We all go down together: lianzuo (collective responsibility) in China

Imagine doing jail time — or worse — just because you were related to the offending party.

If you want to understand just how far collectivism goes in China, look no further than lianzuo — or collective responsibility. Throughout China’s 2,000-year feudal history — from at least 7th-century BC all the way to the turn of the 20th century — people were guilty by association. That is, if you were a blood relative or close business associate of the guilty, you would be taking a fall along with them. This China Daily article refers to it as families that hang together — and we don’t mean “hanging out” in the modern sense, either.

The interesting thing is, group responsibility still has a hold on Chinese culture today — even if it is considered a little unfair.

I was reminded of this when proofing a manuscript for my husband’s former graduate school advisor. He wanted to examine Piaget’s idea of collective and communicable responsibility with Chinese adolescents, looking at their psychological response through a number of dilemmas. One of them included a situation where someone cheated in class, the teacher discovered it, but no one wanted to own up to their mistake, forcing the teacher to punish the entire class.

What was interesting was that, even though a majority of the adolescents considered collective punishment unjust, most showed a tendency to take responsibility for behavior in order to avoid punishment to the collective, and this tendency increased with age.

When you consider that Chinese culture emphasizes the group or family over the individual, it’s not surprising individuals would “sacrifice” for the good of the whole. Maintain the group harmony is a top priority. Plus, given that Confucianism stresses obedience to elders/leaders, it’s important to respect authority, even if the outcome is unpleasant.

From the authority’s point of view, it’s understandable they’d want to punish the entire lot. In China — even today as self-responsibility is gaining more popularity — people would, in general, rather not be the one in charge, but rather spread the responsibility around. It’s safer that way, right? As long as everyone holds a little responsibility, no one gets sacked from their job. If you’ve ever dealt with any bureaucracy, you know what I mean.

I think of the one time I almost “lost” my entire life savings in a snafu involving electronic bank transfers from one bank to another (not for the uninitiated, that’s for sure). I was caught in a ping-pong match between the banks as to who was not responsible for the mistake. Later on, I discovered it was a name input mistake — obviously an electronic, and not human, error.

Yeah, right. 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.