Is the People's Republic of China Conservative?

China: happy despite control

If life is regulated and controlled, people are conservative, less creative and not so happy, say psychological theories. That doesn't seem to be the case in China - at least that's what a survey from 31 provinces suggests.

People need rules and social norms - this is the only way groups can live together, in families and in countries. Even children learn, for example, that you don't take anything away from anyone or that you only cross the street when it is “green”. How many implicit and explicit rules there are and how much compliance is monitored or sanctioned, however, is very variable. The global spectrum ranges from very strict to extremely relaxed groups and societies.

The US psychologist Michele Gelfand has been working on why there are so great differences in social interaction and social norms for several years. She has summarized the phenomenon in the concept of "tightness-looseness" ("rigor" vs. "looseness"). In one of her first studies on the subject, which appeared in the journal “Science” in 2011, Gelfand examined 33 nations - including Austria - with regard to their rigor.

Dangers make you severe

For this purpose, people were asked, among other things, how appropriate certain behaviors are and what sanctions are threatened if they are not observed. The evaluation showed: The rules are extremely strict in Pakistan, India and Malaysia, but life is particularly relaxed in Ukraine or Estonia (interestingly, Hungary was also one of the less strict countries at the time). Austria was in the middle on the Strenge-Index, together with France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain.

According to Gelfand, the roots of the differences lie in the past: the stricter rules develop in response to external and internal threats, according to the thesis. These can be wars just as well as natural disasters, but also a high population density or scarce resources. One example is Japan, which is highly regulated socially. Because of its geographical location, it is extremely endangered, e.g. by earthquakes. Without such threats, cultures can act much more openly and liberally, Gelfand explains.

Strict People's Republic

In the meantime, Gelfand's theory has also been further developed by other researchers. A study that has just been published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science” has now verified the model in China. The People's Republic is generally considered to be a relatively strict country - this is also reflected in its position on a “tightness-looseness scale” (2014).

The current study did not focus on the whole country, but on a comparison between its provinces and administrative units. The authors of the study around Roy Chua come from Singapore, which is one of the strictest countries in the world - even chewing gum and spitting are illegal there. According to Gelfand's theory, this could have something to do with the enormous population density in the island state.

Strict and controlled

Over 11,000 people took part in the three-year study in 31 regions in China. The "tightness-looseness model" was at least partially confirmed. For example, in the stricter areas there was more government control, greater restrictions on daily life and the residents were less open.

And - as Michele Gelfand writes in a "PNAS" commentary on the study that has not yet been published but is available at science.ORF.at - the rules are also stricter in China where there have been many threats or conflicts in the past, e.g. in regions occupied by Japan during World War II, in border areas or when disease and environmental pollution were more frequent. The Singapore researchers have further differentiated Gelfand's model in some areas. For example, they differentiate between gradual and radical innovation. The latter is more likely to take place in less regulated provinces.

China is different

In addition to the - in Gelfand's eyes, astonishingly many similarities in different cultures - there were also significant deviations from earlier studies on the "tightness-looseness" model, e.g. from study results from the USA, according to which stricter areas are mostly more rural and conservative , and the people who live there, less creative and not as happy.

In China - unlike in the USA - strictness goes hand in hand with urbanity. According to Gelfand, there is a very plausible explanation for this difference. In the USA cities are anonymous and freer, in the countryside there is a kind of informal surveillance by other people. In China it is exactly the other way round: cities can now be officially monitored well, but residents of sparsely populated rural regions are far removed from the “eyes of the central government”.

Cultural match

In contrast to the USA, there is also greater economic growth and more gender equality in China's strict stretches of land. The residents are also healthier and more tolerant of marginalized groups. According to the study, people in the strict regions are actually happier and generally more satisfied with their lives. According to the study authors, this could have something to do with other cultural characteristics of the People's Republic. Individuality is not so central in China, the collective or belonging to a community play a much more important role. And the correspondence between such values ​​and the outside world is probably crucial for personal well-being.

Gelfand's statement in her commentary on the study goes in a similar direction, also emphasizing the “cultural match”: Since China is generally a strict country, strict provinces are probably happier. The US is rather loose, so loose states are probably happier.

In addition, some other special dynamics could be at work in China, according to Gelfand, e.g. the economic rules and constraints, especially in the cities, have been relaxed and social control increased at the same time. That could explain the economic growth. It cannot be ruled out that this increased prosperity also plays a certain role in individual wellbeing.

Not set in stone

In addition, one would have to put the study results in a larger context, emphasizes Gelfand in her comment: It is astonishing that the relatively happier people live in China's strict regions, but - as earlier studies on life satisfaction showed - China as a whole tends to be at the bottom End of the luck spectrum. In addition, statements about happiness could be strongly influenced by official narratives, e.g. about "loyalty to the large Chinese family".

In any case, the new study shows that it is worthwhile not only to examine the universal patterns of the “tightness-looseness” model, but also those in the respective national context. How strict or loose a country is is generally not set in stone, as Gelfand explains to science.ORF.at. Sometimes the relationship even changes dramatically. For example, when autocratic leaders purposefully stir up fears and thus arouse a longing for stricter rules. "In general, a halfway balanced relationship between strictness and looseness should be ideal for well-being and prosperity," says Gelfand, in countries as well as in companies or families.

Eva Obermüller, science.ORF.at

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