China’s rapid economic development over the past two decades is something to celebrate. But after the display of horrifying indifference that some Chinese showed toward a bleeding two-year-old girl – in a video watched by millions around the world – the country’s leaders acknowledged Tuesday that the country’s “cultural development” lags behind its other accomplishments.
The official report released by the Xinhua news agency at the end of the annual gathering of the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party made no mention of Wang Yue, the toddler who was run over twice and ignored by 18 passersby as she lay in a pool of her own blood in a Guangdong market last week. But it was hard not to see a connection between the jarring incident – which has provoked widespread soul-searching among Chinese Internet users – and the Central Committee’s call for a shift in focus from the country’s booming economy to addressing the voids that success has created.
After a four-day closed-door meeting, the 200-plus member Central Committee issued a communiqué calling for the country to build a “powerful socialist culture” that would involve “significantly improving the nation’s ideological and moral qualities.” Earlier, senior Politburo member Li Changchun was quoted as saying “venality, lack of integrity and moral anomalies” were on the rise in Chinese society.
Little Yueyue, as the girl is known here, remained in intensive care in a Guangzhou hospital yesterday, clinging to life, breathing with the help of a respirator. Local media quoted the hospital’s head of neurosurgery as saying the girl will likely remain in a vegetative state if she survives.
The Central Committee decided on cultural development as its main theme for this year’s plenum (last year’s focused on the five-year economic plan) well before the shocking video started an emotional discussion on the Chinese Internet about why people seem to have so little compassion for each other. Yueyue’s case was just the latest scandal in a country that has become increasingly accustomed to astonishing stories of wanton corruption, Internet scams, tainted baby food, and even child abductions with official involvement.
Many see the Communist Party as having created the vacuum it now seeks to fill. Religion was crushed following the country’s 1949 Revolution, and the ideology that was supposed to replace it – Maoism – went out the window when the country undertook its economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.
“The Central Committee knows there’s something very, very seriously wrong with the Chinese value system. Officially, they say that they do have a socialist value system, but no one knows what that means,” said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “No one believes in Marxism any more, Confucianism is not being revived, and the so-called Western universal values are not being accepted.”
What the government can do about it is unclear. A statue of Confucius was briefly erected on the edge of Tiananmen Square early this year, signalling what some saw as a campaign to resurrect the great scholar’s values as something of a moral code for the country. However the statue’s placement raised the ire of Maoists, and it was later moved to a less prominent spot inside the nearby National Museum.
The communiqué issued by the Central Committee suggested the Ministry of Culture and the Propaganda Department will lead the push to create a more ethical “socialist” culture, following the long-standing Communist tradition of trying to lead the masses through media and propaganda campaigns. But many Chinese believe that little can change unless the country’s widely distrusted legal system is overhauled.(Many Internet commentators admitted they understood the reaction of those who walked by injured Yueyue, since getting involved in another’s business can often have unpredictable consequences.)
With President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao set to retire next year, the debate over the country’s direction will almost certainly fall to the next generation of China’s leaders to resolve. Not mentioned in the communiqué was the behind-the-scenes jockeying for posts in the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the Party’s top decision-making body.
While Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang are seen as virtual locks to succeed Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen next year, there could be as many as seven other spots available on the nine-person Politburo.
A taste of the campaigning taking place behind the sealed doors of the Great Hall of the People drifted onto the pages of the People’s Daily newspaper, which on the eve of the Central Committee meeting devoted a 3,000-word front-page article to the accomplishments of Bo Xilai, the charismatic boss of the megacity of Chongqing.
Mr. Bo has made himself the hero of the Party’s “new left” through his campaigns in Chongqing – which have included a harsh crackdown on crime and an effort to restore “Red culture” by encouraging the singing of Mao-era songs – and the prominent article was seen as a sign that he and the leftists might be in ascendance.
But on Monday, the Party’s liberals – often seen as the weaker grouping – got their moment in the People’s Daily, which devoted only slightly less prominent front-page coverage to Wang Yang, the reformist Party boss of coastal Guangdong province.
Mr. Wang recently launched a campaign known as “Happy Guangdong,” arguing that the region’s development needs to be measured by factors other than the pace of economic development. Citizens need to be “both rich of pocket and rich of brain,” the People’s Daily quoted him as saying.