Bridges over Troubled Waters

7 AUGUST 2023 | Chris Nash


“ Fan Chi asked about Goodness. The Master replied, “Care for others.”

He then asked about wisdom.The Master replied, “Know others.”

It’s so important in our development of people to people understanding between China and the UK that we share stories of the common humanitarianism that binds communities together despite all of the barriers that try to build walls rather than bridges. Events like the recent heavy flooding across northern China remind us that solidarity between people is a core value in every society.

The typhoon and the subsequent flooding has seen citizens across China stretching out a helping hand to the vulnerable and to the victims. One of the hardest hit provinces has been the northern area of Hebei. 1.2 million people in this region have had to be relocated in safe districts away from the flood waters. No less than 4,700 rescue teams have been formed with more than 100,000 individuals to organise the protection of every possible life. Civilians from outside of Hebei have volunteered to support these rescue teams – providing vital resources such as fuel for rescue boats, materials to repair damaged rescue boats and food for the rescue teams do that they can maximise their rescue efforts. Chinese social media are full of encouragement and praise for these teams along with inspirational stories of individual rescues.

This kind of social solidarity cannot be created out of nothing, it has to be part of the deep well springs of a peoples’ culture. I saw the same spirit during the three difficult years of the COVID pandemic when my experiences in Beijing showed me the strength of social solidarity and common purpose in Chinese society. We all queued together, day after day, whatever the conditions, patiently waiting for a COVID test to ensure the health not just of ourselves as individuals but of our families, our friends, our schools and our communities. I saw no impatience or complaining. In school none of the students had to be coaxed or persuaded to do the right thing. Masks were willingly worn by all, to protect each other, even by teachers in the classroom when it was clearly uncomfortable to do so.

What’s the source of this ability of a society to come together so organically? One part of the answer are the 社会主义核心价值观 – the ‘shehui zhǔyì héxīn jiàzhíguān’ or ‘twelve core values of socialism’ promoted by the Chinese Government. The national values include ‘civility’ and ‘harmony’. The individual values include ‘friendship’ and ‘dedication’. To me it seems this statement of guiding principles is in stark contrast to the West where we seem to have given up on the idea that governments should have any say in the thoughts or actions of their citizens. And this is not just a modern idea. The Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty in 1670 set out something called ‘The Sacred Edict’, sixteen lines of guidance on how to be a good citizen, regularly read out in every town and village. And of course as far back as 500 BCE, Master Kong (Confucius in the west) set out 人 – ‘ren’ , for which our best translation is ‘humanity’ as the guiding principle for a good and harmonious society. Analects xii.22 says ” Fan Chi asked about humaneness. The Master said it is loving people. Fan Chi asked about wisdom. The Master said it is knowing people”.

These are not distant or abstract ideals in China. Nor are they aspirations which are given lip service, but little else. Education both within a Chinese family and in schools help to turn these principles into the actions and behaviours of young people as they grow up. Let me share a simple but powerful example from my experiences. Let’s imagine we’re in an assembly or class and a child has been asked to go to the front and make a presentation. The student gets confused and loses her or his way. In too many English classrooms I’ve seen that lead to ridicule or even humiliation directed at the individual failure of that child, who then scurries back to her or his desk, confidence dented, head down, intent only on avoiding being the butt of jokes for the rest of the day. Instead in China, time after time on occasions like this, I’ve seen the other children respectfully clap their colleague at the front, giving her or him time to think and encouraging her or him to stay with the problem until it’s solved. Nine times out of ten, with this degree of team support, the student at the front sees the problem through. And when it all goes wrong and she or he has to give up, I have only ever seen praise for the fact that they tried for so long to get it right.

This collective sense of value and social solidarity is also the basis for international friendship. Chinese media at the moment is full of praise for international companies who have rallied round and done their bit to contribute to the flood relief efforts. Coca-Cola China has activated its Clean Water 24 relief mechanism and mobilised bottled water from nearby channels to send safe drinking water to rainfall-affected regions. The Beijing Starbucks Foundation pledged to donate 1 million yuan ($139,000) to flood-stricken areas in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province. Food and beverage company Danone has donated about 30,000 bottles of Mizone, a functional drink, and 2,400 cans of formula milk to cater to the safe drinking water and nutrition needs of relief workers and families affected by the heavy rainfall.

The global climate emergencies of this summer demonstrate that humanity has now joined its fellow species in an increasingly precarious existence on a warming planet. From examples such as these in China and elsewhere around the planet, we should learn that core humanistic values are needed now more then ever, if we are to look after each other and our brother and sister species who share this one planetary home with us.

(Image credit: CGTN)