Illustration: Liu Rui
Every time I visit the countryside, I can’t help noticing the strong gambling culture. It’s become a national phenomenon, especially during the holidays. Gambling is the main form of social interaction and a major pastime for many men. I have a couple of friends who, on annual salaries of 200,000 ($31,259) or 300,000 yuan, will still spend tens of thousands of yuan on gambling.
Some might wonder how gambling can become so popular considering it is illegal, and what role the authorities have played in its recent development. I’d say that most of the police are still in favor of cracking down on gambling, since there’s always a lot of money to be seized at gambling venues.
But they’re always one step behind, since gamblers have developed various strategies to work around police interference. For instance, most gambling sites alternate venues regularly, and pay people to look out to the police.
Also, for confidentiality, participants only have limited access to the organizer, and most of them are unaware of the organizational structure.
The popularity of gambling is so unexpectedly overwhelming that it almost feels like a civic movement among the working class.
Back in the city, let’s shift our focus onto the middle and upper class, who have recently been expressing a special interest in further education.
Courses such as Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) degrees and “Confucian Theory” are offered by some very prestigious schools. Many managers and government officials are willing to pay tens of thousands of yuan, or sometimes hundreds of thousands, to attend.
Although these two phenomenon don’t seem that similar, under the surface we can see a coherent social paradigm that focuses on cultivating social capital in the form of horizontal bonds.
The appeal of gambling is multi-leveled. For one, the fairness of the game allows participants to be treated on equal terms. Regardless of one’s usual socioeconomic status, once the game started, social equality on the table is formed by rule-binding behavior. Horizontal bonds are developed and not interfered with by the usual social prescriptions.
Also, the playfulness and the gaming spirit help close up the social distance. The collective spirit of law-breaking helps bring in further social cohesion. The artificial classless and egalitarian status created and secured by the game is something precious in our usual social context. That’s why it appeals to people in the lower classes, for whom social injustice and inequality are unavoidable.
As for EMBA attendees, many of them view the course as a social platform and equality is achieved through the framework of school. The strict social structure dissolves in the peer spirit created through the learning process. It offers an environment for cultivating fraternity and social solidarity. Such kinship is much valued by mid-career managers who are largely socially excluded due to their prestige and power. The school relieves them from the anxiety of loneliness, and is a brief escape from the overarching social obligations.
The concept of horizontal bonds, well-reflected in the two phenomenon listed above, was originally developed by Robert D. Putnam in his book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, a comparative study of regional governments in Italy that argues for the large role of horizontal bonds in the success of democracies. The book delves into the hazardous effect of vertical and hierarchical affiliations on social justice, as they provide the foundation of bureaucracy and help cultivate corruption. Putnam’s study found the performance of the regional government highly depends on civic engagement and social solidarity.
China largely lacks civic, social and fraternal organizations, such as sports leagues or non-profit organizations, which could serve as platforms for creating social capital.
Gambling in the countryside and courses in the city fill this gap. The aim is to create an environment of equality where horizontal bonds flourish. Oddly, they both fit in the panoramic view of development of a healthy civic society.
The author is a researcher with the Research Center for Public Policy, China Society of Economic Reform. firstname.lastname@example.org