There is an unforgettable scene in a harrowing autobiography of a man living through the worst of modern Chinese history. In an Anti-Rightist Campaign struggle session, the crowd suddenly grows hysterical in their denunciations of Peter Liu and takes away the normally allowed concession of smoking. Fearing they are about to become violent and might beat him to death, Liu asks the commander if he may briefly go relieve himself in the WC outside the hall. Permitted to do so, he exits the hall, gets on his bicycle, and rides home. The stunned interrogators are not too pleased when confronting him about it the next day, but that’s not why he is sent off to over twenty years of hard labor in the Chinese gulag. This fate was already sealed years before when the Revolutionary Army discovered in the back of his family’s property a firearm haphazardly discarded in a junk pile by the retreating Japanese army.
Peter Liu’s Mirror embodies the history of modern China’s most turbulent era in one man’s lifetime (hence the title). For three decades after the 1949 “Liberation,” the entire country was one big labor camp. Many books have recounted this story, from the perspective of personal tragedy (Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Anchee Min’s Red Azalea) to more sweeping historical studies (Chang & Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, MacFarquhar & Schoenhals’ Mao’s Last Revolution). What makes Liu’s account unique is he was fortuitously well versed in English since his college days, with a keen interest in literature and a novelist’s eye for detail already fully formed. Working for an American media bureau in Shanghai as a translator until they pulled out in 1949, he was offered the opportunity to join them in Taiwan but opted to stay on in the mainland to work for his country, only to be plunged into a “three-decade nightmare.” Liu’s ability to depict the Kafkaesque workings of the Revolutionary government from Day One is fascinating, down to the smallest details of how life changed for the bewildered and hapless population (for instance, the sudden plunging into hard times of his pregnant and pampered first wife from a moneyed family and the consequent collapse of their marriage). What enabled him to keep going whatever the circumstances was an unwavering conviction in personal justice, all narrated in a lucid, calm and compassionate voice, a humble objective reporter’s voice seemingly unaffected by the whirlwind of events of which he was both eyewitness and victim.
The experience of this time is unbelievable to contemplate. Unable to find employment in his desired career as journalist or translator under the new regime due to his tainted past, he is sent off to a “Revolutionary University,” where his entire waking hours are spent hauling human excrement from the latrines and then undergoing nightly political “self-criticism” meetings. The students vie with another to express how much they enjoy hauling feces. Liu’s attempt comes off as forced and exaggerated, unlike the natural fondness a peasant feels for the same activity, as the leader describes it. His standing at the school deteriorates. He is then assigned to work at various remote rural outposts, until his real prison adventures began after being branded a Bourgeois Rightist in 1957: hard labor on a controlled starvation (all-carbohydrate) diet, providing prisoners with just enough strength to engage in physical work but not enough to want to do anything else.
The real starvation diet begins during the “Three Bad Years” (actually five years: 1958-62; see Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine and Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962). Prison laborers weren’t exactly privileged compared with the rest of the population during this time, but they were reluctantly excused from work, being all bed-ridden anyway, and Liu almost dies. There were 20-40 million famine deaths across a country run by a surrealist poet rather than a competent statesman, penning off-the-cuff sayings that were intended probably in jest but taken quite literally by his underlings and accordingly applied in practice with dead seriousness and devastating results. And like all artists at heart, he was very much into himself and not much into anyone around him or the fate of the population, except for his harem of women whose yin essence he sucked out from between their legs each night (Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao).
Once recovered, Liu is shuttled around from one labor camp to another, without explanation or any indication of how many more years he still has to serve. More insanity follows during the Cultural Revolution, and prisoners aren’t spared, with many killed. A sudden decree in 1969 “frees” most of the prisoners, who discover, like many freed American slaves, that they have no options but to remain where they are, the only difference being they are now paid a paltry wage. Not until ten years later in 1979 is Liu finally officially rehabilitated.
After his English version was completed in 1988, the author produced a Chinese version a year later that was snatched up by a Mainland publisher as one of a series of confessional accounts of the early decades of the Revolution. The 10,000-copy run of the Chinese edition of Mirror sold out within a month, before the entire series was (and remains) banned. On the 50th anniversary of the Anti-Rightest campaign in 2007 (several months before his death), Peter Liu along with many other former “Bourgeois Rightists” signed a letter requesting greater public acknowledgement of the Government’s wrongs. The request was ignored, and all signers learned that they were henceforth forbidden from leaving the country. So not much has changed.
(I met Peter Liu in 2001 in Beijing, then 78, a warm, articulate man who still commanded the fluent English in which he penned his book. At the time, he gave me his pre-publication copy, which I must confess finally and belatedly reading, some three years after the author’s death. I have no excuse; the book got waylaid, as so many good books do. When I finally picked the book up, I couldn’t put it down.)
