Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Original Sin of Chinese Capitalism

In a 2007 post, I shared my own observation on the irony of capitalism. If anything, the 2008 global financial debacle would seem to testify to a grain of truth in the ironic and disastrous outcome of American capitalism. But capitalism with Chinese characteristics (not in the specific sense of Yasheng Huang’s book) – in reality just a Western economic concept that has been grafted onto Chinese soil - appears to be even more egregious, owing probably to its putrid fusion with a deeply implanted class-discriminating and serf mind-set in the Chinese culture.

Thousands of years of hereditary Chinese imperialism, with all its emperor-subject, master-servant, male-female and senior-junior class discrimination trappings, have endowed the Chinese race with an innate iniquitous mentality. Lu Xun (魯迅), the liberal thinker and writer, once quoted an ancient saying (“左傳”昭公七年) in one of his articles to illustrate this lasting social phenomenon, “There are ten suns in the sky, as there are ten classes in human society.” (“天有十日, 人有十等”).That is why, he said, it was natural for the royalty to discriminate against the plebeian (貴賤), the big to bully the small (大小), the upper class to tread on the lower (上下). Everyone was born into a certain class and had to submit to his/her fate with no room for resistance. The more powerful had the natural right to treat the less powerful like dirt, one class trampling on another, in descending order, ending with women and children as the lowest. He even likened the so-called Chinese civilization to a big feast of human flesh arranged for the exclusive enjoyment of the powerful and wealthy. Each serf, numbed by his own suffering, was callous to the pain of others. As well, being sustained by the hope of eventually having the chance to enslave and devour another in a lower class for self-benefit, he was prone to forget his own miserable destiny of servitude and being devoured.

Lu said in the article that he would feel heartily thankful if a foreigner visiting China would grimace in disgust of what was happening in the country rather than heap empty praises about the Chinese culture, as then he could be certain that the foreigner was at least not interested in eating Chinese human flesh.

Emperors in ancient times, starting with demagogue Liu Bang in the Han dynasty, were astute to utilize partial teachings of Confucius – the concepts of loyalty and filial piety in the officialdom and family hierarchy – to restrict social behavior so that the common people could be rendered submissive and incapable of independent critical thinking, while using cruel penalties to repress or threaten dissidents. Thus, Confucianism was distorted purposely by emperors (with the part about benevolent governance and people as the prior concern of rulers entirely wiped out) to suit authoritarian rule and further entrench class discrimination and servitude in the social code. It’s no coincidence that the current authoritarian regime is so eager to promote Confucianism as a means to controlling the thoughts of the nation, but I digress.

With servile attitude towards the strong and powerful being a given, along with the vengeful desire to bully the weaker to placate the bruised ego, many Chinese, especially Mainland Chinese who have not been sufficiently exposed to Western education, may instinctively find the universal values of equality, liberty and fraternity rather unnatural and even alien. Against such a background, Western Capitalism, which condones selfishness and wanton greed in the individual with no restraint, when coupled with the nation’s pervasive depravity and innate class-discriminating and serf mentality, can therefore easily be transformed into brutal, corrupt and predatory Cannibalism when practiced on Chinese soil, where, since the Cultural Revolution, money and power trumps human dignity, morality and compassion.

Even in relatively Western-educated Hong Kong society, capitalism with Chinese characteristics has been at play to create a cannibalistic property oligarchy to the detriment of the whole society. The recent labor-capital dispute at the container terminals yet provides a fresh sample.

Lu Xun made a lacerating remark in his article: that the Chinese people had never, even up to his times, attained the qualities of a human being, at best only those of a serf, and the vicious cycle of serfs begetting more serfs couldn’t seem to stop. But our Hong Kong container terminal laborers are obviously on the way to breaking this vicious cycle by daring to demand to be accorded a little bit of human dignity.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review - Eugenie Grandet by Balzac

What is a miser? The dictionary says it means either one of two types of persons: (1) one who lives very meagerly in order to hoard money; or (2) a greedy or avaricious person. I’ve lately been reading Honore de Balzac’s famous novel Eugenie Grandet and am impressed by the 19th century French author’s perspicacious insight into the traits of misers.

This is an excerpt from the novel that illustrates Balzac’s perception:-

“A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest; but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion – egotism. That is perhaps the reason for the amazing curiosity excited by misers skillfully presented upon the stage. Everyone has some link with these persons, who revolt all human feelings and yet epitomize them. Where is the man without ambition? And what ambition can be attained in our society without money?.......

Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns by fair legal means. To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who were unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! Has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet - that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world - and of their future, the symbol of which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.”

In the novel, Felix Grandet is depicted as the stingy, egotistic and mean-spirited money hoarder in suburban France against a money-grubbing social backdrop with the rise of the bourgeoisie. He rations everyday food for his weak-minded wife, his only daughter Eugenie and his loyal house servant, and purposely keeps his house in shabby disrepair, while making immense fortunes secretively. He almost seems to derive sadistic pleasure in ruling his domestic household with an iron fist.

The only two persons who have knowledge of his true worth are his lawyer and his banker. Knowing that these two are trying to get their nephew/son to win the hand of Eugenie, he plays off one against the other to draw the greatest monetary advantage. He employs devious means to cheat and benefit from his deceased brother’s creditors and insists on Eugenie breaking romantic ties with his nephew Charles, who is left penniless by his deceased father’s bankruptcy. Charles is forced to go off to the Indies to find his fortune and Eugenie gives him all her gold coins that her father has given her over the years, to the miser’s furious dismay.

When he comes back to France a rich man, having made his fortune from dealing in slaves, he forsakes Eugenie for an aristocrat, mistaken that she is poor.

Eugenie, by nature a kind-hearted country girl, after experiencing the heartbreaking end to her love story and getting to know about her father’s deeds, becomes a skeptic as she learns about the hypocrisy and shallowness of the bourgeois class. She later inherits both her father’s and husband’s fortunes (the husband being the lawyer’s nephew, who dies shortly after their loveless marriage) and lives on her own terms.

The loud and clear message in the novel is how avarice (in the case of Felix Grandet) and materialism (in the case of Charles) can corrupt the soul. Isn’t the essence of the story in constant replay in our money-idolizing societies, East and West, that have blind faith in unbridled capitalism?