Somebody Else’s Problem

China-smogOnce long ago I was inter­viewed for a job as lan­guage direc­tor of the Defence Coop­er­a­tion Lan­guage School in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia. (The place pre­tends to teach Eng­lish in three months or so to exchange mil­i­tary offi­cers from places like Indone­sia). It was a pretty strange detour for me from a life­long aver­sion to rigid orga­ni­za­tions, and need­less to say I didn’t get the job. What I mostly remem­ber is being told that I’d have to wear a tie every day (they dis­qual­i­fied them­selves right then). But I also recall being advised by a lugubri­ous air force offi­cer that the main qual­ity sought was some­one who would mind their own busi­ness. “In this place”, he intoned, “you must under­stand that most issues you will encoun­ter will be some­body else’s prob­lem. Above all, you must never try to solve some­body else’s prob­lems”. His impli­ca­tion of course was that absolutely every pos­si­ble issue of respon­si­bil­ity should be shuf­fled away as some­body else’s prob­lem. It is the bureaucrat’s daily prayer. The fel­low would have been in heaven in China.

The Peo­ples Repub­lic of China has many faces, and its inhab­i­tants come in every imag­in­able shade of char­ac­ter. The seven deadly sins are richly rep­re­sented, and a healthy bou­quet of virtues can be found as well. There are how­ever some con­stants in pub­lic life. Who­ever the PRC belongs to, it is not Joe Wang and Molly Liu on Jiefang Lu in any of the 700 cities or count­less thou­sands of vil­lages. It prob­a­bly isn’t the old men in Zhong­nan Hai either, or even the Black Hands that shadow every lucra­tive trade. Per­haps, in the tra­di­tion cap­tured so well by Dou­glas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the place is really owned by some prissy field mice wheel­ing a UFO above the Yel­low River plains. In any case, it is totally pre­dictable in every imag­in­able sit­u­a­tion that in China nobody trace­able is respon­si­ble for any­thing, ever.

A land-of-no-respon­si­bil­ity gen­er­ates cer­tain cul­tural behav­iours, and makes oth­ers impos­si­ble. The des­per­ate urge not to be the patsy guar­an­tees that before any­thing, even the small­est thing, is allowed to hap­pen, there must be a marathon meet­ing involv­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. The pur­pose of the meet­ing is not to exchange ideas and ham­mer out a con­sen­sus. Every cit­i­zen of the PRC knows in their bones that offer­ing ideas or con­sid­ered opin­ions in a pub­lic meet­ing would be sui­ci­dal. More­over, the pro­to­cols of 2000 years of rigid hier­ar­chy would never allow it. No, the pub­lic meet­ing is purely to allow the tit­u­lar head of, say, The Room Allo­ca­tion Com­mit­tee (there is a com­mit­tee for every­thing) to claim, if there is any stuff up later, that ‘the insti­tu­tion’ decided XYZ after proper delib­er­a­tion. XYZ was actu­ally scrib­bled on the back of an envelope in an off moment when the Chair of the Com­mit­tee for Room Allo­ca­tions wasn’t hav­ing his back scratched by the girl who wanted pro­mo­tion from lick­ing envelopes to open­ing envelopes.

What­ever is on dis­play in the land-of-no-respon­si­bil­ity is chore­o­graphed with the lum­ber­ing ele­gance of an ele­phant herd. Offi­cial ide­ol­ogy and offi­cial pub­lic edu­ca­tion are of course a part of that pub­lic dis­play –  the part that I nego­ti­ate as a teacher. What­ever is NOT on dis­play, well that is another story, more akin to the prey of wolves, jack­als and car­rion birds. Con­t­a­m­i­nated food is mar­keted with­out a blush of shame, babies are poi­soned with fac­tory wastes and pol­lu­tants, rivers are run­ning sew­ers, the guid­ing ambi­tion of pub­lic offi­cials is to set up extor­tion rack­ets, the poor are dri­ven from their land and their homes to enrich ‘devel­op­ers’ and their par­a­sit­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors in the pub­lic sec­tor, jobs are bought and sold like cig­a­rettes …. the list is end­less, from the board room to the bed­room.

