Sometimes China makes it just too easy. As an honor-shame nerd, a theologian, and a China watcher, I certainly took notice of the Chinese government’s recent post on social media.
In response to the coronavirus, Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission wrote,
“Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity. Anyone who puts the face of politicians before the interests of the people will be the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people.” (translation from CNN)
Here is the Mandarin version:
谁为一己之利，刻意迟报瞒报，将永远被钉在历史的耻辱柱上; 谁将政客的面子，看得比人民利益还重，就是党和人民的千古罪人 (from here)
The government’s language is striking. It almost seems like the writer just finished reading the Bible before drafting the announcement.
“nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity”
How long until someone incorporates that phrase into an evangelistic tract?!
We are Different but the Same
What about the second line? Does it highlight a difference or a similarity between Eastern and Western culture?
Can you imagine the average citizen from America or Australia “putting the face of politicians before the interests of the people”? At first glance, you might say, “No way… most people would sell out a politician in a second.” However, I wouldn’t be so sure, especially in light of current events.
Consider the type of person that comment is directed at. It’s aimed at government officials who might try to save face or those who have relationships with officials in authority (thus, have “face”). In American culture, what is a stereotypical parallel?Might it be the conservative, Fox News watcher with respect to Republicans? Or liberal, Huffington Post readers regarding Democrats? How quickly will they (and we) overlook the negligence of people they like? Or, how willing are you to criticize leaders who are popular in a crowd of people with whom you want to curry favor?
Most people in the West are quick to condemn Chinese politicians as people who care only about their own reputation, even at the expense of normal citizens. Of course, this is true of countless officials. Yet, too many Westerners often make this judgment is often made as if such “face-saving” concerns were a Chinese problem.
The Chinese Communist Party calls such a person a “sinner of a millennium to the party and the people.” How many of us are sinners to either our country or our church because we ignore underlying problems in order to preserve face, whether ours or others’?
A Plea for Transparency
The government warns that the concealment of SARS led to great harm in 2003. So, with respect to the coronavirus, the Party pleads for transparency when they state,
“Only when information is made sufficiently open can the public pay attention to it, and prevention and control measures can efficiently be put in place.” (“信息只有足够公开, 才能引起公众重视, 防控措施才能施展，以最有效率的方式到位”)
No doubt, the government will be accused of hypocrisy given their penchant for secrecy and suppressing information when it suits them. I’ve heard several people familiar with China speculate that the number of people infected by the coronavirus is (at least) 10-20 times the reported figures.
The government has a credibility problem. Given its reputation, people understandably fear the personal consequences of being transparent. But what about the consequences on the community and country?
In light of the ongoing impeachment debacle, these are questions that Americans must ask themselves as well. There are certainly important differences between the two contexts. In China, “face” trumps law when it comes to justice and defending one’s rights. In the States (and many other Western countries), you might make people angry, but you won’t die or go to jail for speaking up.
What would happen if we built our reputations on transparency? How many problems might we avoid?