Christina Patterson: Don't expect moral guidance from our leaders

Communist countries may do capitalism these days but they don’t do spirituality

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"The superior man," according to Confucius, "understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell." Indeed. It might make a good motto for a country in which trade is despised, a country in which each is supplied according to his need and the messy business of the marketplace is blissfully absent. It might, in other words, make a good motto for a communist country. It might, however, make a slightly strange motto for a country with the third biggest economy in the world, a country which has become the new challenger for world leadership in manufacturing, a country in which everything – plastic dolls, milk powder, modern art, kidneys – has a price.

That country that feels, as you gaze at a Blade Runner skyline, and at people clutching bags which bear the names (Prada, Gucci, Chanel) of their gods, like the world capital of capitalism is also, of course, a communist country. Communist countries may do capitalism these days (you have to keep up, you know, you have to get with the programme) but they don't do spirituality; they don't do religion; they don't do the opium – and the Chinese know about opium – of the masses. Or they didn't. Now, it seems, they do. In an effort to combat a perceived lack of spiritual sustenance, the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, has dusted down the teachings of China's most famous philosopher, long regarded as the enemy of communism. He's even funding a film about his life.

If this all seems a little complicated, a little like twirling plates while throwing daggers and swallowing fire, we needn't worry. The Chinese are used to such acrobatic feats. They have a word for it. Not balancing, or juggling, à la Cherie Blair, but harmony. Beijing's Forbidden City has halls of complete harmony and great harmony and central harmony and preserving harmony. That's the one the President would like. He's constantly giving speeches about the need for a "harmonious society". You smash the barriers and watch the money grow; give 'em shops and watch 'em buy and then – bloody hell! – watch them worship Mammon. It wasn't meant to be like this. Time for a bit of remedial action. Time for a bit of yin to go with that yang.

If you want to impose ethical frameworks from on high, it probably helps to be the leader of an unelected government in the most populous country on the planet. Brown must be green. He'd love to get us all in keep-calm-and-carry-on mode – the words of a Second World War poster which, 70 years on, is achieving something like viral status. He'd no doubt love to foster some of those other wartime values too – thrift, make do and mend, respect for authority – as if we were all extras in a vast episode of Dad's Army, as if he could make us all swap Captain Mainwaring's "Don't panic!" for Private Frazer's "We're doomed".

The trouble is, those values are precisely the opposite of the ones that are needed to win this war. The government that's been splashing its cash (or, more accurately, ours) like a bored Victoria Beckham on a Sunday afternoon needs us to splash what's left of ours too. And if it wants us to unite against the enemy – well, who's the enemy? Sure, Fred the Shred and his ilk did what greedy, selfish people always do, but no one elected Fred the Shred. Fred the Shred and his ilk know that the "court of public opinion" (in Harriet Harman's memorably ludicrous phrase) is rather more relevant to the politicians who oversee and run the court that counts. Namely, the law.

The government we elected in 1997 – now, sadly, dribbling to its inglorious end, sadly because the alternative will be worse – has been sending what a pop psychologist would call "mixed messages". It vowed to fight poverty while prostrating itself before the "filthy rich". But now, having spent a reputed £1.5trn in bailouts and bankers' bonuses, it's planning to shelve campaigns for equal pay for men and women, and for waiters on the minimum wage to keep their tips.

In primary schools, it has been telling children – garlanded with praise for every little smile, garlanded with praise for showing up – that what matters is what they think about themselves; what matters is whether they are happy. It perhaps forgot to mention that employers look at skills, not confidence, and that happiness usually involves a job and a wage.

What will sustain us in these dreadful times? The religions in those state-funded faith schools (of which only Islam is really a potent force)? Cognitive therapy (paid for by the Government, to brainwash us into thinking that a shitty life isn't really shitty)? Anger? Resignation? Positive thinking? Mouthing on, à la Baroness Vadera and Vera Baird, about fictional "green shoots"? Or perhaps we too can expect Confucius on the curriculum, Confucius on posters, Confucius on giant billboards. "He who will not economise will have to agonise", for example. I think I prefer "keep calm and carry on".

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