Service Conscience Remains Final Hurdle to Stable China

China is building up a powder keg of resentment created by the contempt of its business people toward their customers and its leadership toward its people. Within a few years this powder keg will turn explosive.

The perfunctory, indifferent, rude and even scornful service one often encounters at restaurants and shops operated by Chinese immigrants even here in the US is a symptom of a deep ethical flaw created by the rush to embrace materialism without the usual development in the social and political spheres. Those recent immigrants may have escaped that flawed system, but they can’t help remaining products of that system.

Ultimately, the source of this flaw can be traced to China’s leadership and the unwise social experiment it’s attempting on a grand scale — actively suppressing the natural evolution toward an open and democratic society while harnessing the economic power of free enterprise. It’s never been accomplished before and it’s not likely to be accomplished now.

We’ve all read stories about China’s milk producers poisoning tens of thousands of infants by watering down infant formulas, then boosting their apparent protein content with the fertilizer chemical melamine. And the stories about meat packers skimping on quality control and selling pork tainted with so much bacteria that it actually glows in the dark. And the chief engineer of the high-speed railway system who milked contractors for bribes while letting them cut costs with inferior materials and construction quality, probably resulting in at least one massively fatal collision last year. And the Chinese retail managers of leading European luxury brands who refused to honor their customers’ requests for replacements for defective goods.

These kinds of abuses are no different in their social and ethical dimensions than the Chinese bakery shop owner who acts like she’s doing the customer a favor by taking money for her goods, or the restaurateur who treats his customers based on her perception of his means or his sartorial splendor.

In turn such transactions are identical to a nation’s leadership telling citizens that they can work and produce to their hearts’ content, and pay their share of taxes but are not free to watch, read and say what they want on pain of being treated like criminals. Sending dissidents into indefinite limbo on vague, unproven charges and clamping down on TV programming and internet access are some recent examples of the disrespect with which China’s biggest business — the government — is treating its customer-citizens.

When a society feels fundamentally cheated by its leadership, it feels justified in passing on unethical treatment to whomever it perceives to be in its power. A restaurateur or a shopkeeper feels he enjoys power over his customers, and feels as few qualms about imposing his arbitrary impulses on them as his nation’s leadership feels about imposing its arbitrary restrictions over citizens.

Of course that power is illusory. Customers who feel cheated of due courtesy and respect will seek out other shops and restaurants. The customers of those Chinese companies that tried to foist defective or inferior products and services have driven up the demand for imported brands perceived to embody a fairer and more ethical culture. The rising popularity of many American, Japanese, Korean and European brands in China are often fueled by the suspicion of China’s consumers that their health and safety, if not dignity, are being violated by domestic brands.

Of course foreign brands selling to Chinese must reinvest most of their earnings back into paying Chinese workers, Chinese rents, Chinese taxes and Chinese utilities. To that extent their success continues to help China’s economic growth. But that small percentage that foreign brands manage to repatriate will be the margin by which China will lose wealth or growth — and, as anyone with a finance background knows, that margin compounds quickly. It doesn’t take long for the suspicion and resentment of Chinese toward their own merchants, employers and government to translate into a marked preference for foreign goods, services, educations, residences and even forms of government — and an economy growing to slowly to keep the majority of its people happy.

At the moment China’s businesses and government can draw on an impoverished and unsophisticated rural population of about 700 million to fuel continued rapid growth in productivity, revenues and attendant geopolitical stature as the world’s growth engine. But that rural population is rapidly moving up the ladder by becoming migrant workers, urban residents and, in short order, more sophisticated consumers who can recognize when they’re being cheated of rights.

Unless China’s leadership allows resumption of the normal evolution of the political system to keep up with the economic evolution that has powered its rise these past three decades, it will find itself atop a powder keg of resentment at every level of the social and economic food chain. The resulting explosion may not be long in coming.