China has of course attained much freedom and prosperity in the decades since. The comfort level is now quite high, at least for the roughly one third of the country who are relatively well off, as opposed to the other two thirds trying to claw their way out of the barrel. In my Beijing neighborhood of Shuangjing (a formerly rural area known as the “Twin Wells”), I can choose from among the usual complement of quality Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan, Manchurian, Guizhou, Yunnan and Muslim Chinese restaurants and numerous international establishments as well (some of them owned and operated by foreigners), along with enough comfortable bars and cafes to satisfy the pickiest social rats. All cafes and most international restaurants in Beijing have unlimited free wireless internet (a few foreign websites are blocked but this can easily be traversed with a VPN). Some coffeehouses roast their own fine Arabica beans. The wine selection in higher-end supermarkets approaches that of Western countries, though rather pricier with the high import tariffs. Due to lax Chinese zoning laws, the Houhai bar area in Beijing alone easily has more bars than the entire city of Chicago, my hometown. In Shuangjing, again, there are more massage services – catering to both sexes, therapeutic and erotic – than in all of Chicago as well (there are no “red light districts” in Chinese cities, since every neighborhood is a red light district, though without the red lights). There is really nothing I can’t find here that I can’t find in any other country, and often much more. Well, some things; I don’t see any women riding up on their motorcycles asking me to jump on to go sell me some pot and a massage, as I witnessed in Vietnam, but Southeast Asia has its own way with things.
Yet in subtle respects, or not so subtle the lower down the social scale you are, China remains stuck in the regime mentality and practices of the 1960s-70s. I’ll limit this to one predominant case, otherwise I would never get this written: the culture of psychological control in the workplace. Among other types of workplace abuses that are well documented in the official Chinese press (and elsewhere, e.g., Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China), this takes the form of:
1) Public dressing-downs of service workers known as xunhua (训话) or the “admonitory speech.” This frightful activity, which is particular to China, actually follows logically from the former Communist era’s ritual “struggle sessions” for scapegoating and weeding out counterrevolutionaries, and now, bad workers. To be fair, I seem to be noticing public dressing-downs occurring with somewhat lessening frequency over the last decade or so (having simply moved indoors), but they are still a daily sight: the staff of a restaurant, hair salon or other local business lined up in rows military-barracks fashion in front of the shop, sometimes right out on the sidewalk, before their day and evening shifts, as a manager rallies them in chants or lectures or yells at them, often singling out individuals for shaming purposes.
One argument I have heard as to why these public roll calls are needed is that since the employees are generally young greenhorns from the countryside, their life on the farm hasn’t prepared them for the rhythms of city life and they need such intensive training and even humiliation to turn them into good workers and remind them as well of how lucky they are even to have such work. But I don’t think anyone undergoing these sessions regards them as worthwhile. An extreme demonstration of the staff roll call was caught on video at a restaurant in Dandong, proudly filmed by senior staff for promotional purposes but who failed to realize how hilarious (and painful) it came off to the larger public: http://www.chinasmack.com/2013/videos/militaristic-chinese-waitress-group-performance-goes-viral.html
2) Inhumanely long working hours for the majority of urban workers. This applies to all manual labor and service industry jobs, most private industry white-collar jobs, and all banking jobs for employees ranking higher than tellers (excepted are certain jobs in the public sector, e.g. low-level government bureaucratic jobs, public teaching, etc.; farm and other rural labor involves long hours as a matter of course). We’re talking ten, twelve, fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. The labor laws may define full-time work as forty hours per week, but that’s a pure formality no prospective employee is supposed to take literally, and it would be very bad form for any job interviewee not to proclaim his or her eagerness to work unlimited hours without conditions or remuneration concerns (recall the enthusiastic hauling of shit). Time off is not considered a right, but a privilege. Employees are often suddenly, deliberately, asked to work overtime right before finishing their shift, and are not expected to refuse – precisely because it’s a test of their submissiveness. Overtime is usually not paid.
Psychological control even extends to making employees feel guilty for taking their regular days off – or preventing them from doing so. At an educational testing center I occasionally work at in Beijing, I saw a familiar Chinese female attendant dressed informally in jeans and sweater there one day. She said it was her day off. I asked her what she was doing at work. She replied that her boss wanted her to be there anyway. She didn’t have any duties that day; just her presence was required. Of course, it wasn’t really required. It was her boss’s way of maintaining a psychological hold on her – precisely when it was most inappropriate, and therefore most effective.
