1.10 What Is Success?
The definition of success has evolved and continues to evolve in China. In Confucius’s time, success was defined in a very broad way, as evidenced by the saying that “one should hold to his virtue and integrity in distress and one should practice charity for the needy when prospering.”10 Success was not measured in terms of power or wealth, but by the individual’s actions, on what he contributed to society.
Later, success became defined by the ability to effect change, almost equivalent to the idea that the amount of power held equates to success. Then, as now to some extent, it was common for people to equate success with position in the government hierarchy. Although success in China today can also be measured in the wealth and power of its business millionaires, many still see government as a legitimate path toward achieving success. The government entrance exams had 1.4 million registered participants in 2011, which works out to about 20 applicants for every available job. There is more than one reason for such enthusiasm, but the age-old reverence for a good government job remains a factor.
Further, the image that the government is trying to convey, sometimes unconsciously, is not helpful. For example, 2011 was the one hundredth anniversary of Tsing Hua University, one of the most prestigious universities in China. The university held many events to celebrate this historical moment. University officials handed out booklets that listed the most respectable graduates who had made the most significant contribution to the society. The top mentioned graduates in the booklet were Hu Jingtao, Zhu Rongji and Li Keqiang, who are or were top political leaders of China. Many artists, scientists, writers and poets, who were very important contributors to their fields, had also graduated from Tsing Hua University. Even with their contributions, political success dominated in importance.
China’s younger generations have begun to question such a value system. Thanks to globalization and opening of China’s borders, the young generation in China has had much more exposure to the world than their parents. With that exposure has come a broadened definition of success. The older generations view becoming a Communist Party leader as the very definition of success, while younger generations see becoming a poet, writer or an actor as a success. With China’s increased openness, the younger generations now have the opportunity to pursue non-political careers.
Success is also connected to wealth. Until recently, business and private wealth were separated from the political power structure in China. This divide appears to be closing. In 2011, Liang Wengen was ranked by Forbes to be China’s wealthiest man with an estimated wealth of $8 billion.11 In the same year, Liang was in the process of being recruited by high-level officials to join the Communist Party’s Central Committee, which is one of the most powerful entities within the Party. As Liang Wengen is a successful businessman who has been given the opportunity to climb the political power ladder, it appears that new definitions of success are appearing in China.