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A Crisis of Trust Takes a Toll on Chinese Society

Times Staff Writer

Talk about swimming with sharks.

Zhang Xingshui, an attorney with the Beijing Kingdom law firm, knows that like people everywhere else in the world, the Chinese don’t always trust lawyers, who often promise things they can’t deliver. But in China, he says, lawyers don’t trust their clients, who like to skip out without paying. And neither trusts judges, who routinely disregard the law in favor of politics when rendering decisions.

“Living in such a society is tiring for everyone,” Zhang said. “You’re forced to be vigilant so you don’t fall into pits, which are everywhere. Everybody is a victim and at the same time an offender.”

Even as China surges onto the world stage as if powered by rocket fuel, Earth’s most populous country is beset by trust issues that would test anyone.

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Rules aren’t clear and must be navigated on the fly. The food supply is full of life- and health-threatening fakes. Factories spew chemicals into the air and water at alarming rates. Power and connections far outweigh justice, and social tension is growing.

Meanwhile, corrupt local officials pay lip service to Communist Party ideals as they line their pockets at the expense of the general population. Land that farmers have tilled for generations can be seized on a moment’s notice in a system that doesn’t recognize private property. Friends cheat friends and uncles bilk nephews for short-term gain.

Though the widespread insecurity is difficult to quantify, analysts say it is taking an economic and psychological toll, and making governing more difficult.

“China is in a very serious trust crisis,” said Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Peking University and author of the book “On Trust.” “I’d say we’re looking at a minimum of a generation, maybe 20 or 30 years, to recover, but it could take two or three times that long.”

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Experts cite several reasons for the dearth of trust. Some point to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and other wrenching political campaigns in the first decades of communist rule that ended centuries-old traditions and forced family members and friends to denounce one another, severing basic human bonds.

“Mutual trust among people because of various political movements has deteriorated to the lowest level that any society can possibly hit,” said Hung Huang, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group and star of the recent film “Perpetual Motion,” about a woman out to determine which of her friends is having an affair with her husband. “There’s also a very different starting point: In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty. In China, you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Others cite the influence of a market economy on a society without a well-developed legal or regulatory system. Some say a lack of religion or meaningful belief system under communism leaves people morally adrift.

The government has tried to address the problem with a recent morality campaign -- “Eight Virtues and Eight Shames,” a list of do’s and don’ts, including “Be honest and trusting” and “Avoid being immoral for personal profit” -- but some question Beijing’s commitment.

“Right now they’re more concerned with building hardware, big buildings and dams than with morality and other software,” said Zheng of Peking University. “And anyway, the government shares much of the blame for the present trust crisis.”

Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People’s University in Beijing, agreed, citing the example of wildly inaccurate government statistics released for political purposes, a general lack of accountability and systemic corruption in the party ranks.

“If the beam above is crooked, the beam below won’t be straight, either,” Zhou said. “Officials cheat the common people and the common people cheat those above them. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Systemic problems and outdated or intentionally skewed laws and regulations encourage companies and individuals to cut corners.

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For example, a driver who kills a pedestrian faces a maximum liability of about $4,100 in rural Shaanxi province but upward of $37,000 in Shanghai. But when pedestrians are merely injured, there’s in effect no cap on liability.

This can create some twisted incentives. When driver Ma Yinghao hit a pedestrian in December, he deliberately backed over the injured person in an attempt to kill him, hoping to avoid high hospital and compensatory fees.

Rather than fixing a flawed system, the state often responds by trying to prevent similar abuses through intimidation, which the Intermediate People’s Court in Shijiazhuang did by sentencing Ma to death.

The problems affect some of China’s most visible professions, including medicine, the media, education, accounting and manufacturing.

The advertising industry, for instance, which is a font of fake claims, is regulated by the Advertising Industry Assn. and a unit of China’s State Administration of Industry and Commerce. Both are government-run, have their own agendas and, insiders say, don’t even make a pretense of keeping up with industry practices, a function of an unresponsive one-party state that doesn’t face political opposition or citizens who vote.

