Zhang Wen: “China is Sick”

The following is a translation of this piece by Zhang Wen:


In recent times, catastrophes of both the natural world and the human world have been piling up. For me this is rather perplexing.

Rain water has always been plentiful in Southeast China, so this once in a lifetime drought in and of itself is a little bit unthinkable. In the face of this great drought, what’s even more bizarre is the indifference in the government and in popular opinion. Government emphasis and rescue efforts didn’t start until the middle of this month, and those outside of the southeast have expressed “none of my concern” attitude. My own media outlet didn’t begin full-length pieces on the situation until recently.

Similar to this phenomenon is the indifference to the life of the murdered children in Nanping [a city in northern Fujian province -Ed]. Judging from the current reports, the murderer Zheng Minsheng [who allegedly murdered eight school children] was a failure at life without stable work, and a failure in love as well. He therefore went out to take vengeance on the evils of society. What is impossible to understand, as well as impossible to forgive, is that he chose people weaker still than himself – elementary school victims. These innocent, immature human beings were completed unrelated and harmless to Zheng Minsheng.

There is only one thing to say: China is sick!

The rhythm of life is getting faster, stress and pressure are building up, and the future is unclear. This has caused more or less everyone in society to become infected with a psychological disorder. People are worried about themselves and their own families, all the while gradually losing compassion towards others. When you can’t even take care of yourself, how can you have excess emotional energy to attend to others?

For years, a one-sided emphasis on economic development has led millions on a single-minded quest for wealth and caused the nation the soar, but it has also buried a terrible sickness: the law of the jungle has entered into people’s hearts. The weak are food for the strong, and fairness and justice are in short supply.

Social classes are dividing and dissolving into opposition. People’s relationships are mostly based on acquiring [personal] benefits and people no longer believe in traditions of mutual help and friendship. In fact, laughing at the poor while hating the rich has become the tone of mainstream society.

The economic successes of the last 30 years are hard to deny, but that people’s moral quality has degenerated is equally hard to deny. The ideas of Confucius, Mencius and Zhuangzi have been damaged almost beyond repair. Slogans like “Putting people first” and “a harmonious society” need to become reality, but the coming is slow.

To destroy is easy, to build is difficult. China is currently in a void. Popular expectations are outpacing changes in [society’s] system, and in their confusion people have no faith to comfort them.

Those foreigners that are unfamiliar with China exclaim, “China is rising!” China’s government is immensely smug as well, ambitiously carving up the world and expanding its own influence. Disobedient foreign companies are kicked out of the country before the government can be happy.

But clear-headed Chinese can only sigh helplessly [at the current situation]: what kind of monstrosity is this [China]! That China is “rising” is a fact, but it isn’t healthy, with ailments both numerous and gravely serious. The people’s lives are currently so-so: not happy, to say nothing of dignified. (Wen Jiabao’s words are genuine and heartfelt, but an old ailment is not easy to cure).

China is sick. Where is the deft hand, where is the magic wand that can stir life in dead wood?


Amidst his admittedly cynical take on things, Zhang Wen brings up an interesting but (sometimes) overlooked point. China is developing, but towards what? The idea of a “rising China” is familiar to anyone reading this and it has even entered into popular media discourse in Western countries, but it is interesting to see how often the words “development” or “modern” (发展 and 现代) get thrown around both in the media, academia and in casual conversation without any clear concensus of what that precisely means beyond a rising per capita income. Development apparently just means “this road that we’re on.”

Even 50 years ago, Mao’s wish for China was to “surpass Britain and catch up to America.” In the context of a “rising China”, comparisons and contrasts between China and the United States are common. Calculating if, when and how China’s GDP will overtake that of the United States has almost become a parlor game among economists and commentators. But is the United States “developed” because it has a high GDP, or does it have a high GDP because it is developed? Another view might hold that the United States (and other developed countries) are developed because they have rule of law, transparent government and clean environments. Zhang Wen might argue that the populace needs a certain minimum moral fiber before a country can be considered developed. (Of course, you could also argue that the United States is not developed because it lacks these very things in the desired quantities).

