The Shame of Progress: Devaluing People Experiencing Poverty in China

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article. 

China has undoubtedly developed beyond recognition in the 40 years since marketisation and ‘opening up’ began transforming China into a ‘socialist market economy’.  China’s version of capitalism, which is tightly controlled by the state, has in that time delivered an average annual growth rate of 9.5 per cent and reduced extreme poverty from 99 per cent to one per cent.  Yet during this same period, people experiencing poverty have slipped from being publicly praised as the vanguard of the continuing revolution to becoming pariahs, people of low suzhi (quality), ‘not wanting to become rich quickly enough’.  To explain this particular social transformation simply in terms of the capitalist imperative to regulate the poor, ensuring that all who can work do work, serves to underplay the enormity of the cultural and moral upheaval that this change represents in Chinese culture.

The importance of poverty-related shame as a debilitating concomitant of poverty is increasingly recognised globally to the point where international agencies, such as UNICEF and the OECD, have begun promoting the ‘shame-proofing’ of anti-poverty policies.  In China, however, shame has traditionally been viewed as a positive, rather than a negative, force; one that underpins morality and is used to encourage people to behave in socially acceptable ways.  Historically, though, the shame associated to poverty attached to the ruler rather than to the ruled who were experiencing poverty.

To understand this, as much else in China today, one needs to understand Confucian thought.  In many ways a profoundly conservative philosophy, Confucius and his disciples advocated a social hierarchy based on morality with the most moral constituting the ruling elite personified as the emperor.  Morality was both assessed and policed by (loss of) face, itself comprising lian and mianMian refers to reputation achieved through moral behaviour and social success, while lian denotes the respect of the group for individuals who have fulfilled their moral obligations regardless of the hardships involved.  The existence of poverty was evidence of a poorly governed society and hence rulers lost lian.  People in poverty, though, could demonstrate lian by resisting the temptation to steal or protest, thereby simultaneously protecting the ruler against further loss of face (mian) in needing to curb criminality or to put down social unrest.

Under Mao Zedong, poverty was viewed in class terms, the legacy of feudalism and exploitation, with ‘low and middle’ peasants, having nothing to lose and much to gain, presented as supporting the revolutionary cadre.  Poverty thus became a symbol of virtue: ‘the poorer you are, the more glorious you become’, albeit many of Mao’s policies, beyond the initial land reform, served further to disadvantage those who were most poor.  Both lian and mian during the Maoist era were therefore attached to class status and could be further enhanced by behaviour that was deemed to be politically correct.

Much reversed with the arrival of marketisation and the new slogans of: ‘let some people get rich first’; and ‘to get rich by hard work is glorious’.  Poverty, previously seen as a product of bad governance or class exploitation, became a matter of individual fault and failure.  Indicative of low suzhi, it simultaneously confers low mian and, since structural poverty cannot be overcome by socially desirable behaviour alone, the absence of lian.  Tellingly, a report prepared by a special group within the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), published in 2019, suggests strategies to eliminate undesirable attitudes that hinder the eradication of poverty.  These include ideological and cultural education and cuts in benefits for people unwilling to work.

But, marketisation has not just brought about a change in political rhetoric, public attitudes seem to have altered, or possibly older sentiments may have re-surfaced.  World Values Survey (WVS) data for the 2000s indicates that, at the time, 58 per cent of the Chinese population believed that ‘laziness and lack of willpower’ was the main cause of poverty; a figure exceeded by only four counties including the USA and Puerto Rico.  Likewise, a large, but albeit purposive, survey of the Chinese middle class asked the WVS question in 2019 found that 60 per cent initially responded that laziness was the main cause of poverty. This figure fell to just 14 per cent when respondents were presented with a broader suite of options but then an additional 53 per cent concluded that poverty was ‘an inevitable part of modern progress’.

While in China’s past, poverty was either seen as a virtue, or as an opportunity to demonstrate virtue, with marketisation, poverty has become a sign of social inadequacy, shameful since everyone is expected to try to become rich.  The existence of poverty no longer shames government nor offers any stimulus to personal moral development.  Poverty-related shame simply adds to the suffering of people in poverty as it does many non-socialist market economies.

About the authors

Lichao Yang is Associate Professor at Beijing Normal University.

Robert Walker is Professor of Social Policy and Development at Beijing Normal University.



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