Why “suzhi” should go global

By Edward Hadas
April 18, 2012

What’s the goal of development? A standard answer is higher gross domestic product. A few specialists prefer to talk about building capabilities. I have another idea: development should be about suzhi, a Chinese word usually translated as quality.

China has been worrying about development for a long time. Reformers in the 19th century wrestled with how to overcome the people’s backwardness without losing what was truly great and distinctive about the Middle Kingdom. They saw that development, as it’s now called, involved a major reworking of culture and society. It encompassed the economy, education, law, politics, the military, the arts and medicine.

Today’s international community has adopted a much narrower understanding. Leaders of poor countries and experts in the field pay often think of development as being centred on economic growth. Social and cultural changes are treated as little more than tools to help increase GDP.

A more sophisticated alternative is the “capabilities approach”. Amartya Sen, a philosophically minded economist, argues that the poor countries should develop whatever capabilities are needed for their residents to be free. His idea of freedom is multifaceted: it includes freedom from starvation, premature mortality, illiteracy, political disenfranchisement and censorship.

But the capabilities approach has some flaws. First, it assumes that the final goal of development is an individualistic, secular and democratic welfare state, as found in Europe and the United States.

That’s presumptuous; there could be other ways to be civilised in the modern world. Second, the emphasis on freedom misses the fact that it often takes a bit of coercion to overcome ignorance, superstition and squalor. Finally, it leaves no place to go once all of those capabilities have been reached.

That’s where Suzhi comes in, a word made up from characters meaning ’essential’ and ’nature’. Encompassing wealth, health, education, sophistication and nobility of character, it has become a key concept in Chinese discussions about society.

To have low suzhi is to be backwards – to think and behave like a peasant. The government has tried to raise China’s suzhi by limiting births and promoting breast feeding, healthy exercise and less exam-centred education. Individuals try to raise their own suzhi by doing well at exams, becoming modern consumers and seeking spiritual self-improvement. Having high suzhi is close to what Westerners would describe as “being a good person”.

The concept develops indefinitely as incomes increase and horizons broaden. Suzhi can always rise higher. In this fight against backwardness, prosperity is not the end goal, though it does provide the means to increase suzhi.

Andrew Kipnis of the Australian National University gives the example of Harvard Girl, Liu Yiting: A True Chronicle of Suzhi Cultivation. This Chinese best-seller – 2 million copies sold, according to the publisher – explains how one girl’s suzhi was so thoroughly cultivated that she was accepted as a Harvard undergraduate. Her suzhi-building exercises included memorising classic poems at age three, holding ice cubes for 15 minutes at a time and learning the right moral attitude.

Not everyone in China is keen on the quest for suzhi. Kipnis also mentions a book called I am Average but I am Happy. The government attempts to moderate the fanaticism of suzhi-seeking Chinese parents.

Meanwhile, some see the focus on suzhi as a Chinese trick for excusing authoritarianism. Popular blogger Han Han stirred up controversy with his argument that China’s suzhi is not yet high enough to support a successful and stable democracy.

Other observers complain that the emphasis on suzhi is shallow and materialist. It can be socially divisive if some people are thought to have higher suzhi by nature, or if the rich seem to have more opportunities to cultivate it.

But these aren’t really arguments against suzhi itself, more criticisms of how we measure it, or strive for it. And they don’t change the sense that suzhi is what China’s leaders and people want from development. It’s hard to think of another guiding principle that takes in material and social ambition, governmental guidance and individualistic spirit, confidence in self-improvement and a complex relationship with traditional values.

While suzhi has been specifically Chinese up to now, the basic idea – becoming a better person – is universally applicable. Each poor country should find its own suzhi. And even rich countries could do with a debate about values and aspirations. An Asian word seems appropriate for this global concept, as that region is likely to be centre of development for generations to come.

Economists might not be happy if suzhi were to became the centre of study. Their simple measure, GDP, would receive less attention. Besides, economists like to measure things, and suzhi is not a quantity but a changing collection of qualities. But then, development is far too important to be left to economists.

6 comments

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Mr Hadas: May I try to suggest some connecting threads to tie suzhi to economic practice?

The consumption led – high GDP economies don’t seem to be working well. They require too much fuel and produce too much waste to maintain forever. And the big guys evidently do need massive subsidies after all. The USA is a glutton for oil and yet it’s standard of living is not notoriously better than other developed countries. They produce mountains of goods that quickly loose value – regardless of their condition – the moment they are taken off the showroom floor. And the trouble with measuring GDP is – the measurement doesn’t care what was purchased as long as money changes hands.

The USA and Europe have been on the road of treating everything in their economies, including the consumers, as commodities. Facebook and other online chat sites seem to think of the customer as their most valued resource and their spending habits are most important of all. But they value them “anonymously”. The Facebook patron is really only a statistical sample. Large scale seems to encourage anonymity all the while it is selling almost sybaritic personalization.

Perhaps what the developed economies should be doing is try to reestablish more locally based ways of life that build communities that employ local labor, materials and talent exclusively. The developed world doesn’t seem to believe a business is a truly serious business until it is a mega business. Mega business seems to require mega consumers willing to live on mountains of debt. And they like the customer to rack up debt quickly and to be able to hold it for a long time. Local based community development could establish their own energy resources from local sources whenever possible and materials could be locally produced even if it means departing from the cliche American house and planning models so common now. The USA built its own heavy fuel dependency trap and must lie in it indefinitely. Was it suzhi to do that or did it even matter?

Mega business is obviously inadequate for the 21st century. It can’t thrive unless its customers are frequent repeat customers and it is pernicious in that it insists on dominating the market place. It does not foster innovation at the consumer level and wants most of all to hook its customers into their product line or service for as long as possible. Automobiles are very nearly impossible to work on by the home mechanic. Houses are somewhat easier to modify and customize by the homeowner but mortgage lender requirements, zoning laws and building codes (not to suggest they shouldn’t exist) tend to tie the homeoqwners hands. Mega business wants mega consumers or the market system gets rickety and slows down.

I don’t hate mass production but maybe it’s time to claw back more personal adaptation and to keep the mega market at bay. I don’t hate technology – I just don’t think it is necessary to use the most sophisticated, expensive or energy consuming gadget for tasks that can easily be done by hand or with simpler means. The durability of consumer goods is very questionable too and very high tech gadgets can be finicky and expensive to repair.

I think the modern consumer economies have almost managed to turn the tables on their inhabitants in that the customer must consume – even if the cost is greater debt to himself- in order to be able to live at all. That is truly “getting the cart before the horse”.

I don’t think the mega businesses of the world are going to bother to worry about suzhi. But personal integrity and honesty are far more important when the patrons and business owners know each other by sight and by name.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

There’s nothing wrong with counting happiness in dollars as long as you don’t go around printing them wholesale, tho, of course, things would cost less and less.

Posted by REMant | Report as abusive

If dollars are printed wholesale – things tend to cost more and more!

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I shouldn’t have used the word “exclusively”, but “as a priority”. That would be impossible.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

It is ironic that a concept that has the words “essential” and “nature” at its root is being used to promote a lifestyle that destroys nature. How many additional coal-fired power plants will China have to build if it wants to convert another 800 million citizens into “modern consumers”? If that’s the plan,I’d give it no more than 30 years before there’s nothing even remotely suzhi about life in China.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

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