"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"You have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place," observed the Red Queen"
Has it ever occurred to you that Jordan Peterson and the leaders in Beijing have much in common? Both want people, especially young people, to stand up straight, make their beds and gather some purpose in life. In other words, shape up, take on responsibility.
Peterson's influential book "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" looks like a template for the changes that the CCP is seeking to drive with a few caveats.
With growing numbers of flabby, disengaged, demotivated kids, and a looming population decline, China is starting to see the impact of an emergent middle-class. And while the speed of change in China continues at a pace unseen in history, there are favourable and negative outcomes.
On the positive front, consider this. When the communists came to power in 1949, the average life expectancy was around 40. Today it is 77. Along the way, with millions lifted out of poverty, China’s economic growth startled the world.
The new middle-class soon adopted the behaviours and conventions of modern advanced countries. That includes life choices such as a reluctance to marry or getting married later. Driving this is a highly competitive education system, workplace stress, and difficulty getting onto the property ladder. Does that sound familiar?
In Japan, the response was the 'Hikikomor' sub-culture. People refused to leave their homes or even a single room as they disengaged from society. Usually, these are young males trapped in an online world.
In China, something similar manifested with "lying flat" or tangping (躺平). Again, young people opt out of an over-worked and stressed-out life. Also, "lying flat" amounts to a rejection of the consumer society.
Besides, with children spending 12-hours a day on education, not including the extra lessons after class, a marked impact on physical and mental well-being is evident. For example, more and more kids, as young as 12, need neck physiotherapy for posture problems.
Likewise, severe harm to eyesight results from hours spent looking at screens. Meanwhile, lack of upper body strength is common as muscle development falters. Related to this issue is a perceived over-indulgence in the worship of celebrities followed online.
From all of this, I can see that Beijing fears the current direction of society and sub-cultures that may weaken the nation.
They've recognised that over-burdening youngsters with false expectations and educational pressures may cause them to 'drop out'. Besides, the costs and stress of raising children deter prospective parents from having a family.
So, how to deal with these intersecting issues? Well, with a raft of measures, the government has gone to the perceived root of the problem.
For starters, they've closed the private tutor centres that provided cramming sessions to boost kid's academic performance. Overnight, these centres — which employed vast numbers of so-called star-tutors — fell. This move aims to deflate the increasing competition amongst students while also reducing the cost of parenting.
Cuts in school hours, a ban on weekend classes and curtailing competitive exams are likewise mandated. In addition, the amount of time that kids spend on computers and the types of games they play are under scrutiny. The under-18s will get no more than three hours of online gaming a week. And the tech companies are to be held to account for these perimeters.
Some pundits surmise that part of the motivation for these sweeping changes is to constrain the influence of tech companies. For example, China sees in the West that companies such as Facebook operate as monopolistic entities beyond accountability.
Beijing is signalling it is not prepared to cede control to the likes of Zuckerberg.
The crackdowns on celebrity culture, the tech firms and the profit-seeking educational institutes kills several birds with one stone. First, it is a partial return to the original doctrine of the party by reducing the power of the super-rich.
That segues (hopefully) into a more egalitarian society that offers dignity to workers. Hence, a work/life balance while recognising the importance of the family. But, above all, it demonstrates the party remains in control.
Peterson, in his book, used the Taoist symbol shown above to represent the boundary between order and chaos. This doctrine illustrates the importance of balance. In Taoist thinking and Peterson's interpretation, you find meaning in the boundary between order and chaos. Although you should never wander too far on either side as life can go out of kilter.
In support of his thinking, Peterson proposed that people must live by the same code that renders them mutually predictable. Therefore, they act in keeping with each other's expectations and desires, aimed at a peaceful existence.
In conjunction with this, people must adopt individual responsibility and contribute to broader society. To start this process, Peterson proposes instilling self-discipline with predictable daily routines. It is possible to see these elements in the Chinese policies.
I would argue that the leaders in Beijing are now engaged in a tacit negotiation with their citizenry. They've acknowledged that rapid growth and wealth brought forth society-wide strains. Accordingly, they now seek to reduce the negative aspects of success. But, at the same time, they pursue cooperation in advancing the notion of common prosperity.
Yet, despite China's track record of turning a vision into reality, I foresee a massive challenge in driving such changes. Remember, both Singapore and Japan failed with a similar approach to encourage child-bearing. Likewise, weening people off celebrities is near-impossible because culture is an awkward force to bend.
Plus, I fear the message of less pressure for kids hasn't registered with all Chinese parents. Already some are seeking to get around the government-mandated restrictions with homeschooling.
"You have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place." observed the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. So as China wakes to the fact that not everyone can keep up, is the pace going to slow down?
I'm reminded that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. The plain fact is all those Tiger mums didn’t spring from nowhere.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.