I shouldn't work the state department
To begin with, this is long, 5,400+ words long. It's also really as fun. Perhaps this is the day I jump the shark while trying to do something more serious. That said I wanted to write this simply because it shows a glimpse into the life of a Michigan grad student trying to perform research in an authoritarian state versus the life of someone who goes back to work for that state. I've opted not to break this up into multiple diary posts because I personally feel it's best read in one sitting, but to each their own of course. With that, I present C-Rex does China:
“That the front desk, the police are here and they’re coming up.” My wife and I were in rural China and our friend had come flying over to our hotel room. The friend, who shall be called Chai which of course is not her real name, is a Chinese national and a grad student at the University of Michigan. She was in China to study sex workers returning to rural areas, my wife and I were there to enjoy China’s unspoiled natural beauty, of which this there still plenty of, assuming you go to some near third world backwater province the CCP has yet to industrialize and blanket in smog. See it while it lasts folks.
We were in Guizhou province, one of the poorest provinces in China, since Chai was here to study migrant workers that returned home to their farming villages. Before I go on, I’ll just take a moment to explain household registration or hukou as they call it. Basically you can legally only live where ever your parents were born. Say your parents were both from Shanghai and you get a job in Beijing. You need to apply for a household registration in Beijing, which is similar to say being American and trying to become a resident of Canada. The catch is if you’re a white collar worker, it’s not a big deal normally and the company takes care of it, but if you’re a blue collar worker, it is next to impossible. This creates a class of migrant workers who are illegal immigrants in their own country. If you’re from a rural area and go to Beijing for a factory job or even just to collect garbage, it means you can’t own a home (and have to rent an apartment on the greymarket) or access many social services without paying a bribe first.
As a mostly poor rural province, Guizhou supplies a lot of migrant workers. Chai is working in Guizhou studying prostitutes who return to the province. Many village girls go to the city and end up as sex workers to support their family. During the harvest season they’ll return to the farms to help with the harvest and give their family money, which they claim they earned working in a factory or some other job. Some will eventually return to the village, settle down, and start a family. My friend is studying the public health risks involved in this, where the woman will transmit to a STD to her spouse or children due to poor public health education and lack of medical infrastructure. This has contributed to a rural AIDS problem (the Chinese government also knowingly distributed blood tainted with HIV in the late 1990s which also led to an outbreak).
We’d been to five villages, my wife and I seeing the sights, while Chai conducted her interviews with former sex workers. Things were tense though. In Hunan a farmer protesting government seizure of his land to build a road, had been killed when the Vice Mayor ran the farmer over with a steamroller. The authorities were thus sensitive to anything remotely resembling agitation in rural areas and asking questions about China’s terrible public health system is seen as agitation. Security had finally caught up with us it seemed.
“That’s okay, I’ll come over.” I just have my friend a smile and stepped across the hall to her room, flipping my prepaid flip phone open to text a friend in Shanghai “The fuzz is here.” A few minutes later a heavy hand knocking against the door and a voice said something in Mandarin, which I assume was something along the lines of “Police, open up.” I did just that, swinging the door open, a giant smile on my face. “Hi guys! What’s up?” The cops stared at me, I stared at them. They’d been expecting a female Chinese national they could haul off, but instead, boom, surprise white guy out of nowhere! “You fellows looking for Chai? She's taking a piss, what can I do you for?” I pronounced her well enough that the cops were able to catch that, but none of them spoke English, plus using non traditional English and slang helps further screw with their heads. As long as a kept that smile on my face they’d have no clue I what I was saying. As long as I smiled I could suggest they go insert their balls into a snowblower. Chai was actually in the bathroom purging her hard drive of interview notes (but not work worry, thanks to the miracle of the VPN there were copies safely back on her AFS space in Ann Arbor). One of the cops tried to push around me. I just gave him a push back out in the hall. “Hold it boys, don’t you need a warrant for this?” I kept the smile on my face to appear non threatening.
