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A Crisis of Trust Takes a Toll on Chinese Society

Officials steal from the people, friends lie to friends and uncles bilk nephews in a land where many are forced to cheat to survive, analysts say.

September 24, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Talk about swimming with sharks.

Zhang Xingshui, an attorney with the Beijing Kingdom law firm, knows that like people everywhere else in the world, the Chinese don't always trust lawyers, who often promise things they can't deliver. But in China, he says, lawyers don't trust their clients, who like to skip out without paying. And neither trusts judges, who routinely disregard the law in favor of politics when rendering decisions.

"Living in such a society is tiring for everyone," Zhang said. "You're forced to be vigilant so you don't fall into pits, which are everywhere. Everybody is a victim and at the same time an offender."

Even as China surges onto the world stage as if powered by rocket fuel, Earth's most populous country is beset by trust issues that would test anyone.

Rules aren't clear and must be navigated on the fly. The food supply is full of life- and health-threatening fakes. Factories spew chemicals into the air and water at alarming rates. Power and connections far outweigh justice, and social tension is growing.

Meanwhile, corrupt local officials pay lip service to Communist Party ideals as they line their pockets at the expense of the general population. Land that farmers have tilled for generations can be seized on a moment's notice in a system that doesn't recognize private property. Friends cheat friends and uncles bilk nephews for short-term gain.

Though the widespread insecurity is difficult to quantify, analysts say it is taking an economic and psychological toll, and making governing more difficult.

"China is in a very serious trust crisis," said Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Peking University and author of the book "On Trust." "I'd say we're looking at a minimum of a generation, maybe 20 or 30 years, to recover, but it could take two or three times that long."

Experts cite several reasons for the dearth of trust. Some point to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and other wrenching political campaigns in the first decades of communist rule that ended centuries-old traditions and forced family members and friends to denounce one another, severing basic human bonds.

"Mutual trust among people because of various political movements has deteriorated to the lowest level that any society can possibly hit," said Hung Huang, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group and star of the recent film "Perpetual Motion," about a woman out to determine which of her friends is having an affair with her husband. "There's also a very different starting point: In America, you're innocent until proven guilty. In China, you're guilty until proven innocent."

Others cite the influence of a market economy on a society without a well-developed legal or regulatory system. Some say a lack of religion or meaningful belief system under communism leaves people morally adrift.

The government has tried to address the problem with a recent morality campaign -- "Eight Virtues and Eight Shames," a list of do's and don'ts, including "Be honest and trusting" and "Avoid being immoral for personal profit" -- but some question Beijing's commitment.

"Right now they're more concerned with building hardware, big buildings and dams than with morality and other software," said Zheng of Peking University. "And anyway, the government shares much of the blame for the present trust crisis."

Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing, agreed, citing the example of wildly inaccurate government statistics released for political purposes, a general lack of accountability and systemic corruption in the party ranks.

"If the beam above is crooked, the beam below won't be straight, either," Zhou said. "Officials cheat the common people and the common people cheat those above them. It's a vicious cycle."

Systemic problems and outdated or intentionally skewed laws and regulations encourage companies and individuals to cut corners.

For example, a driver who kills a pedestrian faces a maximum liability of about $4,100 in rural Shaanxi province but upward of $37,000 in Shanghai. But when pedestrians are merely injured, there's in effect no cap on liability.

This can create some twisted incentives. When driver Ma Yinghao hit a pedestrian in December, he deliberately backed over the injured person in an attempt to kill him, hoping to avoid high hospital and compensatory fees.

Rather than fixing a flawed system, the state often responds by trying to prevent similar abuses through intimidation, which the Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang did by sentencing Ma to death.

The problems affect some of China's most visible professions, including medicine, the media, education, accounting and manufacturing.

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