‘Suzhi’, ‘quality’ or ‘human quality’, is a term frequently used in defence of paternalistic rule, or what we today call the ‘nanny state’. It was common during China’s Republican era (1912–1949). Suzhi also crops up in internal debates about whether China is a civilised country. It describes a person’s qualities measured in terms of behaviour, education, ethics/ambition. It is related to the concepts of ‘breeding’ (jiaoyang 教养) and ‘personal cultivation’ or refinement (xiuyang 修养). Yet it is distinct from zhiliang 质量, which also means ‘quality’, but refers to a more straightforward good-or-bad evaluation (as in food or manufactured products) and is not normally used to describe a person. People can have or lack suzhi, and for the narrow minded or bigoted, if a person is without suzhi, due to perceived innate qualities, background, appearance or personal history, nothing can be done about it.
In general, however, it is argued that a person’s suzhi can be cultivated or trained. The concept of suzhi jiaoyu 素质教育 is often translated as ‘quality education’ but it is closer in meaning to ‘moral education’ or even ‘a well-rounded education’ (including ideological and physical education). It involves an attempt to move away from test-oriented teaching toward critical thinking, problem solving, and other analytical skills. In his work on ‘quality education’, the educator Yan Guocai classifies suzhi into eight types spanning three categories:
Natural quality (ziran suzhi 自然素质)
This is innate, and encompasses one’s physical state (shenti suzhi 身体素质)
Psychological quality (xinli suzhi 心理素质)
This is a combination of innate and nurtured emotional and mental states
Social quality (shehui suzhi 社会素质)
This is nurtured, and encompasses one’s political level 政治素质, intellectual ability 思想素质, moral nature 道德素质, vocational attainment 业务素质, sense of aesthetics 审美素质 and labour skills 劳技素质.
On the flip side, rudeness and bad behaviour are commonly considered marks of ‘low quality’. As China’s population increasingly encounters the world, the official media attacks bad behaviour and the government launches initiatives to ‘enhance the quality of the nation’. The government frequently cites the ‘poor quality’ of the citizenry as a justification for delaying democratic reforms. This view extends beyond the official sphere: in a notorious blog post made at the close of 2011, the outspoken young blogger Han Han wrote:
Citizens of low quality [suzhi di 素质低] will not prevent the arrival of democracy, but will determine its future quality [zhiliang 质量]. No one wants Rwandan-style democracy.