What are the Implications of Bad Scaffolding? China and the Last 100 years.


Runlu Li — my Godnephew and me in front of Sky Temple, Beijing

One of the biggest problems, when talking about evolving societies, is the natural critical expectation of an evolved society to get everything right.  Just like there are no perfect people, there are no perfect societies.  We all have our weak points.

Here, Spiral Dynamics can do an excellent job of giving guidelines on how to find the holes, or at a minimum, where to start looking.  A great example might be China in the 20th and 21st Century.

China at the beginning of the 20th Century was a mess.  Its government was really not a government, and regional warlords ran most of the show.  China had never really emerged from its dominant governmental form of narcissistic authoritarianism that made up the majority of its vast history.  The result of 2000+ years of relatively constant v-Meme assertion, however, was one of the most sophisticated forms of arguably empathetic authoritarianism in history.  Chinese culture was, and still is, even post-Cultural Revolution, extraordinarily complex, and I’ve talked about how things like chengyu buffered the population from the excesses of the Emperor, as well as the modifications offered up through Confucianism and Legalism.

WWII led to further fragmentation, rule by the Japanese in the north, and eventually, the collapse of the Kuomintang government, which then led to one of the most destructive and austere forms of authoritarianism on the planet — rule by Mao Zedong, and the reduction of Chinese society into two classes — party members and non-party members.  What is interesting about all this is that it is very difficult to second-guess history.  Would modern China have been possible without the narcissistic psychopathic excesses of Mao?  Without the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution?  With China’s chronic problems with overpopulation, there are huge questions in how one gets to a society where individuals might be valued, when there is such an excess number of them.  This is NOT intended as an apologia for a cruel and vicious regime.  But the agricultural reforms implemented by Mao also broke the back of the regressive authoritarianism present from the various warlord periods.  As wild as it may seem, Mao was a strange agent of societal evolution for China.  He established an unstructured sense of a Legalistic v-Meme ‘We Mode’ that elevated the peasant class, while killing a lot of the landed gentry — somewhere between 1-2 million landlords were executed.  This came with enormous informational cost — no question.  But it also dismantled a social structure that had been in stasis for thousands of years.

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping implemented many of the economic reforms (Performance-based v-Meme) that led to China’s current prosperity.  The numbers of Chinese peasants lifted into the middle class in the last twenty years is staggering — it is estimated that the Chinese middle class now composes approximately 68% of the population.

Yet China as a whole still has a relatively undeveloped legal system.  Most of the population do not believe in the courts. IP theft is commonplace (and well-publicized) and the lack of ability (that comes out of a poorly developed Legalistic v-Meme) to develop uniform codes and standards dramatically affected the ability of China to even have a civil airspace.  You can’t have commercial aviation in an Authoritarian v-Meme setting.  What happens when the boss is asleep?  Who gets to land first?

Relationships in China are still primarily externally defined.  I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog that if you see two people fall in love in a Chinese movie, you can be sure that this will result in their death at some later point.  But the effects of increased peer-to-peer communication are changing China.  There is a growing environmental movement.  Some of it is local and independently emergent.  But what is fascinating is that the Chinese government realizes that there is no way to avoid the development of SOME kind of environmental movement, as Chinese pollution problems are so bad.  Keeping with the v-Meme of external relational development, the Chinese government has set up GONGOs — Government Organized Non-Governmental Organizations — whose purpose is to be concerned with various environmental issues that the government may be slightly on the other side.  By setting these up, the government intends to control their activities.

But the reality is you can run, but you can’t hide from the fundamental empathetic physics present in sentient development.  Membership in the GONGOs is self-selected.  Which means like-minded people are going to meet, and start the data-driven evolution out of their former belief systems.  They, by virtue of being involved with each other in that independent, self-selected fashion, will start demanding real laws, and real data-driven solutions.  My bet is that between the One-Child policy, which is going to force an entire generation out to make friends, and the environmental movement in China, we will finally see the backfilling in of the Legalistic v-Meme that was skipped by Deng, and an increased developed empathy across the country — perhaps even to some level of communitarianism.  Sure, it will take 20-30 years.  But it’s on its way.

Further reading:  McKinsey reports are a great research resource for a broad range of issues.  This one is on China’s emergent middle class. And this one is on the Chinese consumer of 2020.  The reports focus mostly on aspirational capitalism and ignore the other trends that accompany an increase in purchase of status-based goods — namely diversity of goods, and the increase in empathetic identification that becomes important as consumer goods become increasingly fractionated — as well as the demand for design thinking (and the creative networks) to make those goods with a Chinese cultural flavor.  But that’s a topic for another blog post.  

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