Written by Huang Wei.

Under The Dome, a self-funded documentary investigating China’s smog was viewed in excess of one hundred million times on Chinese video sharing websites within a couple of days of its release. Its producer, the famous former CCTV reporter Chai Jing, came under the spotlight, not only because the discussions she stirred up about China’s environment and people’s health, but also because of her alleged hypocrisy. Critics questioned Chai Jing’s motives, saying it remained uncertain whether the disease suffered by her baby daughter was caused by smog or Chai’s alleged smoking habit.

This sounds familiar to a Chinese ear. Two years ago, attention was drawn to Yuan Lihai, the controversial and unlicensed Chinese caretaker from Lankao County, Henan Province, who had been raising homeless children, orphans and abandoned babies with birth defects, at her own expense for more than 20 years. Yuan’s case sparked a national debate on whether or not her actions should be considered good deeds or illegal ones. Online rumours also suggested that Yuan might be cheating the government out of subsistence allowance by raising orphans in her own house, and she might have been unlawfully profiting from under-the-table adoption deals.

In both cases, the accusations fired online were firmly denied. Yet, disregarding the credibility of such vicious rumours, why does the public seem to care more about the persons in question than the broader and deeper social issues revealed by their individual cases? Are Chinese people more able to tolerate the actual smog than the alleged imperfections of people who publicly discuss the issue? Admittedly, human beings in general are bad at admitting their own problems, and it’s convenient to be tolerant of oneself and strict with others. But in the Chinese way of thinking, it’s more than this: good things should always be done by good people, otherwise it feels hypocritical.

Sometimes the Chinese government also shares the obsession with moral purity. The most telling example is the exchange between the U.S. and China over each other’s human rights situations. While the U.S. has been publishing annual reports on China’s human rights record for decades, China choose to issue a retaliatory annual report on U.S. human rights record since 2000. The logic is not difficult to understand: if U.S. hypocrisy concerning the human rights issue is revealed objectively, it will naturally lose the qualification to criticise others.

Underlying China’s obsession with moral purity is China’s hierarchical way of thinking. China’s experience marked the saying ‘the truth is always with the minority’ with gusto. For thousands of years, the Chinese society has been hierarchical, and people’s ideas have been shaped by political and moral authorities. As Mao Yushi pointed out in his book Where Does Chinese People’s Anxiety Come From? On inequality of wealth and status, political leaders own the truth so everyone should learn from their speeches, and leaders at each level own more truth than those who are one level below. Truth is also in the hands of moral authorities, including Confucius who is seen as saint in the Chinese culture. Ordinary people don’t normally hold or seek truth.

Obviously, the Chinese obsession for moral purity is not conducive to solving either domestic or foreign policy issues. Problems actually exist disregarding the perspectives people take to judge them, and the obsession for moral purity results in procrastination in problem solving. The smog is there, whether Chai Jing smokes or not; homeless kids who need care are there, whether Yuan Lihai earned 20 flats for herself or not; China’s human rights problems are there, whether the human rights problems in the U.S. are appalling or not. The obsession with moral purity simply misses the point. At the same time, criticising others lowers the benchmark for good behaviour and discourages improvement. Pointing out others’ faults makes one look better in the relative sense, and reduces the incentive to make progress.

In spite of the smog, the picture for China is not all gloomy. As Chinese society becomes increasingly plural and open, there are people trying to get rid of the obsession with moral purity and guide public opinion to be more objective and rational. In 2013, there were comments questioning why Yuan Lihai should not be allowed to have her own properties, as long as they were legal, for instance ‘What we need are humans, not gods.’ Today, comments calling for the need to remove Chai Jing’s name from the picture became popular among netizens. The Chinese government, though reluctant to take U.S. criticism and alert to outside pressure, admits that greater efforts are needed to bring higher standards to human rights protection and acts proactively to face its own problems. Hopefully, tolerance will grow in China along with social plurality and equality.

Huang Wei is a PhD candidate at King’s College London and a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar. Image Credit: CC by Tjebbe van Tijen/Flickr.