Employees tend to go along with this abuse, because they don’t know anything else, their co-workers put up with it, and they don’t want to lose their job. But it is nothing other than extreme and wretched exploitation of labor. These are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of Chinese migrant laborers who are routinely cheated out of their pay altogether – promised an annual salary at the end of the year before returning home for the Spring Festival (bringing needed cash for the family) only to discover the company bosses and account books gone without a trace, and with no recourse for legal action or justice. Slavery by legerdemain.
3) Locking down workers in endless meetings. Meetings today are different only in content, not form, from the incessant political meetings most Chinese suffered through in the early decades of the revolution, numbingly brought to life in Mirror. Even in democratic societies, meetings are an effective technique of workplace control and discipline. As bosses tend to hate meetings as well, they tend to be, or should be, conducted expeditiously in order to shorten the agony for everyone. Here it must be acknowledged that the better-run Chinese companies in the private sector are increasingly conducting meetings on the Western efficiency model. But I also hear countless stories from many Chinese I know about dreadful meetings that go on forever with no purpose except to allow the boss to preen himself – and again to test employees’ obedience and malleability in quietly putting up with it. Higher-level male workers at the management level probably have it the worst, whose obligatory dinners with business partners or clients involving relentless toasting and drunkenness occupies the majority of their evenings.
Students are initiated into the culture of meetings (when some other activity can’t be found for them) to varying degrees depending on the school, but one instance stood out for me. When I taught in the Linguistics Department at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2003-5, the graduate students were fined 500 Yuan ($75) for any department meeting they failed to attend, whatever their excuse. Besides department meetings, certain university courses – the mandatory “politics” courses all students must attend during every semester of every academic year (e.g. “Deng Xiaoping Thought”) – are essentially nothing other than the education realm’s version of the symbolic meeting, in which the act of attending is more important than any concrete items on the agenda, or in other words the majority of meetings in societies whose power structure relies on a high degree of psychological coercion of the labor force. Meetings also dovetail perfectly with universally long working hours (ironically often involving doing nothing at all except idling along well into the evening until the boss dictates it’s time to leave).
4) 24-hour call for white-collar workers. If the better-educated sectors don’t generally have to put up with the public roll calls of lowlier workers, they are monitored for their part with an invisible leash of threats and penalties. Not only are they fined for all manner of minor infractions, arbitrarily docked from their pay, but they can be fined even during off hours. One Chinese friend declined to accept a job when she discovered a clause in the contract stating that they must have their cellphone on seven days a week from 8am to 10pm and respond immediately to any calls or be fined 30 yuan ($4.75) for each late response. One could see this not so much as a disciplinary mechanism than as a means of extracting more profit for the company through the added revenue from fines. Yet the practice is widespread even in more civilized contexts such as law firms, which are also known to require all their employees to keep their Blackberry on 24 hours and respond immediately to phone calls or text messages even, while sleeping.
This psychological control extends to the growing sector of white-collar employees sent abroad on business trips, who are intentionally kept too busy to have any free time for sightseeing or socializing with people other than colleagues. Time and again I have asked Chinese friends or former students how they enjoyed Europe or the U.S. after being sent there on a trip by their company. The usual answer is that they hardly even saw the places they visited. When they weren’t shadowing their boss and catering to his every whim late into the evening in meetings and restaurants, they were expected to be on round-the-clock call in the hotel. They would never dare appear so selfish as to request to engage in an evening of sightseeing or shopping on their own. If you’re lucky and happen to have a boss interested in the local environs and culture, you’ll get to tag along for a little sightseeing with him. But more often than not your boss is of the older xenophobic and philistine generation with no such interest, and to make a good impression you’re expected not to show any interest either. This doesn’t need to be alluded to or hinted at; it’s all tacitly understood. Your time is not your own in any case (the reasoning goes). You’re working, not playing, and on a business trip this applies 24/7. Moreover we’re responsible for you if anything happens, as it’s not safe for Chinese in a strange country. You may not go anywhere unaccompanied, especially if you’re a female. You and your family are certainly allowed to take your own pleasure trip abroad in the future, but don’t expect any pleasure now. As for shopping and gifts, there should be a little time left for that in the airport’s duty free shop while waiting for our flight back.
Things are not so monolithic and grim as to exclude any sliver of hope. A growing number of mostly younger, educated Chinese are putting a premium on their time and their quality of life and consequently opting out and pursuing freelance employment or even launching their own businesses. They work on their laptops in the numerous Starbucks, Costa Coffee and local startup cafes or bars proliferating in China’s first, second, and now third-tier cities, or in the case of students simply out of their dorm rooms, whose space they co-opt to store the goods they are stockpiling and selling. They are the hope of China’s future.
The Chinese university: A primer for prospective foreign teachers (welcome to a very different higher-educational universe)
Emotional labor and other tricks of the trade (the challenge of customer service)