This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on May 9, 2018:
Why do many forms of cheating — surrogate test taking, IP theft, answer sharing, plagiarism, use of paper mills, subversion of regulations, low-level bribery, etc. — seem to be widely considered a justifiable means to an end in China?
I don’t think there’s much of a mystery here. It’s all basically a function of scarcity and of the intensity of competition, and these in turn come down to the fact of China’s enormous population, breakneck development, and brutally pragmatic focus on results.
In the nearly 40 years since reform and opening began at the very end of the 1970s, China has been a place where a kind of Social Darwinian law of the jungle has prevailed. A society where the bedrock Confucian ethics already tended toward situational, where there’s never really been any dominant religious institution claiming transcendent moral authority, and where access to every rung on the ladder of success was already contested, the introduction of an ethos of “to get rich is glorious” was bound to create something of a mad scramble.
To be sure, there are still many, many good and honest people in China for whom the rules still matter, who would never think to cheat, or to falsify data, or to jump the queue or bribe an official. But I think anyone who looks at China today honestly must recognize that those solid citizens have diminished in number appreciably over the last four decades.
In this time, the flaunting of the material and political rewards that came with “success” has been so common, has been on such conspicuous display, that it’s easy, at least for me, to understand why anyone wanting to play strictly by the rules would be viewed as a chump or a sucker. When dishonesty seems to pay so handsomely and honesty seems to lead only to penury, it’s to be expected, regrettably, that many within society will choose dishonesty.
This normalization of selfishness, this brutal pragmatism, this primacy assigned to “success” — it’s all also, I believe, the fundamental reason that so many Chinese people both in China and in diaspora voiced support for the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016, and why so many continue to support him today.
Kuora is a weekly column.