Presently, the world is in a state of great social divide: the yellow vest movement is evidence of the fragmentation of French society; even after Brexit, British society seems more divided now than ever; the US presidential elections may precipitate greater fissures in US society; Hong Kong’s divided society is already an indisputable fact; and Taiwan’s society has already been fragmented for a long time.
This, however, is not an illustration of diversity — on the contrary, it symbolises fissures in China’s society, foreshadowing the fragmentation of Chinese society after the pandemic ends.
China’s online public opinion has been incredibly lively amid the Covid-19 outbreak, which was first discovered in Wuhan and later spread across China and the world. Various views, positions and arguments are unusually vociferous — or rather, intense. Never has there been such stark divisions among different camps. On WeChat and WeChat Moments (朋友圈, a platform within WeChat that users use to create posts that are shared to their friends), conflicting views rule.
The most classic example is the incident with Fang Fang’s diary. I call it an “incident” not only because of the serious disagreements arising from different viewpoints within society, but more importantly because it has resulted in strong animosity between opposing parties that could turn into a social phenomenon and a possible trend in society. This, however, is not an illustration of diversity — on the contrary, it symbolises fissures in China’s society, foreshadowing the fragmentation of Chinese society after the pandemic ends. This is something we have to be especially wary of.
A deeply polarised society
What are some symptoms of social divisions in China? Tocqueville, a French historian, analysed social divisions in his book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, namely the isolation between the nobles and the bourgeois; the conflict between the bourgeois and the urban lower class; the segregation between the nobles, bourgeois, and farmers; and the great divisions within the nobles and within the bourgeois. Tocqueville mainly discussed the divisions between class and hierarchy. But China’s social divisions as a result of the pandemic, on the other hand, goes beyond issues of class and hierarchy.
As long as the other party does not belong to “us”, each and every one of their viewpoints should be negated.
If a word could describe China’s social fragmentation as a result of the pandemic, it would be “polarisation”. Polarisation disregards the reasons and viewpoints of the other party and is adamant about opposing or refuting it without trying to understand what they were trying to say. As long as the other party does not belong to “us”, each and every one of their viewpoints should be negated. Disagreements are present regardless of political and social issues, and no attention would be given to the opinions of others. A few symptoms of social fragmentation as a result of the pandemic are listed below.
...the non-compromising attitude reflected online during the Covid-19 pandemic is not only shocking, but worrying.
First, there is no compromise. In the case of an individual, a non-compromising attitude could be a praiseworthy reflection of one’s strong character. For example, vowing to die rather than compromise before one’s enemies is an expression of great nationalism. However, a non-compromising attitude in societal terms is definitely out of the norm. It is thought that democracy is a mechanism for all to compromise — compromising does not mean that there is no democracy. On the contrary, not compromising is definitely uncharacteristic of it.
The Communist Party of China had advocated deliberative democracy (协商民主) since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, seeking to build a space where interests could be negotiated and compromise reached. In this sense, to compromise is to negotiate. Without compromise, there would be no consensus, because social consensus is not the uniformity of opinions, propositions, and positions within the society, but a solution found after mutual concessions are made. A heightened sense of compromise is needed to promote a civilised society. However, the non-compromising attitude reflected online during the Covid-19 pandemic is not only shocking, but worrying.
Society’s indifference can be seen in the lack of response and assistance given to victims of recent acts of violence in China, as well as the unfortunate and underprivileged.
Second, intolerance. Intolerance can be manifested in the forms of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, jealousy, and ostracism. It is also clear that these behaviours have become a social phenomenon and do not only occur at the individual level. Prejudice manifests as social paranoia, which is often related to narrow-mindedness and jealousy. Intolerance often rejects rationality and necessary logical thinking. There is only a need for a viewpoint, or even a stand — rational analysis, evidence, argument, and logic are not needed. In other words, slogans suffice.
Dutch-American historian Hendrik Willem van Loon summarised in his book, Tolerance, that the root of mankind’s intolerance lies in fear. He says he has tried to prove that “intolerance is merely a manifestation of the protective instinct of the herd” and fear is “at the bottom of all intolerance”. He goes on to say, “Man, when not under the influence of fear, is strongly inclined to be righteous and just.” So then, what is the fear driving the people’s intolerant behaviour during the pandemic? Why is there fear?
Regional discrimination has often featured in Chinese history but its occurrence in an era of high mobility and openness is perhaps unprecedented.
Third, indifference and cynicism. Society’s indifference can be seen in the lack of response and assistance given to victims of recent acts of violence in China, as well as the unfortunate and underprivileged. Indifference is also a type of social fragmentation because it reflects the deepening and widening gap between the socioeconomic classes, which in turn hinders the unity of the Chinese society.
