China and Bourgeois Virtue

A recent New York Times article titled “Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent” provides an interesting counter to Deirdre McCloskey’s assertion that modern growth required bourgeois virtue, not just old fashioned greed. A fundament of bourgeois virtue is honesty in dealing with others: a horror of prevarication, mendacity, and lying.

China, as we know, has grown spectacularly. It seems set to soon take its place among the developed nations. Yet Chinese society, as currently constituted, lacks just this fundament of bourgeois virtue. In particular lying about achievements, authorship, and ownership is routine, accepted, and little punished.

Plagiarism by Chinese academics is rampant. Recently a group of Chinese scientific journals installed an automatic plagiarism check on submissions. Nearly one third were found to contain pirated content. Similarly one third of 6,000 scientists at six of China’s top institutions admitted on a survey that “they had engaged in plagiarism or the outright fabrication of research data.”

Dishonesty permeates the academic system from top to bottom. Cheating and fraud begin in high school: hundreds of web sites offer ghost written essays and question answers for the competitions for college entrance.

Cheating continues at college and beyond. As reported in the Times, “Centenary College, a New Jersey institution with branches in China and Taiwan, shuttered its business schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei after finding rampant cheating among students.”

Nor does it appear that this systematic fraud is confined to the academic world. Airline safety in China has been hazarded by widespread lying by pilots about their qualifications. Theft of intellectual property is routine in the business world. Tainted milk flows into the distribution system.

All these activities are of course carried on in the bourgeois west. Think Enron, think Bernie Madoff, think of Harvard Professor Marc Hauser. But as Hauser’s cases illustrates, the sanctions and loss of face associated with being caught are vastly greater here.

Deirdre McCloskey points to the association in eighteenth century England between two innovations: the rise of bourgeois virtue, and the Industrial Revolution. But modern experience in China suggests this is an accidental conjunction. Economic growth may demand many social qualities, but virtue does not seem to be one of them.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Deirdre McCloskey summarizes the argument of her forthcoming book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. She argues that while the modern world rode an economic tide, the tide did not have economic causes. Changes in thinking and, yes, in rhetoric did the real work. Neither thrift, nor greed, nor the Protestant ethos are at the heart of this transformation, which brought material prosperity to whole classes that had never before known it. A variety of possible causes must be dismissed, she argues, from foreign trade, to legal institutions, to coal. The dignity and liberty of the bourgeoisie are the keys to economic transformation.


  • Gregory Clark argues that cultural or intellectual developments, like the rise of the bourgeois virtues, ultimately can’t explain the modern world. Not only were such virtues around long before the Industrial Revolution, but they have come and gone throughout many different societies over thousands of years. Why, then, did the Industrial Revolution only happen so recently, and only once? Worse, if we accept that cultural changes brought modern prosperity, we face the prospect that future changes in intellectual fashion may rob us of prosperity as easily as it was bestowed. This he finds both unfortunate and, thankfully, unlikely.

  • Matt Ridley makes two connected points: First, surges in creativity and innovation are far from unique. They can be observed throughout history, and they are usually connected to increases in trade and specialization. In this sense, Britain during the eighteenth century was not exceptional.

    Second, however, Britain was exceptional in another respect — it had large reserves of coal, and it began putting them to use. Cheap energy helped ensure that the boom in innovation didn’t die out. Entrepreneurs won out against plunderers in part because they had this resource at their disposal, and because they could make the case for the benefits of innovation so easily. It was only after the switch to a coal-driven economy that wages finally began to rise for the typical British worker. They continue to do so today thanks to coal and to other sources of cheap energy that have since been discovered and exploited.

  • Jonathan Feinstein suggests that the revolution in human creativity is still underway, and that we have not yet fully recognized what it means to be creative. The science of creativity, he argues, is key here, as the creative process is very different from what most people imagine it to be.