Socrates in Shanghai

Reports about China’s economic prosperity often obscure the serious problems the pace of development is creating for the world’s most populous nation. Nowhere is the distance between China’s Communist past and its hypercapitalist present more evident than in the gap between wealthy urban elites and dirt-poor villagers in the provinces.

An egregious example of the desperate measures to which many poor Chinese have been driven is the unsanitary blood trade that developed in the 1990s. To support their families, parents sold their blood, and sometimes bodily organs, to illicit tissue traffickers who traded on the global market. In the process, many contracted HIV. China has been reluctant to admit the extent of its AIDS epidemic: in addition to the stigma of the disease, the link between the illegal sale of blood and organs and the spread of HIV exposes disturbing inequities in a society that until recently claimed to be radically egalitarian. To make matters worse, China’s health-care system fails millions of people, and there is little or no support for AIDS victims. The epidemic has created a generation of orphans.

I discovered the dark underbelly of China’s success during a recent trip there with an international group of leaders. We wanted to learn more about the country and people who, more than any other, will shape the social, political, economic, and environmental landscape of the twenty-first century. We spent a week meeting with Chinese representatives from the arts, education, technology, business, finance, law, and nongovernmental organizations. Our conversations were unexpectedly candid and productive, but it was a thoughtful young man with a tortured background who taught me the most.

Our group had arranged a meeting with the founder and chairperson of the Chi Heng Foundation, a charity established in 1998 to work with AIDS orphans. Born in China, Chung To studied at Columbia University, where I teach philosophy and religion, and received a master’s from Harvard. He worked for ten years as an investment banker in the United States and Hong Kong, but he eventually left finance to devote all his time to the organization he founded. In addition to raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS problem throughout China, the foundation sponsors the education and care of eight thousand children whose parents are dying or have died of AIDS.

We met Chung in a teahouse on a tree-lined street in Shanghai. He explained the history of AIDS in China and described how the government has sought to repress awareness of the problem. We saw poignant photographs: children playing near their mother’s sickbed as she lay wasting away; empty streets and lanes that once buzzed with activity; rows of AIDS victims’ graves in a village with no medical resources.

We were still struggling to absorb what we had seen when Chung introduced four of the college-age students his foundation is supporting. Communicating through a translator, we asked questions and they described their horrific pasts, present lives, and future hopes. One young woman was training to be a baker, another was studying to be a civil engineer, and a third hoped to pursue communications. The fourth student had just started university and knew only that he did not share his friend’s interest in engineering. As our time together drew to a close, Chung asked the students if they wanted to ask us anything. The young man who was still undecided about his course of study said he had a question for “the professor.” Turning to me, he said, “Professor, what do you think Socrates meant when he said, ‘Know thyself’?”

Had he asked me about Barack Obama, Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets, or hip-hop, I would not have been surprised. But Socrates! And not just Socrates, but a question that has puzzled the best minds for centuries. I considered my response carefully. “For Socrates,” I replied, “true knowledge consists in knowing what we do not know. Socratic ignorance is not so much the lack of knowledge as the discovery that much of what we know is wrong.” My response was translated, and the young man nodded and smiled.

I went to China looking for the macro but found the micro—the greatest revelation came in an unexpected question from a young man of seventeen, who upended my assumptions. There is a long Chinese tradition of exchanging business cards as a means of introduction. As we parted, I handed the young man my card and said, “Perhaps one day you will come to Columbia to study philosophy.” If AIDS orphans in China are asking questions about Socrates, perhaps there is still hope that we can solve the problems we face.

Published in the 2010-03-26 issue: 

Mark C. Taylor is chair of the department of religion at Columbia University. His latest book is Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living.

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