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Borrowing Chinese Ideas on Social Cohesion

By Dr Ben Habib, WATCH (Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health) 

One of the exiting aspects of living lightly is the opportunity it provides for community building and connecting with other people.  Strong social networks will become increasingly important as we grapple with environmental problems, energy insecurity and financial turmoil at the end of the age of growth.

As a specialist in international relations, I look to Chinese culture for ideas on building social cohesion during tough times.

Between the First Opium War in 1836 to the beginning of economic reforms in the late-1970s, Chinese society endured a long period of social chaos, continual revolution and war.  For ordinary people, life was often nasty, brutish and short, where mutual trust between people was the only barrier between order and anarchy.

Imagine the practical difficulties of everyday life without law and order and strong government.  The Chinese people managed by drawing on a cultural practice called guanxi (pronounced “gwan-shee”), which is about maintaining networks of ongoing personal relationships based on mutual benefit through reciprocal ties and obligations. 

Guanxi was the basis for greater social stability at the local level in China than would have otherwise existed during this turbulent period.  While nineteenth and twentieth century China is not a close historic parallel to twenty-first century Australia, there are some lessons we can take from the Chinese experience. 

We can maximise our own well-being by consciously being less selfish and placing a greater emphasis on the good of the community.  As the trust horizon shrinks from the national to the local level in a society under stress, strong networks can provide the glue that holds a community together. 

In tough times, people benefit not only from strong social support networks but also reliable suppliers of everyday goods and services, particularly when there are cost pressures, scarcities and unreliable supply chains. 

For us this might mean joining a community garden where one can grow and share produce, or establishing an ongoing purchasing relationship with a farmer.  It could entail bartering goods and services on a regular basis.  It might mean initiating a relationship with your neighbours through sharing home-grown food.  Any reciprocal action for mutual benefit can form the glue of strong social bonds.

I do not suggest we abandon our own cultural practices.  However other cultures have good ideas that we can borrow from.  As a multicultural country, Australia is well placed to take advantage of the experiences of other societies.