The Paradox of Chinas Post-Mao Reforms (Harvard Contemporary China Series, No. 12)

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The theory of social change and human development predicts a greater emphasis on individualistic values as people move from rural to urban settings and as societies move toward greater modernization. Sun and Wang assessed value differences in four generations of Shanghai residents. Compared to older generations, people in the younger generations were more likely to nominate self-development as being the most important life priority, whereas political engagement was least important.

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Note that the centrality of family remained an important value across age groups. Findings from this study demonstrated a shift toward individualistic values, although traditional values were not completely abandoned. The WVS is a global research project developed primarily by sociologists to study changing values and their impact on society.

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Compared to , Chinese respondents in were less likely to endorse collectivistic values, such as traditionalism and conformity; also, they were less likely to reject individualistic values, such as hedonism and power. Although these values data are only available for the most recent two WVSs, shifts in the importance of individualistic and collectivistic values in just 5 years demonstrate a striking effect of rapid sociocultural change at the individual level.

In addition to values changes, Steele and Lynch found that individualism has an increasingly strong association with subjective well-being SWB in China. In their analyses, demographic indicators commonly correlated with individualistic values, such as personal income, employment status, and self-rated health, demonstrated a strengthening association with SWB over time.


In contrast, measures reflecting collectivistic sentiment, such as national pride and support for collectivistic policies e. Although measures of individualistic and collectivistic orientations both predicted SWB to varying degrees, the former has gradually become more central in fostering a sense of well-being. Why has this occurred? Recent reports from developmental psychology studies point to important shifts in Chinese parenting. For example, themes of raising happy, healthy, and autonomous children emerged from narratives of 24 Chinese mothers of middle school students Way et al.

Another recent study showed that mothers in Beijing, compared to immigrant Chinese mothers in the US, adopted a more Western pattern of affection-based interaction with their toddlers Wang, Indeed, the meaning of shyness may itself be changing. In traditional Chinese cultural contexts, shy-sensitive children are perceived as well behaved; here, shyness signifies social accomplishment and maturity rather than social withdrawal or disinterest King and Bond, Where shy-sensitivity is an accepted and at least somewhat valued character trait, shy-sensitive children are more likely to receive social support, which in turn helps them integrate better socially and form meaningful relationships Chen, Notable shifts are observed, however, when one compares school-aged cohorts from , , and The positive association between shy-sensitivity and adjustment reported in was no longer statistically significant for same-aged children in Chen et al.

For the cohort, moreover, shy-sensitivity was positively associated with self-reported depression and peer rejection, and negatively associated with teacher-rated competence. Shy-sensitivity, once an acceptable and even positive personality trait in many Chinese contexts, has become associated with social disadvantage and disapproval. Indeed, Kraus et al. The authors argued that social cognitive patterns in people of lower socioeconomic status SES involve a more contextual and relational style, in contrast to the individualistic orientation characteristic of those of higher SES.

Indeed, Grossmann and Varnum found that changing levels of SES was the most robust predictor of shifting patterns of individualism in the US over the last years. Research on this topic, largely conducted with American samples, has generally supported the link between social class and social cognitive style. For example, people from lower SES background were more likely to show engagement behavior in a brief encounter with a stranger, such as head nods and laughs, whereas those from higher SES background were more likely to display disengagement behavior, such as self-grooming and doodling Kraus et al.

These findings show that SES is strongly connected to values and how one relates to others, suggesting that rising SES is an important factor in understanding the growing importance of individualism in China. For example, one study examined different levels of narcissism in young adults from urban and rural settings Cai et al.

The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms (Harvard Contemporary China Series)

Narcissism refers to a self-aggrandizing, entitled, dominant, and manipulative orientation Campbell et al. In this study, one-child status, higher SES, and urban living were significantly associated with higher levels of narcissism in young adults. This finding suggests that the rising importance of individualism may be unevenly distributed among sociodemographic groups. In addition, if values are shaped by sociocultural contexts and if Chinese urban and rural societies have experienced varying degrees of modernization, then we should expect variations in these values in residents from urban and rural areas.

Compared to rural parents, urban parents reported greater changes in work-related opportunities, self-improvement, and high-technology experience, and their children received lower levels of parental control and a greater encouragement of independence, compared to children from rural settings Chen et al.

A third group, urbanized families, was included in a follow-up study Chen and Li, Urbanized families are former rural residents who live on what used to be the outskirts of urban centers. Compared to rural families, urbanized families showed a pattern of parenting similar to urban parents, such as encouraging initiative taking in children. Moreover, children from urbanized families received higher peer-rated sociability-assertiveness scores than their rural peers. These findings are consistent with the perspectives of Greenfield and Kraus et al. Taken together, findings from the recent literature demonstrate that aspects of traditional parenting practices emphasizing compliance, self-control, and cooperation are giving way to assertiveness, autonomy, and initiative taking.

Moreover, shifts in parental attitudes and goals may be more prominent in urban than rural settings, suggesting that SES might be an important driver of increasing individualism. Thus, future studies should not only directly test the relation between SES and individualism in China, but also seek to explore the underlying mechanisms through which economic status influences individualistic values and practices. Drawing on recent findings from China, as well as Japan and Mexico, we argue that traditional values do not simply disappear with the rise of individualistic values; rather, they co-exist and mutually reinforce one another.

Traditional practices can persist in various ways, even when the circumstances giving rise to these patterns no longer hold. For example, Talhelm et al. Data consistent with this prediction were obtained from samples of students who did not themselves have farming experience. Moreover, the effect remained after controlling for regional GDP per capita, and even persisted when comparing rice versus wheat regions of the same province. Research from Japan, another East Asian society that modernized relatively quickly, further supports the idea that traditional values can persist.

