Has China’s Changing Economy Affected Their Culture?

Has China’s Changing Economy Affected Their Culture?

China is changing; there is no doubt about it. You see it on Facebook, television, and hear it on the radio – we are all aware of this. An increasing number of millionaires, a growing middle class, and more skyscrapers than the United States. This is not what previous generations expected out of a country of 1 billion once ruled by Mao Zedong. But now, it’s fair to say that they are merely communist in name.

Over the past 30 years, China’s GDP has risen by an average of 9.3% annually. To put that in perspective, the US GDP has risen at only 2.4% annually. For the Chinese, improvement in the quality of life has become increasingly evident each year. China’s rocket-propelled growth rate lifted enormous segments of the Chinese population out of poverty and into a financially comfortable setting. Not too long ago, however, this seemed impossible. A series of successful reforms set China on the right path.

The time between 1949 and 1978 was the age of Mao. Mao Zedong, the original founder and leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), had instituted policies that were significantly destructive to the newfound communist nation’s economy and overall population. The massive collectivization of agriculture and industry during his “Great Leap Forward” led to mass famine and industrial inefficiencies (steel production was still greatly increased though – most likely due to a sheer number of backyard furnaces smelting steel). This was a time of economic and social revolution. Referred to as the Cultural Revolution, it was a turbulent period of Chinese history that could be categorized as an era of terror and fanaticism that paralyzed the country both politically and economically. In a facade of altruism, Mao was able to purge anyone he deemed an enemy to the Revolution and the collective.

Faced with a negative growth rate in the double digits, the coming decades were defined as a time of intentional reversal of Maoist economic policies. However, the Chinese people did not hate him; in fact, there are still some today who wish to return to the days of the Cultural Revolution. But the government of the PRC had realized that certain economic models tend to work and the one they tried, unfortunately, was failing. Coming to power after the death of Mao in 1978, Deng Xiaoping immediately sought to implement reforms towards survival and a market economy.

Upon ascension, Xiaoping scrapped collectivized agriculture and divided People’s Communes into private plots for farmers, increasing agricultural production 25% by 1980 and therefore evading another “disaster of 1959.” In order to avoid shortages of industrial products, a dual-price system was introduced, allowing manufacturers and citizens to sell their products at both market and planned prices. And, for the first time since the defeat of Nationalist China in 1949, foreign investment was allowed. Special economic zones (areas with lax economic and regulatory laws) were created to attract foreign businesses and industries. These special regions were imperative for China’s economic success and have remained the fuel for its prosperity.

Within the next few decades, Deng and his successors, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, increased the pace of reforms being implemented. State control was heavily decentralized, the Shanghai Stock Exchange was reopened, most of the state-controlled industries were privatized, and trade barriers were decreased. Mao’s legacy was now almost completely gone – not even his massive social welfare system remained, which had been dismantled by Zhu Rongji. Evidence of Mao’s Cultural Revolution now only endures for the most part in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), which had been forcefully divested from military-run industries in the late 1990’s.

It must be awfully clear that China has become capitalist, or at least capitalistic, but what does this have to do with China becoming more individualistic? As it has become apparent, the modernization of the Chinese economic model and a trend towards individuality go hand-inhand.

This is not merely a sentiment; in fact, several scholars have researched this phenomenon. In three collaborative studies, a research team headed by Xi Zou of the London Business School measured three things: frequency of name characters, use of singular and plural pronouns in songs, and the importance of leisure time to the average Chinese person (the latter study was drawn from the World Value Survey).

The first study found that in the last 50 years, there has been a significant decrease in the number of name characters used to name children. Traditionally, Chinese parents would reuse common name characters that hold meanings, such as “great”, “beautiful”, or “strong”. However, the reuse of these names has been dropping for some time now, with parents opting for more unique names with different and diverse meanings.

In 1950, approximately half of all newborns had exclusively traditional name characters in their names. By 2009, that number had dropped to just under one-sixth. The second study measured how often singular and plural pronouns are used per song, with the number of singular pronouns as the key indicator of a growing individualist culture. In the 1970s, one plural pronoun would be used for every three singular pronouns used per song. By the 2000s, less than one plural pronoun would be used for every five singular pronouns per song. As for the last study, participants in the World Value Survey rated the importance of leisure time (also used as an indicator of an individualist culture by researchers) on a scale from 1 – 4. In 2001, Chinese participants rated it a 2.5 and by 2012 they rated it a 3.

As societies and civilizations evolve, so do their cultures. It is simply a natural process that can be observed throughout history and even today, as shown by China. China began its journey from a backward agrarian society to an industrialized urban society in roughly 35 years, thanks to the shift towards a market economy led by Deng Xiaoping. China’s movement towards a modern industrial economy is exactly why they are becoming more individualistic.

According to the book Sociology: Understanding and Changing the World, industrial societies are “…wealthier than agricultural societies and have a greater sense of individualism. And as the Chinese people have been greatly urbanized in the last four decades, they have unquestionably become less interdependent. Urban families that once had to deeply rely on each other in an agricultural setting now receive an education and work towards building their own careers in a new and globally connected China.

It goes without saying that China’s culture and economy are still considerably more collective than the Western world. However, documenting and analyzing its transition towards individuality is not just fascinating, it is a testament to the success of the free market. As Adam Smith said in the Wealth of Nations, economic individualism is “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty.” As the recent history of China has shown, a transition to economic liberty will inevitably preclude a transition to social liberty as well.



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Zou, Xi, and Huajian Cai. “Charting China’s Rising Individualism in Names, Songs, and Attitudes.” Harvard Business Review, March 11, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/03/charting-chinas-rising-individualism-in-names-songs-and-attitudes.

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