I’ll take the liberty of posting the entire Taipei Times article here, as it’s well worth the space. Thanks, Al Chambers, for putting it so bluntly, yet eloquently.
[quote]Chinese cultural traits and SARS
By Al Chambers Monday, Jun 16, 2003,Page 8
There has been endless editorial comment and other media attention given to the difficulty that China and Taiwan have had in dealing with the SARS outbreak with most ideas centering around institutional, political and scientific shortcomings of one sort or another leading to cover-ups, pointing the finger of blame, disorganization etc.
I would like to suggest that the pattern of difficulty we have seen is endemic to Chinese culture and is not attributable to anything more complicated or profound than the personalities and patterns of behavior within each individual person that is involved in the process – either as politician, patient, family member, health professional, member of the media or member of the public.
Within the fight against SARS in Taiwan there have been many examples of individual courage and generosity. I believe that Chinese people are gentle and loving, hard-working and often very playful, and no person here wants to hurt others or maliciously be the cause of others’ pain or loss.
Rather, it is this lack of individual strength and decisiveness that is behind the difficulties of controlling SARS here in Taiwan. Individuals are not taking decisive action, people are blaming each other and covering up, some are greedy and sneaky with a myriad of ulterior motives and complicated intentions. Various people try to lie and hide and cheat the rules, the media does not respect privacy and then tries to sensationalize the stories -- and face becomes more important than peoples' lives. At work here is an ingrained part of the personality that precludes clear, decisive and personally responsible actions that are for the greater good. The difficulty lies within the lack of individual autonomy, self confidence and personal strength that enables people to make decisions with conviction, take the necessary actions to implement them, deal with the consequences of what happens and face up to the whole process without trying to hide, blame others or placate. With the traits of individual autonomy and a strong sense of self, people will be able to stay decisively within any difficult process because they will not interpret that process with any sense of personal threat to who they are, to their identify, or their sense of self. And they will be more caring and respectful of others. One expects to see most of the problems with personal responsibility and decisiveness surface where Western culture has had the least influence -- and that is very much the case. Consider the difference with how governments and individuals in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China reacted to SARS. The most clear, decisive and responsible actions were in Singapore, next comes Hong Kong, then Taiwan and lastly of course China, where we see the strongest examples of traditional Chinese personal patterns operating -- and where we see that the only viable response has been one of political power and control. These personal, individual characteristics are not picked up or learnt through the ancients or through being a Han Chinese, or any other such vague process. Rather, such personality characteristics develop within the caregiving environment of every person growing up. It is learnt within the family and through other strong cultural influences such as schools. Chinese child rearing, generally speaking, does not facilitate clear and strong autonomy and strength within each individual; instead the consequences of Chinese childrearing patterns are that a strong group consciousness and group identity are formed. This is not a pre-planned decision on the part of the family, rather it is the result of traditional practices whereby Chinese children are alternately spoiled on one hand and tightly controlled on the other. This form of child rearing results in social interactions of harmony as the strongest personal trait, with consequences that are not always positive because any subsequent loss of harmony within a group will be devastating to the individual who has nothing else to fall back on. Thus, strong individual decision-making and confident actions, which may disrupt harmony, are replaced by hiding, blaming, procrastination and lack of directness. It is easy to see that with such a process operating within the personalities of individuals, circumstances such as the present crisis will be difficult to resolve resolutely and quickly. This is not a system failure, or a political problem. Another result of these Chinese child-rearing practices that result in a group identity and lack of personal awareness and strength is an inability to recognize the other as a separate and feeling individual. Thus, empathy and a sense of social caring and looking out for the greater good will be forfeited to one's own desires, needs and insecurities. This may seem like a contradiction whereby it should be with a strong group identity that we are the most caring, but actually this process works in just the reverse. With a sense of others as separate from me I will have more understanding of their humanity that, although similar to my experience, will come with its own pain and struggles and joys in life. With autonomy and my own personal strength I can be very caring and I will not believe there is any threat to me if I help others, regardless of the outcome. Without personal strength I will, on the surface anyway, keep the harmony, but underneath I will be constantly looking out for myself or my own small group at the expense of others. If I am strong and confident I will be more aware and caring of others, and I will also regard the whole idea of face as irrelevant and destructive. Worrying about face not only inhibits strong action, it also distorts all of our personal relationships. If I do not worry about the artificial rules of face I will also be more decisive and clear, because I will not placate others, trying to make sure they are happy and shrinking in fear that some person may not like me or my actions. When it comes to decision- making, with autonomy and a personally strong sense of self I will act more on overriding principles and a general outlook for the long-term good of everyone. On the other hand, if I act from a position of poor individuation, I will only consider good and bad in terms of following the rules to avoid getting caught and being punished. So if I can get away with something, even at the expense of others, that will not bother my conscience. Importantly, if I am not autonomous and strong within myself I will take any feedback about me or my culture that I believe is negative as a personal insult and will react in anger or seek to blame others. The necessary response to the SARS tragedy, at the very least, is for the leadership to stand up and be strong -- not to placate and fear dissent -- and to expect the rest of the population to be equally mature, because although this basic pattern of living will not change quickly in this culture at least some of the educated and more sophisticated leaders here can begin to take responsibility for their decisions and be strong in their actions. If Taiwan wants to modernize, and mature politically and socially, it will need to eventually respond to the consequences of these cultural traits. [/quote]