happiness leaves.”

“I was supposed to open this roundtable talk, Panda, not you! Know your place and be patient!” I shot at her just a bit too quick. Don’t we all have our shortcomings? She talks whenever a thought comes up; I talk before the thought comes up (and am often left with pitiful afterthoughts).

“But you are right; is that why the very poor farmers in desolate hinterlands are always so friendly? Have they accepted their fate and learned to be content with it?”

Alain smiled. “Jealousy, Steven, that is our problem. Or rather, yours.”

A silence followed. An awkward silence. We’d just started and already this wasn’t going in the right direction. It wasn’t going to be about China. I should have stopped it here.

Alain continued, smiling his Alain smile.

“In the West we are proud of our democracies that seal the promise of equality for all.”

“Right Alain,” Panda cut in, “You all are so proud that you like to forget that more then 50% of your citizen aren’t even bothered to vote because they don’t feel their say matters. I’m sure they look differently at your Holy Grail of equality.” There you go! That’s my Panda. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“But in the meantime,” she went on, “you do remember to rebuke China for the lack of democratic opportunities for its people. Well, we like to call our society a harmonious society;  you better call your democracy a hypocrisy.”

“Correct!” Alian’s smile was now ear-to-ear. “In a developed society based on equality with equal chances for everyone, the main source of unhappiness is the harsh but unspoken reality of inequality, causing, eventually, epidemic envy.”

Now it was my turn. “Well, I still think the Chinese society seem to fit that description nicely too. Sixty years of communist / socialist equality has brought the comrade-people only unprecedented inequality,” I mumbled. “but is it really that different from the West?”

“Right, the reason for this is that we don’t really live in an equal society at all, and never will, but in a society that pretends to be equal and pretends to provide us with equal chances. Calling it assumed equality would be more accurate. We can’t all become Donald Trump. Nor do we all have a garage. But when we are made to believe that the sky is the limit, only to discover that this really isn’t true for everyone, the end-product of this ‘equality’ is envy. The idea, [red.: I’m not sure Alain said my name here; I think he did, but I really prefer to believe he didn’t], of what you might have become – but didn’t – leaves a mark on your forehead: you’re a LOSER! Like it or not, and I know, you probably don’t, but I’m still the celebrity philosopher and you are…, what?”

“A teacher.”

” A teacher??” … Smile…

“But this wasn’t supposed to be about me! I’m not the issue here, okay? You haven’t talked about China yet. Come to think of it, I bet you haven’t even been in China yet!” I barked back. What did I have to loose anyway?

Panda: “Here, each year, all of China celebrates Teacher Day. A wonderful day of speeches from directors and government officials that is given in exchange for an extra day of work on Sunday. That is how teachers are valued here! Valued in ways that can apparently not be expressed in money. Doesn’t that show the importance of this group? And then, there is no philosophers day; nor a celebrity day, … ”

“In the old days”, Alain said without giving even the slightest sign that he had heard Panda, and I had to agree that her comment was better left ignored, “your ancestry largely determined your options in life. Your daddy a ruler? You’ll be a ruler. Your daddy a carpenter? So will you.”

“Then you’re nailed!” I called out in an unconscious hope to regain the little self esteem I had left.

“It was called destiny; fate. You could have all the brains in the world and still only be a carpenter or a teacher; and that was plain and simple bad luck. Unfortunate. In the old days there were the fortunate and the unfortunate. The lucky and the unlucky. There was no pretension of equality and thus,”Alain drags on, “no anxiety and envy. If you belonged to the unfortunate and unlucky, you were by no means a loser. It just was the way it was to no fault of your own.  And since it wasn’t due to any mistake of your own that you were just a baker, or a sewer or a farmer, you had no reason to strive for more or feel bad or jealous. Can’t all be the queen.”

Panda: “Well, Chinese are trying hard to break away from the past and its bonds. Really, hordes of farm boys and girls are migrating in the hope of becoming wealthy city dwellers. Are you saying that for most of them, this will be a fruitless undertaking; leading only to disappointment?”

Me: “Anyway, Alain, now that you mentioned the queen; did you mean the queen of England or the Dutch queen?”

“Does it matter?”

OK, I didn’t think that through. Of course it doesn’t matter at all. I should try smiling.

“Well, yes, it does.”

“Why ? A queen is a queen and it was just an example. I could have said the emperor of China for that matter!”

“But you didn’t. And China’s emperor of late is soon to be replaced anyway. Chinese may never be queen but they are surely not too happy to learn that their present rulers are sending family members to live and study abroad. Is that anger over injustice or plain envy?”

“Really?” Panda asked with an ironic undertone. “Or is that just your assumption? As Chinese, I am really not to troubled by it. It happens and it happens everywhere. In China as much as out of China. What our leaders do is not my concern. I can’t change it. And I believe that they have China’s best interest in mind, even when I don’t understand it.”

I should have … But that’s afterthought.

“But about the queen. I’m not jealous at the queen of England, I mean, just look at her…”

“Well, that proves my point then, doesn’t it?” the Smile responded.  “Kings and queens are too weird, too different I meant to say, to envy. That’s exactly how it was in the days of old.”

“But I do not feel any envy to the queen of Holland either. She’s a jolly good lady. Like one of us, you know. But I guess you don’t, you being English and all.”

“But she does have much money coming her direction, if I might say. No different from our leaders.” How in the world did Panda get this information? Internet isn’t blocked just for the fun of it.

“Even if her son becomes king, you wouldn’t …”

“Stop right there! Don’t mention him! That’s different. He’s my equal. He’s my age! He is spoiled. He never had to do some real work  … Anyway, I’m just saying. No envy; not me.”

Another awkward silence followed. That smile again. I’m not sure how we came to this point, but I had a strong feeling that I, for this roundtable talk, had completely mist the mine.

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One response

  1. Gerrit Dorgelo

    “Then I saw that allt oil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind. Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh. Better an handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and chasing after the wind. [Eccl./Qoh. 4, 4-6]

    July 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm