03/17/2012 07:12 pm ET Updated May 17, 2012

American-Style Individualism in China? Looks Deceive

A Chinese new wave? China's rock scene, underground but dynamic, is loaded with bands that suggest a new, post-1990s rebellious spirit. Their names fly in the face of collective harmony: Hutong Fist, Tomahawk, Catcher in the Rye, Twisted Machine, Queen Sea Big Shark and Wild Children. Indie singers are, collectively, a huge force on Douban, China's leading cultural and artistic website. Performers such as Jay Chou, known for nonconformist lyrics, and Hong Kong's Edison Chen, a "real guy" despite being driven out of the city due to a pornography scandal involving several Hong Kong starlets, are embraced by the new generation. Lady Gaga is an icon. Subculture tribalism is the rage for local fashion brands such as Metersbonwe. The nation cheers self-determination; when an armless 20 year-old won China's Got Talent by playing piano with his toes, many cried. In coastal cities, tattoo joints, purveyors of indelible badges of individualism, are as ubiquitous as massage parlors.

Surely the forces of change are reshaping the Chinese psyche. Surely people, once suppressed by colorless conformity, are embracing individualism.

Sorry, but no. Self-expression is not equal to independence of thought. Chinese society has never celebrated the liberation of individual potential that, in any way, smacks of rebellion. Creativity -- and, make no mistake, mainlanders are capable of wonderful originality if they feel safe enough to pursue it -- exists in a bottle, placed up high, out of reach of ordinary citizens. Underground musicians never achieve mass popularity, and not only because of draconian censorship laws. The Chinese, despite the rise of alternative music, still gravitate toward headliners who sing sweet melodies. Although the glow of regression-to-the-mean Cantopop stars such as Aaron Kwok and Andy Lau is fading, no home-grown individualistic superstar -- that is, the Chinese Madonna -- has emerged to capture imaginations. Chinese sculptors and painters sell their works mainly to investors, foreign and domestic, with eyes on artistic arbitrage. Chen Danqing, a well-known artist and intellectual who lived in New York for 20 years before returning to Beijing 10 years ago, expressed in a recent interview, "None of us in today's China is a genuine intellectual. None of us."

Instinctive anti-individualism. Westerners sometimes have difficulty grasping the structure of Chinese society, so radically different from their own. Individuals are never encouraged -- by parents, teachers, bosses or leaders -- to define themselves as independent of society. The basic productive unit of society is the clan, not the individual. Free thought is inherently destabilizing, a threat to conventional order. Institutions designed to protect the interests of individuals, both political and economic, have never been developed. Courts serve the interests of the state. In hierarchical settings, few dare to overtly challenge the boss's opinion, particularly in front of peers. Fathers are uniformly respected by even the hippest new generation types. Teachers, feared by both pupils and parents, are agents of the power structure, vested with the authority to determine who advances within it.

Ego gratification, as opposed to self-driven individualism, is a primary urge for an ambitious, upwardly mobile population. But success is still synonymous with societal acknowledgement. Although entrepreneurial achievement counts -- owning a business suggests control of one's destiny -- non-traditional career paths such as advertising or charity work are abandoned by the age of 35, particularly by men responsible for an extended clan's material security. The pursuit of happiness, a tempting but forbidden fruit, is an adolescent fantasy, best forsaken by the time the pressure of marriage, mortgage, mother-in-law and auto ownership come into play.

Human rights: No passion. This instinctive anti-individualism also means that human rights will never be the driving force of China's evolution. The passions of morally relativistic, pragmatic Chinese are not roused when another's liberties are infringed upon. The Chinese greeted the recent arrests of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and renowned artist Ai Weiwei with sadness, but not righteous indignation. Concerns that do not directly impact "my family" quickly dissipate. The exception is cases wherein ordinary people can easily see themselves in the person's shoes. For instance, "nail house" owners -- stubborn folk who refuse to relinquish homes to real estate developers -- are local heroes. In the end, though, the desire for a stable, if imperfect, future stirs the soul. To quote a famous maxim: "If you are standing upright, don't worry if your shadow is crooked." Pragmatism is king.

This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, "What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism & China's Modern Consumer," to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May, 2012