In his cross-temporal analysis, Hamamura demonstrated that traditional cultural meanings and practices play an important role in shaping the effects of modernization. For instance, although mass education is an expected outcome of modernization, the ways with which education is delivered can vary. Japanese educators were more likely to approach learning by emphasizing hard work and self-improvement, whereas Western traditions of education place a greater emphasis on hypothesis-testing and self-directed learning. Shimizu et al. More importantly, these findings show that modernized societies do not necessarily involve a straightforward, uncontested relation between modern versus traditional meanings and practices see also Manago and Greenfield, This is not to downplay the extent to which values have changed over time, nor to say that all traditional values show equal persistence.

Xu and Hamamura found that, compared to 50 years ago, Chinese participants reported that materialism, individualism, and human rights have become increasingly important. Some traditional cultural values, such as family relations, friendship, and patriotism, have maintained their perceived importance whereas other values, such as traditional ways of living and Confucian ethics, have declined.

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Interestingly, the same researchers found that Google Ngram analyses, a method of studying popularity of topics by looking at usage of word frequency in published materials over a period of time, yielded a divergent pattern of rising interest in traditional topics e. Zeng and Greenfield reported similar findings, also using Ngram. These findings not only point to the multifaceted composition of individualism and collectivism, they also suggest persistence of traditional values in a context of rapid modernization.

Indeed, the authors argued for the adaptive functioning of co-existing individualistic and collectivistic values, adding that modernization has taken place at different rates in different parts of China.

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We therefore caution against viewing individualism and collectivism as necessarily incompatible. Instead, our review suggests that modernization is a non-uniform process that impacts different strata of Chinese society at varying speed, and that increasing individualism does not necessarily signify the end of traditional meanings and practices. We argue that future cultural psychology studies would benefit from a more nuanced and balanced approach by asking the following questions: how do individualism and collectivism manifest themselves in a rapidly modernizing society; how do traditional values shape and influence modernization, and vice versa; and finally how does an individual person separate, integrate, or negotiate potential disagreement involving different sets of meaningful practices?

What are the consequences of rising individualism and rapid social change more generally for the psychological well-being of the Chinese people? If there are costs, are these due to individualism per se or to the rapidity of the shift away from traditional values? The answers to these questions must be considered cautiously, as links between modernization, individualism, and psychological well-being are not straightforward. Although China continues to have one of the lowest prevalence rates for depression worldwide Bromet et al. As the increase in depression prevalence has occurred over the same time period as the increase in individualism, it is tempting to identify the former as a consequence of the latter.

We must consider, nonetheless, a number of other possibilities including: changes in diagnostic category and research methodologies; changes in symptom presentation that facilitate diagnosis; and changes in willingness to report certain symptoms. All of these possibilities might themselves be consequences of rapid sociocultural change, as all could involve a shift toward Westernized norms. Rather than solving this conundrum—an impossible task in any case, given the evidence available—we instead reflect on how these different possibilities appear to have interacted over the past several decades in China.

We begin with research cataloging changes in well-being and depression over the past several decades, before turning to the demographic inequities regarding who has suffered the most from sociocultural transformation. With these general findings in mind, we conclude by considering the potential influence of shifting emotion norms on the experience and expression of depression.

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  5. When measured at the level of the person, values associated with individualism tend to be positively associated with well-being and healthy psychological adjustment. For instance, there is evidence from China supporting self-determination theory, which posits that endorsement of intrinsic life goals e. For example, in a study conducted with Chinese and North American children, autonomy supportive parenting in both groups was associated with greater endorsement of intrinsic life goals in children, who in turn reported better mental health Lekes et al.

    Several changes may be responsible for this apparent paradox. First, the transition from a centrally controlled economy to a market economy has given rise to striking socioeconomic inequities, providing greater opportunities for unfavorable comparisons regardless of absolute improvements in circumstances Brockmann et al. Placing a much greater emphasis on individualism may leave the modern person more vulnerable when responding to unfavorable situations.

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    Studies from psychiatric epidemiology generally support the increased prevalence of depression over the last decades. Two early psychiatric surveys reported extremely low rates of depression in China, where 0.

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    A recent meta-analysis of epidemiological studies of depression published from to showed converging prevalence rates with the WHO surveys, suggesting that at least 3. Generally speaking, people cannot acquire permanent legal residential status, and its associated benefits, outside the area covered by their hukou. In other words, with rare exceptions, people do not change their hukou. Many scholars e. For example, recent psychiatric surveys consistently reported higher rates of psychological distress in rural China across the lifespan.

    For example, compared to urban students, students from rural settings reported higher levels of depressive symptoms Luo et al. Similarly, psychiatric epidemiological surveys reported that adults and elderly adults in rural areas have a higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders compared to urban residents Li et al.

    Further studies have reported elevated psychological distress in rural-to-urban migrant workers, and the children and parents of those workers Silverstein et al. As part of the sociocultural transformation of the last several decades, China has experienced the largest internal migration in human history. Much of this movement has been from the countryside to the city, and has largely been driven by the search for a better economic future Chan, ; Ding and Bao, The apparent benefits, however, appear to come at a psychological cost.

    As of , the National Bureau of Statistics of China estimates that million Chinese citizens—approximately one in six people—are migrant workers. Due to social-structural, cultural, and often educational barriers, rural-to-urban migrant workers are unable to fully integrate into urban society and are rarely given the same benefits urban residents receive, such as employment and education opportunities Myerson et al.

    The literature generally underscores the negative consequences of migrant worker status within China. Some studies have reported increased psychological distress in migrant workers, and such findings are often discussed in the context of migration stress, marginalization, and discrimination Wong et al. Recently, Zhong et al.