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The suzhi explanation

18 April 2012 By Edward Hadas

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.


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