Some amateur, overblown social theorizing extrapolated from a few recent observations:
I teach English. We often talk about the impact of commercial culture and consumerism in class, perhaps because it seems to be a particularly relevant topic, and I am constantly amazed at the extent to which students apologize for, or even justify, the extravagance of the haves. The attitude ‘If you’ve got it, who am I to tell you you can’t flaunt it’ is overrepresented. That a lot of wealth is often less than honestly come by, also a widely held belief, doesn’t seem to matter. ‘The system is a mess, I should do what I need to to get mine, and then enjoy it while I can’ is not a bad summary of a typical attitude.
I recently heard from a master’s degree student about the extent of competition among classmates. She said she couldn’t be friends with her classmates because they were her competitors. They would do anything to secure the limited opportunities offered by the school so she couldn’t trust them. Anything she told them about herself they would try to use against her in competition. And for her part, she wasn’t going to be left behind because of some hold up about what is ‘right.’
Both examples recognize that the world offers limited opportunities. They also express a brutal realism. The focus is not fairness or equality, but personal security and comfort. It’s an amazingly individualistic mind set. If America is famous for individualism the Chinese version is at least as strong, though of a decidedly different stripe.
American individualism, in it’s prototypical form, emphasizes personal expression and the right to work toward one’s own gain. This certainly contains no small amount of ‘me first’ selfishness, but it stems from a belief in one’s rights as granted and protected by the state. For better or for worse, American individualism contains a belief in community, a belief that everyone’s individualism is what makes the society as a whole strong.
The Chinese version, in contrast, comes more from a lack of hope and a reaction against a failed system. There is a general understanding in China that the government is corrupt. Experience shows that what is done in the name of social progress is often really for personal gain. When those supposing to represent the public interest are the biggest culprits in undermining it, the concept of community itself suffers.
The result is a defiant, apathetic individualism. An individualism that stands against the idea of community, not in service to it. In America people rally behind freedom and individual rights. Flawed or not, they are principles. Chinese individualism expresses society’s drift away from principle—away from the communal project of building a better society.
America has, ‘it’s a free country.’ China has, ‘my father is Li Gang.’