In the Hanseatic city of Lubeck, the first teachings of the Buddenbrook family were so expressed: “My son, tend to your stores with zeal during the day, but only make those deals that allow you to sleep at night.” It was a generational message of a system that revolved around its religious, moral, and economic values, majestically laid out in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece. Honesty was fundamental for this process. It gave one the security that they were acting for a noble ideal, undertaken in the name of God for the betterment of family, company, and society. Its virtue was transmitted to the whole social sphere, an irradiation of values both in the small Baltic freistadt and in the whole of Germany, which was on its way to national unity.
Respect for the rules, even before the laws, infused modern European liberal architecture. Being observant of principles was not only an obligation, but also economically advantageous for society as a whole, which is why those who break the rules are committing an affront to social ethics first, and a crime second. Honesty is value, but also an instrument. Liberal societies have obviously not been exempt from deep injuries that have required intervention by the legislative and judiciary authorities. Despite being faced with grievous manifestations, the idea that those violations were pathology, and not the physiology of the system, has always prevailed. The relentless economic growth of the Western world appears to have validated this position.
The advent of China – and eastern Asia in general – has drawn into question the universality of these convictions. The Middle Kingdom, to widespread concern, has upended the presumption of a convergence between the ideals of freedom and economic necessity. The latter is attainable – the facts have demonstrated it to be so – even with a different set of values, above all without the need for individualism. But not for this, obviously, the Chinese model shrinks from positive values. Honesty is an integral component, as are the many virtues that crowd the Chinese weltanschauung. The context from which they arise is nevertheless different, as is the environment in which they are established, and the contradictions they generate.