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Something missing in China

March 31, 1981



When the Marxist People's Republic of China begins talking of a "crisis of confidence" and of developing a "spiritual civilization," we know something fundamental is going on. The arresting news from Peking is that Chinese leaders are telling their people there must be more to life than "thoroughgoing materialism." What then? Why social values -- hard work, personal discipline, respect for the elderly, everyday politeness, a patriotic spirit. Virtues, in short, which individuals in any society in any land must embody if society is to function with order and grace.

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This is no rejection of Marxism by China. On the contrary, the leadership takes pains to reaffirm Marxism as the nation's guiding spirit. But this presents an anomaly for, as long as China adheres to a philosophy which views the world as a collection of material forces and denies a spiritual realm, it can hardly free its people's moral and spiritual capacities. The very term "socialist spiritual civilization" is a contradiction in terms.

Or take the argument made by People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, that "selfishness is not a characteristic of human nature." Surely this reflects a longing to believe the best about the individual. Yet selfishness springs from the misguided concept --man as a material being with limited faculties, limited possessions, and limited possibilities. Given such an outlook, greed can easily become the recipe for human survival.

Yet, for all the philosophical contradictions, we would not underestimate the important stirrings of thought going on in the People's Republic. They show yet again that Marxism has failed not only as an economic system but, if the word is applicable, as a moral one. It has not created the so-called "new man," as its idealistic advocates had hoped. Many Chinese, aside from wanting an orderly and law-govered society, yearn for deeper meaning in their lives, for a sense of self-worth. It is not surprising that three decades of communism have left a spiritual void, a feeling of rudderlessness.

Groping for something to fill that void, China seems to be returning to a stress on traditional values, especially those of Confucianism. Such an atavistic urge is not surprising, for the cultural and ethical traditions of centuries have far deeper roots than the relatively recent implantations of Marxism or Maoism. How the Chinese will balance their Confucian beliefs, the demands of a modern industrial state, and a Marxist system is impossible to foretell. but it is no longer unrealistic to wonder if and when China may shed Marxism entirely -- or transform it so thoroughly as to be no longer recognizable. Marxism is, after all, a Western transplant.

Let us not overlook that a significant aspect of the current debate is a concern about the "Westernization" of China. Just as the Muslim Iranians ultimately rebelled against the materialistic excesses of Western capitalism which accompanied modernization of Iran, so Chinese leaders also worry about the influx of harmful Western influences. They would borrow the good things of the West --but, understandably, not the bad.

This should be an added warning to the West that it, too, has much thinking to do. Indeed materialism -- with its attendant crime, drugs, and inordinate pursuit of material things -- knows no national boundaries. It is a condition confronting all nations and individuals. Profound religious and metaphysical questions are involved here, and we cannot deal with them in so short a space. But those who regard Christianity as the answer to the human dilemma -- and most people in the West do -- might ask themselves whether they are in fact living up to the fullness of their religious convictions. It is not only th e Chinese who need a "spiritual civilization."