There is a funny idea in the bar­bar­ian ter­ri­to­ries of the outer world beyond the Mid­dle King­dom that China is a dic­ta­tor­ship, ruled with ruth­less effi­ciency from a cen­tre of iron and blood. (The dwellers in bar­bar­ian ter­ri­to­ries, in their own cacoph­ony of views, are of course free of bru­tal and warped con­trols. They are enlight­ened, ratio­nal and well gov­erned. We shall not ask why Amer­ica, to pick on it unfairly as we do so often, spends 44% of its pub­lic income on ‘defence’ in 2010, not count­ing wars [Wikipedia for details]). As for dic­ta­tor­ship in the Mid­dle King­dom, it is a fraught thing for those who feign to wear the kingly crown. The Great Exalted One, toss­ing on his quilt at night, knows very well that what­ever dik­tats come forth from Zhong­nan Hai will be fil­tered and shred­ded by a thou­sand upon a thou­sand wily scoundrels sit­ting on fat bums from Hainan to Henan. From Qing­hai to Shan­dong the call to social­ist enlight­en­ment will be made into candy floss for cadres’ mis­tresses. Of blood and iron, not to say bore­dom, exas­per­a­tion and mis­ery, there are train­loads aplenty for ‘the masses’, but who finally claims to have wielded the pen and the sword when the rav­aging ‘flesh engi­nes’ of the blog rolls fix upon some lat­est out­rage? Ah, then no dic­ta­tor thumps his chest. We might as well look for those prissy field mice wheel­ing in their UFO above the Yel­low River plain.

All of which brings me to the hum­ble needs of a teacher. For three years I have tried to extract some use from that devil’s tool, as the bureau­cratic mind sees it, the class­room com­puter. Allow­ing stu­dents to use a com­puter is like putting matches in the hands of fire­bugs, the appro­pri­ate Com­mit­tees for What­ever felt. We strug­gled might­ily, the tides ebbed and flowed. The Com­mit­tees for What­ever fight back with cun­ning and amor­phous resolve (if fogs can have resolve). Weeks of stu­dent work mys­te­ri­ously van­ish overnight. Anti-virus tools (Chi­nese of course) block every­thing but viruses. Finally I seized one of these hap­less machi­nes, dragged it back to my apart­ment, scoured out the fes­ter­ing nests of viruses, attempted to install some proper pro­tec­tion. What a fool­ish hope. Some Com­mit­tee for What­ever had instructed a min­ion to secure the machine against all ben­e­fi­cial changes. Only viruses allowed. I went to remon­strate with the Sec­re­tary for What­ever. We had a 15 min­ute exchange of mis­un­der­stand­ing, which had some­thing to do with me being an agent for dis­turbing the bureau­cratic peace. We pro­gressed to a tele­phone call with another party who could medi­ate my pidgin Chi­nese and the Sec­re­tary for Whatever’s pidgin Eng­lish. The voice on the phone was exquis­itely polite. Yes, he under­stood that I wanted to install an actual, work­ing anti-virus pro­gram. Unfor­tu­nately the oper­at­ing sys­tem was locked with a pass­word. No, the per­son who had the pass­word did not under­stand what had to be done, so of course they would not tell any­one the pass­word. Who decided about the pass­word? Oh, that was another Direc­tor of What­ever in a more ele­vated office. Good grief no, we couldn’t talk to him, and any­way, he didn’t know any­thing about com­put­ers, so he def­i­nitely would not agree to reveal the pass­word..  Yes the voice chuck­led, it was absolutely absurd, but you know how these things are … one couldn’t do any­thing about it.

So there you have it, guys and gals in the bar­bar­ian outer worlds. You are never going to get nuked by a hot and both­ered Chi­nese Dr Strangelove. The Direc­tor of What­ever who has a pass­word to the inner pass­word of the Office of Bomb­ing For­eign­ers is never going to release the outer pass­word with­out a three week meet­ing of 500 obe­di­ent but sly cadres, who know very well that bomb­ing the bar­bar­ians will cut off their sup­ply of Jumbo Jets and Rit­ter Sports Choco­late. Besides, it just so hap­pens that the Direc­tor of What­ever has a third mis­tress who just loves Rit­ter Sports Choco­late.

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