4 replies on “From China, With Pragmatism”

  1. My two cents:

    The first comment is critical, the second more philosophical. The author’s position seems to be that: “Because China has a culture with a place for hongbao (and is pragmatic), they are more receptive to Dewey (and the pragmatists).” This is because the author is far too loose with his use of “pragmatic.” The tension between these two quotes shows this:

    “Most Westerners cannot understand the pragmatic ethics of the Chinese, dismissing any preferential system as unethical because it fails to respect every citizen equally.”


    “These days, it seems that pragmatism is more commonly embraced by Chinese intellectuals than by Americans. In China, enthusiasm for Dewey’s philosophy in particular is growing rapidly, while back home interest in it languishes.”

    It seems obvious to me that someone like Dewey would disapprove of an ethical system that didn’t “respect every citizen equally,” in spite of the experimental nature of his ethics the author mentions. The author equivocates the pragmatic ethics of China with Dewey’s pragmatism by suggesting that a resurgence of interest in Dewey in China is indicative of an inherent cultural pragmatism. That is, by looking at what Chinese students are interested in now, the author wants to base claims about Chinese culture and values in general. Since a generalization like this is probably altogether impossible to make, using such a small set of data to base it on seems to me entirely wrong-headed. The critique of the west’s understanding of China is the claim rephrased modus tollens: “Since we don’t understand Dewey in the west (or pragmatism), we can’t understand hongbao (a pragmatic ethical norm).” The word “pragmatic” is to blame for both of these confusions and generalizations.

    Secondly, I’m genuinely interested in guanxi. I don’t think the practice holds up to ethical scrutiny, and I have a tough time believing that it’s just my western individualist bias that informs my judgment. The case mentioned in the article is I think meant to pull at your heart strings, and of course the situation is much easier to understand when a concerned parent is trying to ensure the best treatment for her child than, say, when a land developer is trying to get a leg up on its competitors by bribing public officials (also a guanxi practice). In the west, however, (at least in the US), we do pay money for better treatment of course, but never to the same doctor. The first problem seems to be one of medical ethics, i.e., that the Chinese family doesn’t expect the same doctor to give the same treatment to all patients. The ethical issue certainly isn’t with buying better treatment, since we do that in the west too.

    The business case of guanxi is a bit different. I recently read a colleagues’ case study on a real estate company from Hong Kong who set up subsidiaries on the mainland and the clash of business ethics that ensued (since guanxi is tantamount to corruption in Hong Kong). Based on the interviews conducted, guanxi overall seems like something the employees took to be a necessary evil, one the result of the immature institutional environment of the real estate market in China. The formal institutions simply could not handle the rapid real estate booms, forcing companies to establish relationships with politicians and buy their way to the top since the official process was so inefficient. Again, the solution isn’t to accept guanxi, but to reform the formal institutional environment.

    Now, I think it’s also true that the west has its own informal institutions of palm-greasing, and a “who you know, not what you know” mentality, but westerners wouldn’t call that a cultural value. I think the question isn’t whether guanxi is or is not a moral practice–since it seems to cover such a wide range of reciprocal dealings–that a turn towards pragmatism might be able to illuminate, as the author suggests, but that on the assumption that all partial and non-transparent transactions of this kind are morally suspicious and compromise the integrity of a professional environment, ought we be more critical of the society that embraces the practice, or tries to hide it?

    • I think it’s especially important to point out that the west has it’s own forms of political and social relationships that are used for personal benefit. The difference is we don’t usually categorize them under a single linguistic term. As a term Guanxi captures a broad collection of experiences that we see in human activity, and it organizes them in a manner easy to comprehend. So it’s not the case (as you state) that American’s don’t have institutions of palm-greasing, it’s just we recognize the personal and social harm these practices can bring. Confucius too would be opposed to bribery, forming a voice internal to the culture that would oppose the practices Asma describes as mere pragmatism.

  2. I lost the author of the article at this sentence:

    “Most Westerners cannot understand the pragmatic ethics of the Chinese, dismissing any preferential system as unethical because it fails to respect every citizen equally.”

    How is bribery “pragmatic ethics”? I’ve noticed that in a lot of writing about China recently, “pragmatism” has come to mean essentially “getting things done,” and that’s not quite what the word ever meant.

    Also, in the case of families who give red envelopes to surgeons, the author misses the point that there are two agents, not one. He just refers to “this practice.” But GIVING a red envelope and ACCEPTING one are two different actions and should be judged separately. I’d censure a surgeon who provides different levels of care, depending on the size of the red envelopes he has received, much more harshly than a desperate family that offers him a red envelope on the eve of their child’s surgery.

  3. Frank and Paul, I agree with both of your responses to Asma’s article. I thought it flagrantly ignored the relationship of guanxi to political and social inequality. He also presented greatly oversimplified dichotomies between Chinese and American culture that do not hold on inspection (e.g., an oversimplified split between American = religious and egalitarian versus China = pragmatic and atheist). He also presents a view of pragmatism that is crude at best and ultimately lacking in any moral compass. Neither Confucius nor Dewey would agree with his view of pragmatism.

    That’s my short response. Here is a longer response and analysis. I also argue for philosophical reasons as to why Confucian ethics would be opposed to bribery.

    Asma’s pragmatism is neither that of Dewey nor that of Confucius. His argument advancing gift-giving as merely a pragmatic practice and not an immoral form of bribery has serious problems – not the least of which is that it completely ignores the manner in which this practice enables political oppression as well as causes uncounted tragedies and loss of life. One of the most poignant cases came to light as a result of the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake: at least 5,000 school children were killed and over 15,000 injured when classrooms in Wenchuan collapsed. The case alleged is that bribery and corruption allowed local contractors to construct buildings without meeting any of the required safety regulations; local officials and contractors then pocketed the money saved by building schools below standard. Local government officials never made any inquiry and then silenced protesting parents with tear gas and riot police. This was incredibly pragmatic for the government officials but not so much for the grieving parents or the 5,000 dead school children.

    Asma also fails to acknowledge the large collection of cultural practices that are shaped and guided by religion or superstition, including the practice of Hong Bao. The giving of Hong Bao occurs as early as the Qin dynasty when lengths of threaded coins were given by elders to younger family members. The giving of coins was thought to ward off evil spirits and prolong life. Feng Shui is still heavily practiced and while it may result in pleasing landscapes and interior decoration, it is *literally* the practice arranging the environment in a manner conducive to good fortune and spiritual vitality. And while Confucius may have rejected discussions about the ancestors, ancient Chinese culture was spilling over with religious and spiritual exploration: to recount the number of religious and spiritual developments in China would require the space of an entire course on Chinese Religion.

    Finally, even a simple search of the Analects reveals Confucius’ attitude towards gaining wealth through non-virtuous means:

    “With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow; I have still joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud.” – Analects 7.16

    For a selection of additional passages, see: http://ctext.org/analects?searchu=riches

    Confucius does not explicitly prohibit the acquisition of wealth and renown but he explicitly ties their proper acquisition to virtuous behavior and the health of the society. Given the explicit emphasis on duties of the ruler to his subordinates this would necessarily preclude taking advantage of power in the form of receiving personal benefit for selectively failing to uphold any part of any duty to any person whatsoever. Confucius’ insistence on the necessity of duty towards others (including that of superiors to subordinates) is one of the most unwavering aspects of his entire philosophy.

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