Voices from on High

When it comes to symbolic representations, one could do worse than the loudspeaker announcements at a Chinese train station. I’m currently sitting in the Tianjin West station, a gargantuan place which, when lit up with its distinctive blue color scheme at night, looks like the interior of an alien spacecraft. It’s got all the trappings, too, including half a dozen international franchises which are all closed today. That’s probably because it’s a national holiday, but as it means I’m reduced to getting MacDonald’s again, I’m still going to go ahead and resent the fact in my standard pampered western way. I’m also rebelling against the ubiquity of Kenny G’s mewling soprano sax in Chinese public places by sticking in my earphones and listening to one of the year’s loudest and oddest releases: Swans’ new album The Seer. (For Swans, this is actually a highly listenable bit, though it includes two pieces that are over 20 minutes long. If you think I’m off my nut, you might take a quick listen to their first album, Filth, produced in 1981-ish. If you put it on the radio now, it would still sound much angrier and and much weirder than anything else.)

But that’s neither here nor there. What is, however, is the fact that like all Chinese train stations there are innumerable announcements sounding over the station loudspeakers. Most declare when and where a particular train is leaving, like most stations, but others advise travelers on station regulations. A recent one, for example, just said, “In this station, there are many travelers who are coming and going, so do not lie or sit on the floor because it will obstruct traffic.” And it will, of course. The trick is, people sometimes do it anyway. The Beijing South station also has announcements about ever five minutes telling people not to smoke, but again, everyone does, including the security personnel. Why? The simplest explanation would be to point simply to the mechanism of the announcements. They’re mysterious, echoing things that sound from some unknown source high above. For all we know, they could be coming from the walls themselves. The point is, they’re distant and detached. They’re not even being issued by live personnel; they’re pre-recorded messages signaled by a digital arpeggio. By the time they filter down to the ground, they’re completely without any human analogue. They’re just words. And quite often people treat them as such. Not always, of course; there are plenty of people who refrain from smoking or sitting and lying on the ground, but most of those are closer, both psychically and actually, to the power structure. They’re students or urban professionals, people who have grown accustomed to massive new train stations and automobiles. But then you have, well, about 90% of the rest of the country, the farmers and construction workers and beggars for whom the growing number of space-age train stations and suburban villas are  just another manifestation of distance. Here’s where you have the crux of the problem with modern Chinese society. It isn’t simply that there are rich and poor, or even that there are very rich and very poor, with little in between; it’s that there’s a mutual sense of alienness and unreality from one to another. To the poor, the rich are the ethereal voices on the loudspeakers, which are to be followed only under compulsion; to the rich, the poor are the people you have to keep off your nice, new floor so that the country can flow more efficiently.

And this distance is enforced everywhere. The vast majority of people in China used to live in the countryside, which means the geographical distance between those in power and those who aren’t, between those digging in the earth with rudimentary tools and those riding in chauffeur-driven Audis, would appear to be lessening. But as people flow into the cities in greater and greater numbers, the rich have begun flowing out of it. The idea of a suburb in China used to seem incongruous, like a riverboat port in a desert. But over the past few weeks I’ve had multiple opportunities these past few weeks to take a drive out farther than I usually go in Tianjin, and the differences are stark. The apartment buildings start going from thirty and forty stories to ten or twelve, and in quite a few places the apartment buildings give way to independent villas and gated communities. Nor is this an isolated incident. If you’ve got lots of money in China, in all likelihood you’re looking for a way to get it out of the country into banks in the U.S., Canada, Europe, or even offshore accounts in the Caymans. You’re also trying to get your kid into boarding school in the West as soon as possible. This is the case for some friends of mine who just had a daughter. They’re already talking about sending her to boarding school when she’s old enough, largely because they don’t want her to have the education they did.

Now this is totally understandable. If you have a great job, with plenty of money to ensure your daughter goes to the absolute best possible school, why would you send her to a school you knew would waste her talents? The tricky thing about China is that the class separation is so stark that the poorer classes by and large have a hard time even understanding that there’s something to be jealous of. It would be like me getting jealous of someone who kept a permanent city in orbit around Mars. I don’t understand that concept any more than a very poor farmer in Ningxia province understands why a boarding school in America would be a good idea. But ignorance isn’t always bliss, especially because when you’re poor enough, you don’t need to understand Das Kapital to get angry. You might think people on this level are cowed by those in authority, but that isn’t exactly true. For them, the government really is an ethereal voice. It’s entirely conceptual. What isn’t conceptual is whatever local cadre is in charge of their business. This means, too, that if things get bad enough, negotiation is out of the question. What is there to negotiate? As you’ve never been introduced to the finer points of civic responsibility or allowed to participate in some way (voting, for example, which, although oftentimes just a symbolic exercise, is still at least an exercise) in the process of governance, for you the problem is black-and-white: we are being pushed around for no reason by these people in front of us, and if we don’t want to get pushed around any more, we have to get rid of them. This would be why most of the emperors who’ve been overthrown in Chinese history have been overthrown popularly. The mystique and subtlety of power gets a whole lot less mystical and subtle when you don’t have any food, or when your village’s land or water rights have been sold off to some huge real-estate developer.

Which makes the train station example all the more vivid. Is there any actual Law in the train station? In one sense, yes. People still buy tickets, and adhere to some sense of order. But you still have plenty of people, even after so many years, who don’t line up and just walk right to the front, elbowing people out of the way. Most people don’t resort to sleeping on the floor, but plenty still do, just as people still regularly smoke. For them, and in fact for much of the society, there’s no Law (I’m using the capital letter on purpose), but rather authority, which incidentally is not the mysterious voice from the loudspeaker. That might as well not exist. Authority is what you can see and hear right in front of you. Authority is the train station security personnel, or the police if they’re necessary. Authority is entirely physical, and entirely based on will, theirs vs. yours. For the most part, the security personnel are clearly the stronger entity, and so people do what they’re told, but believe me when I say that the vast majority of Chinese people don’t do what they’re told because the police represent the government. They do what they’re told because the police are stronger and can have an actual, quantifiable impact on their lives. And insofar as the police also carry out government policy (which isn’t as clear-cut as it sounds), they represent the government, but my point is: that’s not why people obey them (when they do).

What this boils down to is a reminder of sorts. Western people read the news about China, which centers almost entirely on what is done at the national level, and worry about that. We should be concerned about what the national government does, of course, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking they’re the ones running the country. They’re the voice on the loudspeaker, but the people who actually decide the fate of the country are the ones who have to keep people from sleeping on the floor.

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2 Responses to Voices from on High

  1. James says:

    Well stated.

    I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. danzig says:

    Dude, very insightful. I feel this could almost be expanded into a dissertation.

    Oh yeah, I noticed you couldn’t help yourself but to digress about the Swans. Hahaa.

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