Cut-throat China: the Toxic Effects of Its Obsession With Wealth

BY Paul Solman  July 17, 2013 at 3:58 PM EDT

China’s economic focus on consumption has ill effects for its society. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

That the Chinese are consumed with consumption is hardly news, but as reported Monday, efforts to boost domestic consumption are languishing as China’s second quarter GDP registered at 7.5 percent.

But even has growth ebbs, China remains as consumed with consumption as it has been for years now. Back in the summer of 2005, in an interview for our video series “China on the Rise,” businessman Handel Lee raised the issue of China’s obsession with money, typical of capitalism in its early stages, and how it was making people desperate and “rapacious” — making competition more a matter of “cutting down” than building up. I was interviewing him in a blues club of his in Shanghai.

“What might a competitor do?” I asked.

“Instead of trying to make his place better,” said Lee (I’m quoting from the transcript), “he’ll find a way to have my electricity cut off or find a friend who says I have a fire violation.”

“That’s the kind of thing that actually happens?” I asked.

“It happens a lot,” said Lee. “It happens in the United States too. But it happens to a larger extent here.”

You can see more of wealth’s effects in the United States in our two-part look at “Money on the Mind” and “What Makes Us Happy?” Earlier Wednesday on the Making Sen$e Business Desk, Jesse Appell, an American Fulbright scholar and stand-up comedian in China, examined how popular song lyrics reveal similarities between the U.S. and Chinese economies.

The consequences of China’s single-minded focus on money continue to be felt. A Chinese friend of mine and her husband, who moved to America “temporarily” to work as managers and learn the ways of business before returning to China, have now resolved to stay here — because, she says, they don’t want their young son to grow up in such an every-man-for-himself society.

The most horrifying evidence may be the infamous (and for many, unwatchable) 2011 video of a two-year-old girl being run over on a Chinese back street and then ignored by one passerby after another.

Here is a bit more of the interview with Handel Lee from 2005. He had talked off-camera about Chinese “rapaciousness.” With the camera rolling, I asked him if he’d mind explaining:

Handel Lee: The rapaciousness has a lot to do with the unfettered pursuit of money. Now obviously you have that in the United States too, but in the United States, there’s a softer underbelly to it — despite the 1920s, ’30s and all that…

Paul Solman: Or the ’80s or, more recently, Enron.

Handel Lee: Right. But here, that very primal pursuit of conquest, of devouring or eating, of consuming, of just getting ahead of cutting your competitor down is everybody.

Paul Solman: What do they do? What’s an example? You don’t have to use names, but what’s an incident that would epitomize what you’re talking about?

Handel Lee: China has been very, very poor for a long time. The pie is very small relative to the number of people who would eat it. And in order to get a piece of that pie, I have to achieve my position, protect my territory and vision, and I have to take out people who are also trying to get into that pie. So I need to wedge in there and really, really elbow other people out. And that’s been what China’s been doing most over the past 30 years.

In terms of competition in China compared to the West, in America you can just be better and go off on your own, go beyond. And that’s, that’s actually a very luxurious place to be. A lot of opportunity, a lot of resources.

China has very few opportunities and is a very poor place and so competition didn’t necessarily mean that you just overachieved. You surpassed your competitors, pulled them down.

Paul Solman: A zero-sum game.

Handel Lee: Yes, and that’s a huge problem in China, I think.

Paul Solman: Because people still have that mentality.

Handel Lee: Yes, yes.

Paul Solman: And an example of that would be what? You’re opening this blues club (where I was interviewing him in the summer of 2005), for example. What might a competitor do?

Handel Lee: Instead of trying to make his place better, he’ll find a way to have my electricity cut off or find a friend who says I have a fire violation.

Paul Solman: That’s the kind of thing that happens.

Handel Lee: It happens a lot. It happens in the United States too. But it happens to a larger extent here.

Paul Solman: So it’s a more primitive stage of capitalist development.

Handel Lee: Yes. I do believe the rapaciousness is similar to the way perhaps the United States was like when capitalism was primitive and fresh.

Paul Solman: And then we developed a huge government, funded by the income tax (which didn’t come in permanently until the 19-teens) to police ourselves.

Handel Lee: Right.

Paul Solman: Will that happen here?

Handel Lee: I think so. I don’t know.

Paul Solman: But you’re willing to stick around and see.

Handel Lee: Yes, I am. China is a great place to be right now. There’s so much movement and vitality and I believe what I’m doing here, in a small way, affects a redirection of attitude from the way things are to the way they might be.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions