Individualism with Chinese Characteristics: The Great Transformation of Chinese Society

August 16, 2017
Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form “Xinmin Pinglun,” our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the arrival of the incoming class is on its way, we are sharing pieces from our second issue of Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Noah Elbot, (Class of 2017) discusses the competition between China and India for economic leadership.

The question of where China should head has been asked countless times since the pride of the Tianchao (Heaven State) was destroyed by the warships of Great Britain. Shall we follow the West, for which the Chinese people have mixed feelings? They envy Western nations’ wealth and power, yet as a victim of imperialism, they have not forgotten the pains suffered in the past hundred years.

Two opposite voices are always competing in the minds of the Chinese. Whenever the country is bullied, the urge to learn from the west to strengthen itself increases. Whenever the Chinese perceive a problem with Western society, pride for our own traditions and institutions prevails. Most of the time, the desire to learn from the West wins the debate, sparking the country’s attempt to transform into a society modeled on the strong countries on the world stage: first the UK, then the US, and finally the late Soviet Union. During these years, people in this country — young and old, workers and students — cared greatly about the direction their motherland was heading, and were willing to protect that direction at the expense of youth, wealth, liberty, and even life. Unfortunately, all these efforts would eventually come to failure.

Over the past twenty years, China has witnessed a splendid transformation. Interestingly, this came at a time when debate over East and West was at its least pronounced. One may easily believe that the accumulation
of wealth would create a more harmonious society. However, after twenty years of development, there is more
and more dissatisfaction among Chinese people regarding food safety, inequality, social mobility, and air pollution. The
debate of where China should be heading has been restarted. This is no surprise since nearly all the Western countries
experienced similar painful stages of social development after the initial burst of their Industrial Revolution.

Now that society has full stomachs, a new social consensus is needed to respond to increasingly diverse demands. People want a coherent story to explain their history, to guide their thoughts, to justify their efforts, and to comfort themselves amid endless competition. The people in China must provide an answer, whether they are willing to turn back to Chinese tradition, turn to the West, or come up with a new option.