What does it mean for China to “develop”? What could, or should, it mean? Is GDP or PPP the best tool for measuring China’s progress? Are alternative measures of development like the Human Development Index useful for China (or any country for that matter), or are these not “hard” enough? Supposing we had a magic wand to dispense gifts to various places in the world, what combination of traits might we bestow on China before it went from “developing” to “developed”?

0 thoughts on “Zhang Wen: “China is Sick””

  1. All I can say is that China is slowly improving in some ways and becoming worse in other ways. The author is right though, China is sick. The things I can tell you about my hometown in China. It’s everyone for themselves. If you see an old injured lady in dire straights, DON’T help her. No one else will. The hospital will force the responsibility of the bill on you. The old lady will sue you and claim that you were the responsible party. You will be arrested for helping her. You’ll be paying bills for the rest of your life until the old hag is dead. If a beggar or monk comes to your place and begs for money or food, DO NOT feed him/her. They will writhe on the ground and claim food poisoning. If you don’t give them 500 or more yuan, they will get the cops and get you arrested. The cop will take a big cut and then you’ll have to pay the fee for them coming out.

    Economically and technologically, China is improving. Morally, it’s everyone for themselves and everyone else can rot. Why is it like this? Because there is no real law and order. The people do not trust the gov’t and it’s officials..and with good reason.


  2. Being “Developed” is a comparative thing.

    Comparing the comtemporary China with the USA two hundred years ago, of course, the contemporary China is more “developed”, with better infrastructure, education, medical care, life quality etc. Althoug the USA two hundred years ago already had a framework of the rule of law and democracy, it was also a country of slavery, corruption, and relatively low quality of life.


  3. @Leo

    I guess what I mean is that, although obviously development is relative, who is relatively “developed” is completely dependent on the standards you set. For example, if you declare that tonnage of grain produced per year is a measure of development (as China did in earlier decades), then Iowa is more developed than New York. But if you declare that the number of PhDs produced per year is the standard then the opposite is probably true (to simplify a very complex issue).

    Also see this debate about GDP that kind of touches on the subject: http://www.economist.com/debate/debates/overview/171


  4. Interestingly (and dangerously?), Zhang Wen’s perspective on a societal sickness sounds a lot like Li Hongshi’s (the leader of Falun Gong) concepts of “somatized disorders”, which basically says that people were suffering from a sick society and the social ills had to be treated. (This, combined with more provocative statements, gained him a good amount of attention from the CCP.)


  5. Not amount of economic development can overcome a lack of social development. This is the heart of the problem in today’s China and I think, what the author and all the responders are referring to.


  6. @Christ Hearne,

    I think, sometimes GDP is not that relative. Behind the tonnage of grain is agriculture, which is a high-investment, low-turnout business, while behind PhD is industry, which is a high-investment, high-turnout business. Behind agriculture and industry are a set of factors like geography, geopolitics, climate, water, mineral resources, etc. etc.


  7. There is truly something sick – both literally and figuratively – with nations as rich as the US and China (a country with literally trillions in foreign reserves) that cannot provide even basic free medical services for most of their citizens.


  8. Fear and Repression…

    The nail that stands up, gets hammered down…

    Where is the Chinese Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Rosa Parks…

    Without fear, development thrives and sustains. Ceilings can be broken. Innovation occurs.

    GDP is nothing without freedom and free will…


  9. The FACT that happened near Senkaku Islands

    (The ship of the Japan Coast Guard stopped a suspicious ship of China that had invaded the Japanese territorial waters on

    Sept.7,2010. )

    The Japan Coast Guard ship brought alongside to a Chinese ship. The staff of the Japan Coast Guard boarded it. Afterwards,

    the Chinese ship suddenly left the sea route.
    One left staff of the Japan Coast Guard was kicked by Chinese crew. He fell into the water from a Chinese ship.To crush the

    staff who had fallen into the sea, the Chinese ship changed the course.The staff swam desperately to run away. Chinese crew

    tried to stab him to death with the harpoon. The Japan Coast Guard ship stopped to rescue the staff and the rescue was

    started. Chinese ship approached from the rear side. The staff was almost crushed. The staff managed to be carried up from

    the back to the Japan Coast Guard ship. The Chinese ship collided with the back of the Japanese ship after a few seconds.

    The hull of a Japanese ship damaged seriously.
    All parties concerned who had seen the video said that this was an attempted murder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s