I should likely take a moment to explain the concept of police in China. I’ll talk about police a lot, but they’re not like American police. They’re closer to Ann Arbor’s Community Standards Officers or mall cops. Your average policeman is a poorly trained guy with a reflective vest, a walkie talkie, and a whistle. No gun, normally no baton, no pepper spray. They’re fairly harmless. In one incident a cop tried to stop a woman and she decided to run him over. He spent 5 km clinging to the hood of her Mercedes SLK before some cops and taxi drivers managed to box her in. In America of course the woman would have two bullets in her skull before the car made it into 3rd gear. It’s the People’s Armed Police and higher up Security Bureau guys that you need to worry about.
Basically dealing with foreigners was above the pay grade of these guys. The Chinese government happens to think that President Obama and Hillary Clinton sit around all day and wait for China to do something they could turn into an international incident. Wherever this is true or not is debatable, but basically it meant that to such low level cops had been told hands off the white folk and don’t go causing international incidents, or so my friend in Shanghai had sworn. This left us with a stand off. They wanted to get around me, all they could do is talk loudly in China, gesture and occasionally shove me. I’d just shove them right back and put one of them on his ass. I amused myself by switching over to Korea and appeared shocked when none of the cops could speak Korean.
Eventually the cops beat a bit of a retreat. Two remaining in the hall to monitor the situation, two other scurrying off to call in someone who spoke English and had the firepower to deal with a white guy. I bolted the door and got on the phone with my friend. “Just four local guys” I reported to him. “Yeah, well I made a call. The Security Bureau guys are already on their way from Guiyang on the train and at least one of them speaks some English. He’s not American educated though.”
What the comment about American education met their English wouldn’t be that good. Originally in China if you worked for the Security Bureau, military, or a couple other key departments you had to be educated in China and couldn’t go overseas (officially at least, there is always someone you can bribe in China). This was to prevent the CIA from recruiting students in America and to stop people from defecting. This led to most security officials being able to speak English in the sense they could pass a standardized test but nothing else. Many activists figured this out early on and started doing everything in English, as did many business people who were engaged in less than honest dealings. My friend in Shanghai was one of the new security officials who had been recruited after attending an American school and spending years talking with native English speakers.
He’d met us at the baggage carousels in Shanghai-Pudong airport, despite the fact the baggage carousels were still on the ‘secure’ side of the airport he was wandering around like he owned the place. Two of those mall security level cops were standing there with baggage carts. When our bags came out, he said something in Chinese and the cops grabbed our bags, loaded the carts, and pushed the carts for us. We breezed through immigration with our police escort. Rather than make our way through the queue, X-Ray scanner, and all that, we walked right through the center of the booths, an official appearing to stamp our passports without even checking the entry visas. When we stepped out of the terminal there was an Audi SUV parked right in front of the door, pulled up on the curb, a pair of cops standing there watching it. As our porter-officers loaded the vehicle, our friend started passing around the 100 RMB notes as tips (about 16 USD). Tipping our porters and the cops who watched his Audi.
Back behind the Audi were two sedans, a Mercedes and an Audi, also illegel parked, plus another Mercedes parked in the bus lane. What I learned was the plate you had on your car determines your social status. Similar to how we have municipal plates, every government agency (and the military) issues a plate whose leading characters and numbers mark the vehicle as owned by that agency. Everyone plates their personal vehicles with their work plates. The fact my friend’s plate mark him as belong to the Shanghai branch of the Security Bureau means he can hop off the car in the middle of a freeway and order the nearest police to watch his car until he gets back. If you can score a good plate it means rockstar parking and near immunity from traffic laws.
The damndest thing is everyone is open about this. For example as were sitting in traffic my friend pointed out a hot pink PT Cruiser with a giant Hello Kitty rear window decal whose plates marked it as belonging to China’s Strategic Missile Command (we’d call it Strategic Air Command in America). He said the driver was likely the mistress to some officer since PT Cruisers and Minis are popular mistress cars and no senior officer who had enough pull to get those plates would let his wife or kids be seen in anything less than an Audi A7.
