In two pieces posted over the past two days (here and here), we have looked at some of the political and ideological issues at stake in China as the power plays begin A) in the midst of what many see as a very sensitive time for China, with social and political issues mounting (corruption, rising social unrest), and B) we head closer to senior leadership changes in 2012. We have harped on the theme of growing rancor inside the Chinese Communist Party, which is happening behind the curtain of harmony and exuberance.

Growing rancor, both inside the Party and within society, seems to be a theme of broader concern. And we can glimpse this concern again in yesterday’s lead editorial at the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, “Where Do We Begin in Our Pursuit of Reason?” (追求理性从哪里起步), which has been re-published in a number of major Party and commercial newspapers today, including Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily (which has recently come under pressure for its earthquake commemoration editorial of last week).

This is the fourth editorial from the People’s Daily in the space of a month to deal with so-called “social mentality” or shehui xintai (社会心态). The editorial argues that only by creating effective mechanisms for dealing with underlying problems — such as the deepening gap between rich and poor, the inaccessibility of housing and other crucial social services, the destruction of homes in the face of property development, etcetera — can China move truly and steadily toward the so-called “building of rationality” (理性建设).

Without further ado, or further guesswork as to the significance of this editorial — please post your own comments below — we offer our more-or-less full translation.

Where Do We Begin in Our Pursuit of Reason?
People’s Daily
May 20, 2011

In social life today, “reason” (理性) has become a hot word.

Looking at the question of income disparities with reason, facing unfairness in society with reason, parsing online public opinion with reason, choosing industries and professions with reason . . . The unspoken message behind the frequency of use of this word “reason” is that on a many questions there are some who have moved toward the flip side of reason.

Having experienced the “death of Socrates” in the courts of ancient Greece, and having passed through the whirlwind of the French Revolution whipped up by radicalism, humanity has been been on guard against the turbulence of the irrational. A rational and orderly environment is beneficial to lowering the costs of regulating social relations, and moderate and gradual reform is the most enlightened choice for historical progress — these have already become unshakable convictions of modern society. In a nation with over one billion people, in an explosive era of social transition, fostering a rational and moderate attitude in society is especially crucial.

However, the consideration and discussion of rationality should also unfold on a deeper level. The hope of eliminating any and all irrational remarks is impractical. Being tense and anxious about this is of less avail than resolving their underlying root causes in society and seeking practical channels to dissolve them. Only in this way can we grasp the principal tensions [standing in the way] of a moderate and rational attitude.

. . . Over 30 years of economic reform and opening, our Party’s understanding of rationality has made a giant leap forward. But our rapidly changing China now faces a “time of change such as we have not seen in a thousand years” (千年未有之变局), and in taking our progress on these concepts [of rationality, etc] and action-alizing it in our real practices of social management at every level, gaining an accurate grasp and effectively dealing with social mentalities that grow more complex by the day, we have a long road ahead.

The rational enlightenment of the West faced off principally against the Christian Church. The building of rationality in China today comes with the collision of market rationality and traditional morals and ethics, and also the grinding together of individual rights and the collective spirit. There is also the game being played out between modern public consciousness and the [old, guanxi-based] acquaintance society (熟人社会), and the coexistence of [ideas of] civic participation and old remnants of the [idea of] “serving as master of the people” (为民做主). In such a complex environment, as individual persons, no-one dares say they have a full “grasp of the truth,” and no-one should have an exaggerated sense of their own “superior rationality” (理性优越感), yearning under the mark of “rationality” to shut up once and for all the mouths of “irrationality.”

Even behind the most extreme examples and the most fiercely irrational remarks, there may be some basis in logic. As the final choice, [irrationality] often arises from a sense of poor odds and impending loss. In market competition, the weakest goes to the wall, but must the winner devour all the spoils on his own, and the loser be left with nothing? Violent means of opposition may be irrational, but is violent demolition and removal [of residents from their homes] necessarily reasonable? When going through normal channels makes it difficult to voice legitimate demands, how should they let off these pent up resentments? When there is no space for reason, one hurls abuses. When hurling abuses isn’t enough, one fights. When fighting is of no avail, one runs. We do not encourage this kind of logic of the weak, but we cannot fail to understand it, and we cannot fail to show our concern and offer a way out.

Rationality is the condition on which a society depends for its existence. And the building of rationality is something that requires the united efforts of a whole society. At the present time, the responsibility for this lies chiefly with social administrators (社会管理者) [ie, Party leaders and the government], those who are in positions of strength, and organizations and individuals with an abundance of resources. But every citizen must recognize that any interest demand or value proposition must be made within in an orderly manner within the framework of rule of law. “Reason” will of course not sweep the land, but “lack of reason” will find itself unable to move an inch. The value rational (价值理性), the instrumental rational (工具理性), the procedural rational (程序理性), the objective rational (目的理性) — there are many fronts on which the building of rationality must take place.

But fostering a rational and moderate attitude in society begins with fostering real, equal and earnest communicative rationality (交往理性).

[We need] less, “I don’t have time right now to chit-chat,” and more patient communication. [We need] less lesson giving, “Don’t believe in rumors or transmit them,” and more timely release of information on public affairs. [We need] less insensitive, “If you can’t buy a home why don’t you rent one?” and more acceleration of the building of a social services safety net . . . We must remember at all times that scientific and effective mechanisms for coordinating interests [in society], mechanisms for expressing demands, mechanisms for mediating tensions, and mechanisms for ensuring rights protection, are the only effective antidote for doing away with irrationality.

(This article is the fourth in the People’s Daily series “Observing the Mentality of Our Society”, and was published on May 19.)