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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The World Is My Toilet

Children of the Cultural Revolution have different ideas about decorum

Chinese visitors are not popular in Singapore. In fact, visitors from the Chinese mainland have a terrible reputation among the citizens of this island city-state. Is it racism? Ethnic tension?

As it happens, 74 percent of people in Singapore are descendants of mainland Chinese immigrants. They speak the same language and share common origins, so you might expect there to be little friction. But the stark differences between guests from the mainland and their Singaporean hosts are cultural.

After a frustrating encounter with a foreigner, many Singaporeans go online to vent their anger and seek the support of their compatriots. This enables outsiders like me to gauge the relative unpopularity of the various immigrant groups and to see what the typical complaints against them are.

Singaporeans typically use the abbreviation “PRC” for citizens of the People’s Republic of China, and ang moh for people of European origin. Using Google to search (a popular site for citizen journalism) gives about 400 hits for ang moh and 13,000 for PRC — 32 times as many! No other group generates nearly as many complaints.

A typical post of this type describes an interaction with a Chinese national in the subway (or other public space) who responds with abuse when politely asked to show more consideration for others. (Such posts are often accompanied by video footage and put on YouTube.) Similar stories are reported in Hong Kong.

So why is there so much friction between people who have so much in common?

One obvious difference between the two groups is that the overseas Chinese never suffered the Cultural Revolution, which had as a stated goal to destroy the so-called “four olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas — in other words, the common heritage of all Chinese people. But the Cultural Revolution only lasted about a decade, and it can take generations for deep-seated social norms and attitudes to change.

Three other countries have a Chinese majority population: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The latter two have long been regarded as the freest economies in the world. And while Taiwan has had a great deal of state intervention in the economy, it has still been far freer than mainland China.

The People’s Republic, in contrast, abolished private property outright, and only started to embrace markets again a generation or so ago. This, I believe, is the main reason for the difference between the overseas and mainland Chinese.

Making nice

Market relationships are by definition voluntary, and thus conditional on both sides. This system promotes courtesy, since the other party could end the relationship were it no longer beneficial. A customer will not return to a restaurant where he is not pleased with the service; likewise, he knows he will be asked to leave if he strays too far from social norms.

Socialism, on the other hand, is all about making access unconditional. When individuals do not get to set their own conditions for participation and association, other people have less incentive to be nice. Courtesy and consideration for others become less habitual, and cultural norms formed over centuries to reduce conflict begin to erode.

Researchers found a similar phenomenon between East and West Germans using a game designed to test people’s propensity to lie and cheat in order to win.

After finishing the game, the players had to fill in a form that asked their age and the part of Germany where they had lived in different decades. The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism. They also looked at how much time people had spent in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The longer the participants had been exposed to socialism, the greater the likelihood that they would claim improbable numbers of high rolls.

These results suggest it’s not just propriety but also morality that is affected by these institutional constraints and incentives.

Propriety and property

A recurrent story both in Singapore and Hong Kong is of PRCs of both sexes urinating or defecating in elevators, stairways, or back alleys, many times in full public view. There have also been reports (with footage) of parents from mainland China who let their toddlers poop on the floor at international airports, and even during flights in aisles and on seats.

Perhaps the crowded living conditions and poverty in China have accustomed many Chinese to a lack of privacy. Maybe the personal costs of bad smells and lost modesty are lower to them as a result. But this still does not explain the casual imposition of costs on others. Those who use public spaces as toilets or cut in line know full well there is a cost to others; they just do not care. They think they have a right to access.

When property is privately owned, the owners can set conditions for access and require patrons to internalize the costs of their behavior. Private owners who fail to do so will have to face the costs themselves, either directly or indirectly through lost revenue. Eventually, the costs may even cause them to lose their property.

Public property, on the other hand, does not have an owner whose personal fortune depends on successfully attributing costs, or on attracting revenue from individuals free to make other choices. People are more likely to get away with imposing costs on others. Eventually, the cultural norms change.

The longer a country has been socialist, the less benevolence and respect its people tend to show each other. This, I believe, is why overseas Chinese seem to get along better with each other than with the children of the People's Republic.