A flawed structure all but forces advertising account representatives to take kickbacks, given wage levels that won’t support them, said Zhang Li, general manager of Beijing’s Mid-South SeaSky Advertising Co.

“Mistrust in China is less a problem of individual morality than the system,” which often makes it difficult to do the right thing, Zhang said. “Even someone so moral they’d jump into the water to save a drowning person might still cheat to survive.”

In other parts of the economy, a relentless drive to make easy money has led to a spate of pyramid and other get-rich-quick schemes, with government regulators often uninterested in preventing abuse unless it becomes a political problem that jeopardizes their own careers, analysts say.

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Distrust can roil marriages as well. The rapid spread of affairs has shocked many in China, especially in light of the not-too-distant past when employers approved all marriages, divorces, births, travel and job changes, putting a chill on most infidelity.

Chinese society’s obsession with marital distrust was epitomized in the 2004 hit “Cellphone,” in which a husband spends much of the movie giving excuses over his phone to hide his affairs. His most famous excuse, “Wo zai kaihui,” or “I’m in a meeting,” became a running joke.

“If you look at the news, watch television, go on the Internet, all you see is a lack of trust,” said Wang Huifen, 39, a government worker. “Even within marriage there’s no trust.”

Does she trust her husband? “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “That’s personal.”

Cheating on your spouse and cheating the public are closely related, according to the state-run New China News Agency, which reported last year that 95% of Chinese officials convicted of corruption had mistresses.

In the marketplace, unscrupulous hucksters take advantage of the most basic of human needs and insecurities -- from food, housing and medical care to welfare and education for treasured only children -- to cheat their customers.

In Daoxianghu, an area of lakes, fields and “pay as you catch” fishing operations on the outskirts of Beijing, Shi Yingzhao fingers his bean and cucumber plants. A year ago, fed up with city life and tired of worrying about the poisons and additives in his food supply, the book editor moved into a courtyard home where he grows his own organic vegetables.

“I try not to eat anything from the market,” he said. “You just don’t know what you’re eating. I don’t use any chemicals or synthetic fertilizers. Of course you can’t ever be 100% sure, because the bigger environment is already polluted.”

It’s no wonder he’s worried. Purveyors of fake baby formula continue to victimize the poorest and least educated people more than a year after a 2004 scandal left 12 infants dead and hundreds of children malnourished or brain-damaged after they were fed white powder with no nutritional value.

There are scandals involving carcinogenic noodles, poisoned melon seeds, waste-filled pancakes, substandard wine and water-injected pork, among others.

According to the New China News Agency, 500 people suffer from sickening or deadly food poisoning a day, and a study released in June by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medical Sciences found that one-third of foods labeled “nutritious for children” were completely lacking in nutritional value.

Often at the root of the problem are retailers with an extremely short-term outlook, limited accountability and little downside if they fleece their customers. Steven Qiu, 23, said he recently called a computer company in Beijing to make sure it had a particular Sony model he wanted. When he arrived, the company had no Sony products, let alone the item he wanted.

“They lied just to get me to come,” he said. “I was furious -- it cost me a lot of time and money. And in typical fashion, their attitude was terrible. They weren’t in the least bit concerned who I complained to.”

Shenanigans in the job market have given rise to a new profession: specialists hired to check the credentials of newly recruited staff. One government crackdown a few years ago revealed that 15,000 civil servant party members had used fake university degrees and other bogus certificates to get their jobs.

The very basis of trade, China’s currency, is frequently counterfeited, and even the smallest retail outlets are equipped with special machines to check the authenticity of bills.

Yet Chinese have a high tolerance for uncertainty, some say, allowing them to cope with and even thrive under these conditions, as uncomfortable as they may be.

“After a while, it becomes quite normal,” said Shi, the book editor. “While life for ordinary people is very hard, it also makes them strong and determined to survive.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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