Crossing the Culture Gulf – The Psychology of Skepticism in China


Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 490, July 4 – July 17, 2014)

By Frank Lee

One day, I was discussing the Great Firewall of China (the Chinese online censorship project) with my Chinese friend and we entered into a heated debate on the freedom of speech and information. “The censorship in China is a joke, but I don’t agree with your support of liberty either.” He said. But when I asked, “What do you believe in then?” he said, “Don’t be naïve. I don’t believe in anything.”

We have all met Chinese friends who are like this. Chinese people are skeptical towards everything.

In reality, skepticism is often an excuse and a term of convenience. Hidden within which is a deeply complex heart.

Dissecting the skeptical heart

Experiments have shown that we irrationally favor information that comes to us first. This is because people form a working hypothesis based on the first information they receive, which then colors the way they interpret subsequent information.

But sometimes, our skepticism is a conscious act of choice. When reality violates all of our moral expectations, some of us understandably turn away from the truth. When Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter, who was a Jew himself, was first informed of the persecution of Jews by Fascist Germany, he said to the informant, “I cannot believe what you have said.” He subsequently clarified, “I am not saying that this young man is lying. I am saying that I cannot believe what he said. These are two different things.”

And sometimes, we are driven to choose disbelief out of the instinct of self-preservation and fear. This is especially so in China. Where our choice puts us against a violent and tyrannical state machinery like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), our innermost fear will extricate ourselves from the choice out of self-preservation. And “Skepticism” becomes a term of convenience for us to avoid this choice.

Sometimes, we are skeptical because we have given up believing and we have abandoned the pursuit of truth. Take the Chinese society for example. The Chinese people do not live in a free world. Where information is severely censored by the government and where we know that half of the information we receive is unlikely to be true, skepticism becomes our shield. If we cannot discover truth, we can at least avoid being the deceived fool.

False Neutrality
Skepticism may be cloaked in an attitude of false neutrality. Frequently, we hear people say, “Both sides have their merits, but neither is hundred percent correct.”

Adopting a neutral stance on an issue does not mean shunning from making judgments. Neither does it mean penalizing both points of view. What it means is to use an appropriate method to discern the truth from the standpoint of objectivity and impartiality. This is true neutrality.

The value of skepticism
Likewise, there is nothing inherently wrong with being skeptical. But it is wrong if we maintain the skeptical attitude forever and find comfort in the absence of truth. Skepticism and doubt are valuable because they spur us into the pursuit of truth. They are the first step of the process and should never the end.

Skepticism in China
At this juncture, one may ask, why are the Chinese people so skeptical? The writer believes that it has a lot to do with the Chinese political and social climate of the era. Under the regime of the CCP, the recent history of China is pervaded by struggle and conflict. From inter class struggle to intra class struggle; the CCP spurs struggle and conflict within every strata of the society through propaganda and brainwash, sometimes even pitting wife against husband, father against child. When your closest friend may turn against you in the next second, you will find that it is no longer safe to trust. Chinese people, in order to protect themselves, become cautious and wary, and this eventually evolves into the Chinese skepticism that we see today.

The situation was made worse by the destruction of traditional ethics and values during the Cultural Revolution. Following the “open-door” policy adopted in the late 1970s, faith in the intrinsic good of man was replaced by the worship of pure materialistic wealth, and trust inevitably fell out of fashion.

The lack of trust in the contemporary Chinese society is both a cause and a product of its moral depravity and social ills. From toxic food to counterfeit products, dishonesty creates distrust, and distrust begets more dishonesty. Living in the Chinese society, one cannot afford to let down his guard. Even though the intra-social conflicts and struggles perpetuated during the Cultural Revolution has ceased, it continues to pervade the Chinese society in spirit. Under these circumstances, the Chinese people are skeptical, and understandably so.

Therefore, do not blame the Chinese people for their endless skepticism. They are but the product of their age – an age of moral and cultural decline that began since the Great War on culture, waged by the Communist Party of China.

Frank Lee is a Chinese immigrant. During his stay in Singapore, Frank experiences a great contrast between the social and cultural conditions of Singapore and those of China. He finds this contrast fascinating and illuminating, and has graciously volunteered to share his reflections with The Epoch Times.

The views and opinions expressed in this editorial are solely those of the original writer. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Epoch Times.

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