I’m on a trip to China this month, and it’s coinciding with some Middle Kingdom soul-searching about what Chinese people owe one another. In an age of “golden collar” workers made rich in the new economy, the Chinese are struggling to locate their social conscience. To move to the next level of development, the government needs to do the same.

It’s an important sign that even as China’s leadership continues to censor the Internet, it’s allowing online safety valves to let off steam.

The authorities are letting anyone with a mobile device — that’s 900 million Chinese — use monitored social-networking sites to have a conversation about what’s wrong with their national character.

Last month brought a viral video from the city of Foshan of a 2-year-old girl hit by a truck. The girl was ignored as pedestrians callously passed by; then she was struck by another car. She later died. Like millions of other workers, the toddler’s parents had left the countryside and moved to the city, where they let their daughter play in traffic.

The Chinese have an expression, “shao guan xian shi,” which translates roughly as “Don’t get involved if it’s not your business.” They have heard of too many cases where would-be Good Samaritans find that the victims of accidents try to blame them in order to extract money. But this story pricked the conscience of the nation. The press and legions of bloggers have been chewing over the implications for days.

Spiritual Toll

China’s closely supervised version of Twitter, called Weibo, is allowing more discussion nowadays. Over the summer, millions commented on a case in which the government misled the public after a high-speed train crash. And this week, Weibo and the Chinese media spread the story of two parents working in the city who left their infant back in their village with little supervision. The child, looking malnourished, was photographed in a rural classroom on the lap of her 9-year-old cousin, who had taken the baby to school.

There’s widespread anxiety over the spiritual toll that class stratification is taking, not just on the poor but the well-off. In Shanghai this week (on a trip with other American journalists), I heard middle-school teachers describe sending their affluent, pampered “4-2-1” students (four grandparents, two parents, one child) to the countryside for the summer to work with the rural poor, partly to keep them from getting spoiled.

Flintstones to Jetsons

These kids grew up amid what must rank as the largest and fastest urban transformation in the history of the world. When I first visited Shanghai, in 1984, it was as if I’d been transported in a time machine to the 1930s. I saw very few buildings constructed after World War II and few cars. This time, it felt like a time machine had taken me to 2050. The city glistens with loads of classy new skyscrapers, millions of new cars (many of them fashionable Buicks built by a local General Motors Co. (GM) plant I visited that’s running at full capacity) and trains seemingly as fast as planes. I saw the place move from the Flintstones to the Jetsons in less than three decades.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s former paramount leader, set the change in motion but never envisioned its speed; he thought it would take until the end of the 21st century. One of the Shanghai academics I spoke with this week said he thought China’s coming-out party as a great power at the 2008 Olympic Games was premature because the country’s cultural advancement hasn’t kept pace with its economic development. He compared China to a teenage boy — it had the body of a global power but the mind of a regional power.

The government’s testiness in international forums, military aggressiveness in the South China Sea, and continued thuggishness toward free expression at home all betray insecurity. Too often China still adopts a “none of our business” approach to assuming the burdens of global leadership on issues ranging from arms control to the balance of trade.

Let’s hope that someday soon all of this is discussed publicly, with the same candor and sense of reflection that was sparked by a little girl left to die in the street.

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Jonathan Alter

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonathanalter. Jonathan Alter is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.