China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

Maslow’s Hierarchy

The People’s Republic of China’s growth since 1949 mirrors development of not just the rise of great powers; but it also surprisingly reflects psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Developmental Hierarchy of Needs (Quotations from HERE).

1.) “Physiological Needs

These are biological needs…They are the strongest needs”

To sustain the country in the late 1950s, collectivization programs were instituted, farms were consolidated, and backyard furnaces smelted steel. Then, the Great Leap Forward bust, and a famine began that would cost the lives of millions. China recovered, eventually, but it embarked upon increasingly insular policies. (PBS) In Wild Swans, Jung Chan discusses the struggle for survival.

From 1966-1976, China suffered the Great Cultural Revolution, when students were sent into the countryside to labor alongside peasants, and intelligensia were humiliated (some were murdered). Even cadres suffered, but former “landlord-class”, “entrepreneurs”, and professionals like doctors, lawyers, and teachers suffered the most.  To increase crop yields and to raise the Socialist spirit, people were forced into collectivized farms.

The Mao Jacket (Photo) became a popular form of clothing, paens to the great Chairman were sung, and the loyalty dance was danced. Ritual was embraced, and individuality was considered putting the self above the collective, thereby damaging productivity (Xing Lu’s book has more on the Cultural Revolution).

The Cultural Revolution might be argued to have domestically fulfilled security needs to ensure Mao’s superiority more than physiological needs. Internationally, however, it was most definitely an example of physiological needs. Because the regime was so concerned about internally maintaining order, China recalled ambassadors from abroad (Xiaohong Liu’s excellent book describes this) and basically walled itself off from the outside world, helping justify the phrase, the “bamboo curtain.” Instead of reaching out, China criticised Moscow and embarked on an extended period of isolation. 

In essence, the 1960s saw China concerned with itself, and its survival as a revolutionary Communist state.

2.) “Safety Needs

When all physiological needs are satisfied and are no longer controlling thoughts and behaviors, the needs for security can become active. ”

Post 1976, a new set of regimented order emerged. Out of the crumbling of the collective farms and state-owned enterprises during the 1980s-1990s, came a brief “Beijing Spring” and opening 改革开放 under the leadership of liberals such as Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang. This opening came to an end in 1989.

Arguably, need for security is still paramount even today, as is evident when Beijing cracks down on Tib#*#*tan protests, and internet censors monitor communications. (James Fallows of the Atlantic has a really interesting article on censorship  and concepts of security.)

In terms of international security; in 1979 Chinese troops crossed the border to punitively punish Vietnam for becoming involved in the unrest in Cambodia. After seizing a few objectives, the Chinese withdrew. Also of note is the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis.

3.) “Needs of Love, Affection and Belongingness

When the needs for safety and for physiological well-being are satisfied, the next class of needs for love, affection and belongingness can emerge. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. This involves both giving and receiving love, affection and the sense of belonging. ”

Look at the cute Olympic monsters, the fuwa, and consider China’s “Panda Diplomacy,” then consider how China coveted the Olympics because having them will demonstrate that China is a great country. The CS Monitor and other journalistic outlets have often repeated; “The Chinese government is treating the Games as a symbolic end to 150 years of humiliation by outside powers and a confirmation of its status as a global power to be reckoned with.” As a student said in response to Beijing’s reception of the Olympics; “I feel our motherland is already a great power in the East. Our nation has stood up.”

Nowadays, China wants the respect of its neighbors.  China emerged from the alienation of the 60s,70s, and post-1989. In 2001 it joined the WTO- acting as though it belongs in the company of great nations (Why China Wants to Join the WTO).

Thus, China is more susceptible to public opinion. In response to intense lobbying over the Darfur issue in Sudan, China sent more peacekeepers and has shown a greater willingness to cooperate with international bodies.

4.) “Needs for Esteem

When the first three classes of needs are satisfied, the needs for esteem can become dominant. These involve needs for both self-esteem and for the esteem a person gets from others… When these needs are satisfied, the person feels self-confident and valuable as a person in the world. When these needs are frustrated, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless. ”

China needs to be respected by others. Thus, “Chinese rage has focused on the alleged “anti-China” bias of the Western press,” according to the Economist. When foreign media outlets misrepresented pictures of Nepalese mistreating Ti#$$$$ans as Chinese mistreating Ti%%%%etans, Chinese were outraged. Also, when Chinese saw Western press as feeling sorry for T^^^b#t, they demonstrate the Ti&&&etans in France horribly mistreated one disabled Olympic torch bearer.

Peter Hays Gries discusses China’s new assertive nationalism in detail in his book: China’s New Nationalism.

By winning in the Olympics and putting on a good show, China will feel validated and have its esteem needs satisfied.

Also, China has established Confucius Insitiutes around the world to spread Chinese language and culture.