Of course the highest level of car was the all black Mercedes (every window tinted) GLK that shot by us on the highway doing at least twice the legal limit. It had no plates. That’s when you’ve truly arrived in terms of political power, when license plates laws don’t even apply to you and you can drive like you’re playing Grand Theft Auto at home. Well at that point you likely have a personal driver, so you don’t drive, but you can yell at him to display greater flagrant disregard for traffic laws and public safety before you go back to managing your mistresses and taking bribes.
For Shanghai, and likely all of China, if you’re in the company of the politically connected, the entire experience is like people watched Martin Scorsese’s Casino and now they’re hell bent to recreate that in real life. After a day to allow for me to get over jetlag, my friend and his wife took us out for a night on the town. Only it wasn’t just them, other people from the security Bureau showed up. My host’s wife worked for a government agency and folks from her agency arrived as well. Soon enough we rolling in a massive convoy of black sedans and SUVs (Henry Ford would have loved the Chinese market since as long as you can get the car in black, it’s cool) out for an insane dinner. Snails on dry ice, entire fish, the list just goes on and on. After you get the snails out of their shells or cut the choice pieces of skin off the fish though the waitresses take the course away so you end up going through a 27 course meal without any problems because of the small serving from each. The liquor was supposedly going for 250 dollars a bottle and we killed a dozen bottles easily. As my wife said “We’re not eating, we’re consuming edible face.” After that the convoy made its way to an exclusive where the services of the club were steeply discounted to certain officials in exchange for the officials never quite getting around to checking the papers of the Russian prostitutes (in case you want an exotic white woman) working there. At 4 am I staggered up onto the karaoke stage with some of officers the People’s Security Bureau, vanguards of communism and belted out “Welcome to Detroit City”. At the end of all this one of the guys was so far gone he couldn’t find his car. No problem, another security officer called up the police and asked them to find the car and take it to his home, while the first guy and three girls from the club piled into a cab.
For us we were whisked off to the Astor House Hotel (which I do not recommend) which my friend had booked for me as a surprising wedding present, since we were in China on our honeymoon. The Astor House was apparently a favorite of Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of Communist China. He stayed there multiple times according to the plaque on the wall and according to a Chinese historian I know he was such a big fan he also personally supervised its looting when the PLA took Shanghai, to ensure that his favorite features ended up at his estate in Beijing. While efforts have been made to restore the hotel, it still has a long way to go.
We lived it up in Shanghai and my wife reduced to near poverty with her shopping (“But it is so much cheaper than in America, we’d be stupid not to buy it.”) and every time I went out with just the guys I was offered a hooker or in some cases multiple hookers (“You should try a Chinese girl, they’re much better than Koreans” and “It’s China, it’s okay to sleep with hookers here.”) However soon enough we headed out to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province to meet with Chai.
Guizhou is a whole different kind of China. Horrible sanitation, flies everywhere, when we handed my friend the giant 12 pack of Clorox wipes she’d asked us to bring, she clutched like it was a box of gold. Kids would stop to take pictures of me or with me if they knew enough English/were brave enough to ask. One little girl yelled “Hello, hello, hello!” across the street and then eagerly ran across to show off her basic grasp of English. She told me how her parents told it was important she learned English so she could go to America. She asked me a few basic questions about America, like what kind of car I had, and a few other common ones. The thing that blew her mind though was that you could drink the water in America. In Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, we were told to boil the water before drinking it due to issues with the water system. Most houses we visited had a giant thermos of hot water sitting around to make tea with, one of the morning chores was just to boil the water for the day. This was in a city of 4.2 million, not some back country town. I handed the girl one of my Michigan hats, a business card with my address, and a paperback I had in my backpack so she’d have another book to practice with. Odds are she won’t make it to America. Her parents are migrant workers, while Guiyang is poor at least it has better social services than the country. that girl lived in a greymarket apartment made from merging two basement storage cubicles together. No windows, running water, walls made from sheets hung from the ceiling. China may have hundreds of millionaires, but they have hundreds of millions who still live on under five dollars a day.
