Once 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.