In China: Honesty is not the best policy

BEIJING – Fake boyfriends, fake girlfriends, fake educational qualifications, fake food, fake household-registration accounts, fake ages – the list goes on.

After nearly a year of living and reporting here, I’ve come to realise that honesty doesn’t rank high on the list of virtues in China.

Hardly a day goes by without news reports involving some form of dishonesty by a certain segment of the society, usually for some kind of self-gains.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed several men who had no qualms posing as fake boyfriends to female clients during festive periods as long as they were paid.

According to news reports and agents of the fake boyfriends I spoke to, the unique business has become busier in recent years.

The growing demand means one thing: more people don’t mind lying to their parents as long as they can stop the latter from nagging at their single status.

It was quite a sobering lesson for me: a fresh-in-China Singaporean taught from young to be honest, truthful and upfront so as not to get punished by parents, teachers and the law.

As I dug deeper, I found that the practice of dishonesty cuts across many segments of the Chinese society.

In recent months, a litany of public officials nationwide have been caught with multiple hukous – or household-registration accounts usually tied to one’s birthplace – that have enabled them to buy multiple properties.

There are also cases of civil servants exposed to be older than they claim to be so as to work longer in jobs with age limits.

And there are also the almost-incessant examples of food scandals with manufacturers passing off fake ingredients as real ones or continuing to sell expired products in stores.

Dishonesty starts young too.

According to a poll of 250 students, parents and agents conducted in 2011 by Zinch China – a consultancy that advises United States colleges and universities about China – about 90 per cent of them submitted false recommendations.

The poll also showed that 70 per cent of applicants had their essays written by others, 50 per cent forged their high school transcripts, and 10 per cent listed fake academic awards and other achievements.

Airline pilots have also been found to lie about their ages and flying records so they could work longer and earn more money.

Who can forget the example of Microsoft China’s former head Tang Jun, who had claimed to possess a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology?

Chinese scholars and friends tell me that deceit is not widely frowned upon in China as it is sometimes seen as a means to survival in a society without clear rules – or at least without a culture of abiding by them.

Said sociologist Hu Xingdou: “People realise that it doesn’t pay to be honest as not telling the truth may even yield benefits while being honest could even reap repercussions.”

It explains why even the Communist Party recently had to urge its state media to “tell the truth” in its reporting, instead of painting a rosy picture of the country so as to please the political masters.

Another reason, said Mr Hu, is the society’s view that being kind (shan in Mandarin) is more important than being real (zhen).

One factor could be the Confucian teachings that virtues like honesty can be subjugated for greater good like family peace and community unity, he added.

According to The Analects, Confucius, after learning of a man who had exposed his father for stealing sheep, said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father... and there is honesty in that too.”

Another commonly cited factor for the dishonest malaise: China’s economic boom over the past three decades have also left many of its people more obsessed with the pursuit of material well-being at the expense of upholding virtues like honesty.

A Chinese friend attested to this phenomenon, saying some of her friends idolise rich people to the extent of turning a blind eye to how their wealth is amassed through forgery and fraud.

But the prevalence of dishonesty is not without costs to China.

According to estimates by the Commerce Ministry, the abuse of credit in China amounts to an indirect economic loss of 600 billion yuan yearly.

A recent study by think-tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) showed a crisis of trust among the Chinese people.

Less than half of the 1,900 respondents in seven cities said most people can be trusted. Overall levels of trust dipped from 62.9 per cent in 2010 to the current 59 per cent.

Since each country, including Singapore, has its own quirks and flaws, I see the importance not to judge the Chinese society for the situation it is in.

But if even the Chinese do not trust one another, clearly a foreigner has to take precaution to survive here too.

I have to confess that I have become more wary here than in Singapore of strangers, including even acquaintances and shops that I frequent regularly.

I also approach Chinese news reports with a bigger pinch of salt, often cross-checking with other sources to ascertain the veracity of their contents.

It requires more effort but it is better to be safe than sorry.