5.) “Needs for Self-Actualization

When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then and only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. Maslow describes self-actualization as a person’s need to be and do that which the person was “born to do.””

China has yet to reach this stage. When it does, it might explode onto the international scene, justifying territorial rights in claiming Taiwan, and settling oceanic disputes. At the self-actualization stage, China’s pursuit of these rights will be similar to its pursuit of rights during the security stage, but more sophisticated. China might press its demands through use of diplomatic isolation, economic pressures, or show of military force (not necessarily invasion). When China has become self-actualized, it will be confident in its strengths, capabilities and goals as a nation. Chinese military plans currently suppose the PRC will be a regional power by 2020.

Self-actualization comprises more than mere territorial claims. After China gains confidence to act on the world stage, it might try to remake the world in its image, much as the United States, the USSR, and Great Britain have done in past ages.

China will seek to set up its own international groupings and economic bodies. China already supports ASEAN and may be able to assume a leadership role in this USA-excluding trade body. The US’ group, a more expansive APEC, is confronting some problems due to its ambitious nature, and will confront more in coming years given America’s Democrats’ distaste for free trade.

When and if China will arrive at the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy is debatable. Much can happen that might hinder China’s full development, from socioeconomic unrest, to internal splittism, to a slowing of the economy. Any of those items might cause China to turn in on itself and become less a leader and more preoccupied with solipsistic concerns.

(Note: Minor edits enacted on July 15th)

9 July, 2008 - Posted by | China General, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The Cultural revolution was more an expression of “safety needs” than “physiological needs”. It was launched by Chairman Mao to keep himself in power by eliminating who he thought were his enemies – some people in office in the government. Most of those eliminated as a result were “collateral damages”, but that is another story.

    One can see and accept that China needs love, acceptance, esteem, respect….. However, China should really look inside and find a solution to this. There is a Chinese saying “Face is a gift from others, while you can create your own disgrace”. China has to learn to earn respect, trust, love from others, and gain esteem on the way, and not to demand them.

    Comment by Bill | 9 July, 2008

  2. Good point Bill; perhaps I should have argued that the Great Leat Forward was period in which “physiological needs” drove Chinese politics.

    In the GLF, backyard furnaces and radical collectivization politices were heavily pursued in order to “scientifically” increase industrial output and crop yields.

    Comment by chinacomment | 10 July, 2008

  3. Hello, this is my first comment for this site.

    I’m not really sure if you should apply Maslow’s Hierachy on a National level. While the part of Self-Actualization is correct in that one need’s to do which on was “born to do”, this is really based on individual’s sense of purpose. If it was used for a group like consensus, then that particular group has to find it’s life’s mission in conjuction with other groups.
    Some of the issues you listed like confidence in projecting it’s power and other political projects isn’t quite what self-actualization means per se.

    Take the United States of America. The country is very unique and often considered as a leader in many areas. However, what it’s real life mission may be something a bit more subtle yet profound such as being the “Nation which shows others that second chances are possible in life” or a “Nation of experiments which is working to put progress and stability together” etc. On an national level, self actualization would be a group like consensus of having a national goal in relative with others. If it were a moto, it would sound like this is a country or an example that so and so can happen.

    While it is about knowing one’s place in the world, it is also knowing what it’s self-worth and unique, important mission that only it as a community can fulfill. It sounds like I repeated myself but if you dig deeper there is a lot to think about. I have more examples, but I’ll find another time or place to post about.

    Comment by Daniel | 14 July, 2008

  4. >>On an national level, self actualization would be a group like consensus of having a national goal in relative with others. If it were a moto, it would sound like this is a country or an example that so and so can happen.

    Daniel, your argument here is quite valid; however, I still slightly demur. On an national level, I see self-actualization as not necessarily being an agreement among everyone in society; I see it as the country fearlessly exerting its will and changing the world. By creating the World Bank, IMF, and helping form the UN, the US shaped the world and “did what it was meant to do”, namely “lead.”

    When China reaches that stage, it will also “do what it was meant to do”, which could be leading and establishing its own indigenously-designed international frameworks.

    >>Some of the issues you listed like confidence in projecting it’s power and other political projects isn’t quite what self-actualization means per se.

    I agree that of my two part definition of self-actualization for China, this part was the weaker section.

    However, it is interesting to watch the Japanese debate whether or not to drop Article 9 of their constitution so they can become a “normal country” and choose to enact force whenever and wherever they see fit.

    Japan appears to want to have freedom with its military, much as Iran appears to want to have freedom with nuclear power not necessarily because of security fears, but because they want to be considered a “big nation”- which would initially be rated under “NEEDS FOR ESTEEM” . however, once that power is exerted, it can be done so in a “SELF-ACTUALIZATION manner, if the power is exerted systematically.

    Thanks for your feedback.
    Also a note, per Bill’s comments, I made some improvements to the original article.

    Comment by chinacomment | 15 July, 2008

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