Thursday, 29 April 2010

social contract

As someone from a semi-rural background, I’m a big fan of urban parks. Some, like Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York, have an international reputation, but the really interesting ones are those that are unknown outside their immediate neighbourhood and are there simply as an amenity for the local population. We came across one such local park on our recent trip to Beijing, directly across the road from our hotel.

Side Park is a small oasis of calm amid the bustling chaos of the surrounding streets, with a huge wrought iron gate that appears to be permanently closed. Entry and egress are through a much smaller gate on the side. I half wondered if this was a throwback to the days of imperial China, when the largest and most magnificent gate or door was reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor, but the last Qing emperor is unlikely to have lived long enough to have seen this park, let alone this splendid gateway, so I dismissed the thought.

Just inside the gate, my attention was drawn to a large notice board to which was pinned an oddly intriguing poster with text in English and simplified Chinese. I reproduce it here in full so that you can judge for yourself whether my description is appropriate:
Love China, love Beijing.
Live in harmony with all.
Maintain public order.
Work well and hard.
Be honest and trustworthy.
Be industrious and thrifty.
Obey the laws and safeguard public order.
Be ready to support the just cause.
Encourage healthy trends.
Plant trees and flowers.
Protect the environment.
Care for one another.
Protect public property.
Safeguard national cultural relics.
Advocate science.
Respect teachers and education.
Always seek self-improvement.
Cherish the young and show respect to the elderly and each other.
Show mutual respect to soldiers and other public servants.
Assist the disabled and the poor.
Strive to improve social conditions.
Maintain your health, observe birth control practices.
Work for the good of society.
Be gentle and polite to all others.
Be broad-minded and open-minded.
Take pleasure in helping others.

The first thing to note is that this is not a contract but a set of rules, exhortations to behave in a manner that will be beneficial to the collective and a total denial of individuality. A contract is a two-way process, yet nowhere on this notice is there anything that could be construed as telling the citizen what they will get in return. Perhaps this personal benefit is implicitly understood by the expected readership.

However, my comments here should not be understood as an implied criticism of China or its social and political policies, because there are few if any rules on this list against which one could make a serious case. On the other hand, were Boris Johnson in London or Michael Bloomberg in New York to attempt to introduce such a ‘social contract’ in their respective cities, they would probably be laughed out of office. But that is because we in the West are accustomed to thinking that liberal democracy is the optimum form of government, and that the Chinese system, which in any case is poorly understood, is still evolving and is not nearly as monolithic as it is usually perceived to be, is altogether too authoritarian.

Given that the planet is in a parlous state precisely because of our espousal of the individual as the cornerstone of a successful society, it should be obvious that the paradigm for any future form of social organization that can deal with the mess will be a lot closer to the collectivism of the Chinese model than to the outmoded and discredited capitalist system, which once brought prosperity and important social progress but has now led us by the nose to the brink of ruin.

1 comment:

  1. Plant trees and flowers? Shrubs are band though for not being positive enough?
    I really do love this list


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