Cynicism, on the other hand, is an expression of social fragmentation on a psychological level. Modern cynicism is in essence an utter distrust of the modern world. Trust is the foundation of social solidarity and cooperation. The officials are seemingly unbothered by such divisions, but it could be a precursor to social resistance on all fronts.
Fourth, regional fissures. Regional discrimination has often featured in Chinese history but its occurrence in an era of high mobility and openness is perhaps unprecedented. Regional divisions are reflected in treating all who live in Wuhan and Hubei — the epicentre of the coronavirus — as patients. Following this, Hubei identity cards and car plates are not processed fairly, while the Hubei people themselves are treated with hostility. Regional fragmentation is also a reflection of China’s social fragmentation. This time, it could be the people of Wuhan and Hubei who are treated unfairly. But next time, the target of unfair and hostile treatment could be people from other regions.
The seriousness of this regional fragmentation during the pandemic was so unprecedented that Ying Yong, Communist Party Secretary of Hubei, rallied the country to “be kind to the people of Hubei and its agricultural and subsidiary products”. The People’s Daily even published a commentary saying that “those who make discriminatory remarks and exhibit extreme behaviour lack the qualities and morals that a modern citizen should have” and “being kind to the people of Hubei is being kind to ourselves”.
...public opinion has gone stray, and we have to admit it. The officials or the Chinese society as a whole are responsible for it.
Additionally, the pandemic has also opened our eyes to the increasingly marginalised lower rungs of Chinese society and the poor. They are segregated from the mainstream society and growing increasingly different from them, in a sign of social fragmentation. They are a community that is becoming more and more distant from the mainstream, resulting in anti-social movements and discrimination from mainstream society. At the same time, the pandemic demonstrated the surge of populism among the Chinese, which is especially telling of social fragmentation. Regardless of the reason behind this surge, fanning the flames of populist ideologies would ultimately result in social fragmentation and upheaval.
An urgent need to foster common values
What caused the symptoms of social fragmentation? There are many reasons, but I list three main reasons below. First, public opinion has gone astray, and we have to admit it. The officials or the Chinese society as a whole are responsible for it.
Second, the characteristics of the online community have strengthened the polarisation of people’s viewpoints and positions, especially in times of public crises. The clear indication of polarisation is in itself characteristic of the internet. The over-reliance on social networks and their media platforms is becoming a global phenomenon, and affects China as well. Social media platforms are also having far-reaching impacts on the state of mind of the entire community, social consensus, and even social values and mindsets.
World scientists are working hard to find a cure for the pandemic and develop a vaccine. But where is the vaccine against social fragmentation?
Third, it is related to the structural division of the Chinese society and their corresponding conflicting interests, which are associated with political divergence and opposing values. Observably, value systems in China have increasingly been torn apart in recent years, with countless ideologies like extreme left and extreme right, nationalism, liberalism, cultural regression, and so on, surfacing and forming a blurry mess. Moreover, the core values that officials advocate are but a single configuration that could be disputed by their own contradictory actions, leaving all society endless room for interpretation. Thus, differences in values become inevitable.
Compared with other forms of fragmentation — like political fragmentation, for one — social fragmentation is more fundamental and rocks the foundation of society. Thus, its effects are far more dangerous. So what can we do to prevent greater social fragmentation? World scientists are working hard to find a cure for the pandemic and develop a vaccine. But where is the vaccine against social fragmentation? Is there an antidote? How do we prevent it? There seems to be no elixir except to find a shared belief or value system — values may be invisible, but they glue society together.
After analysing the US and other main Western countries, Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama said in his book The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order that during the transition from the industrial to the information era, “a weakening of social bonds and common values in Western societies” was reflected, signalling social disruption. For Chinese society too, deepening social bonds and forging common values will be important. Thus, the elites of Chinese society should — to a large extent — actively search for a common belief or value to share with the underprivileged and lower rungs of society.
Netizens in WeChat chat groups often mourn the loss of friends with the phrase “Goodbye, my classmates!” during vociferous arguments amid the pandemic. You can bid farewell to your classmates, but can you say goodbye to society? Do we really want to bid farewell and part with the society that we cannot live a moment without?
Related: [Photo story] Shunned everywhere, Hubei people want to go home | Would Fang Fang’s English-translated Wuhan diary become ammunition for anti-Chinese forces? | Salvaging China’s economy: Economic growth is meaningless if the society is ruined | Chinese nationalist internet warriors creating diplomatic disputes for China