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1.9 Individualism versus Teamwork

Comparing Chinese to Western cultural values yields many differences, one of the most obvious being attitudes toward individualism. The West celebrates the loner, the single man who takes on the establishment and wins, who sticks to his individual values come what may. This attitude is anathema to the Chinese way of thinking, where the individual’s needs are expected to be subordinate to that of the group.

The Confucian attitude, which stressed teamwork and group effort, was reinforced by the Communist Party after the Second World War (at the same time as it was publicly abandoning Confucianism as a relic of the past). The China that emerged under Communist control in 1949 was fragmented and weak, and seemingly under attack from all sides. The Korean War of the early 1950s exacerbated the fragile state of China, as it poured men and money into the effort. Loyalty to the state became the paramount ideal, with central planning even dictating marriages as the Party attempted to make matches that best served the interest of the state. The influence of the state, which became synonymous with the Communist Party, was seen even at the most local level, where a watchful core of older women reported to neighborhood committees and ensured that individual interests did not interfere with the interests of the Party.

Naturally, the changes seen in China since it opened up to the outside world in 1978 have included changes in the attitude toward individualism. The introduction of concepts such as the market economy and free competition led to greater individual freedom, with people encouraged to pursue their own interests. In allowing this, China’s leaders were not pursuing individualism for its own sake, but instead were following the Adam Smith school of economic thought, that the pursuit of individual gain would stimulate a dynamic economy and lead to benefits for all, as it has done.

Along with this trend toward the pursuit of personal interest has come a greater acceptance of topics once seen as taboo, such as discussions of personal wealth, fame and power. Today, someone claiming to have put personal interests aside in favor of the public interest might even be suspected of being naïve or a liar.

Like the generational divide over divorce and marriage, the shift toward greater individualism has led to more stress within society. The older generation worries that China is shifting too far toward a Western “Me First” culture and it offers up the growing gap between rich and poor in China as evidence of that. Still, the older generation remains in power in China and the subordination of individual interest to that of the state (or government or Party, depending on your point of view) remains the official line. State companies are favored by government regulations and the financial system and in return they are urged to maximize employment. Savings rates are kept low, hurting savers, in order that cheap loans can flow toward state-dominated businesses. The state undertakes massive spending on infrastructure but has yet to come up with an adequate safety net for those cast adrift in the continuing move away from a centrally planned economy to a free market.

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