I’ve been asked to keep details of the rural people talked to rather vague since my friend doesn’t want to get her research subjects in trouble, which is always why I waited some time to write this. So I can’t post photos, name names, or list villages. It’s also why throughout this I say my friend or give people fake names and avoid other details. In fact we might we not have been in Guizhou. Other provinces are comparable to the poverty (in certain areas at least) you’d find in Guizhou. So if you’re part of the Chinese Internet Police and reading this to get clues on who is making you lose face in front of Westerners, help yourself to a nice big Maize and Blue go fuck yourself (and go stick your balls in a snowblower, treat yourself though, get something nice by Toro).
In country the interviews were done at whatever passed for the local hospital. The best way to to describe this hospital is imagine your favorite piece of Cold War era anti-Soviet propaganda. You know, the one that showed life in the Soviet Union and made it look so bad the CIA must have staged it as part of a public relations war. Now mentally photoshop that picture to be about 20% worse. That’s what it was like. In one interview we were sitting there while a woman got an IV from what looked like a clear beer growler. No fancy sterile and sealed plastic bag from direct from the medical supply company, the staff just cleaned it out with boiling water and reused it. Near the end of the interview the woman, who had open sores on her legs from the untreated state of her AIDS, she had to yell at a nurse to get gauze put on, looked at me and gave a monologue in Chinese. My friend translated with sad smile on her face and said “The woman wants to know if Michigan is a good school, she thinks it must not be, because if I was smart enough to get into a good school I’d be smart enough never to come back to China, especially places like this.” I thought the woman was at least 60 during the interview, later I found out she was 37. Chai told me she had to make it a rule to only interview people at the hospital, because if she interviews at home they’ll cook her food, despite their open sores, and it would be terribly rude for her to refuse.
At another village we arrived to find the 14 year old son of the interviewee had died the night before. The doctors hadn’t educated the woman about the chances her son would get AIDS at birth, what to do if her child had AIDS, and things of that nature. Rather the doctors had told her the kid would be fine and sent her home. She left the funeral early for the interview though, what was important to her was that her story get told. She didn’t want money or anything, she just wanted the doctors and government to admit they’d screwed her family over. They government told her it was her fault, because if she’d been richer she could have afforded better medical care and none of this would have happened. It’s the kind of thing that makes you walk out of the interview thinking that a B-2 flushing its bomb bay over whatever passes for the Chinese version of the White House would be a damn fine use of your tax dollars.
Chai had been detained before, normally the deal was the cops would stick you under house arrest at your hotel for a few days and then let you go in exchange for promising never to return to the province. Chai had been booted out of Guizhou three times before and promised never to return each time. A lot of Chinese security is about making you think the government is watching you (hence why you see you low level cops everywhere) as opposed to actually being effective.
My friend in Shanghai had some good news and bad news. The good news was that since Michigan is not a name brand school in China, the guy who runs our Confucius Institute is harmless. The Chinese government funds these institutes at American schools to promote Chinese history but in reality they’re around to monitor the overseas Chinese and their director or some other official is normally a full time employee of the security bureau. If the Dalai Lama comes to town this guy will organize the protest and he may make it clear that if you don’t show up to protest, your parents will be hassled by security in China or you’ll have visa problems next time you visit, or something else to encourage your attendance. They also monitor the scholarly work of people and jump on anything critical of China. Our director is a harmless old guy who has a degree in music, is from peasant stock, and can’t even work his computer. He spends most of his time focusing on getting Chinese artists to perform at Hill as opposed to monitoring the Chinese studies. Still though you ever donate large amounts of cash to the University, it would be awesome if you’d express concern over this place to ensure that the University administration continues to only accepts incompetent old dudes from China as CI’s director.
This all means that security knew nothing about Chai’s English language publications that were critical of China, since our guy doesn’t do much in that area. However the bad news that unrest over public health was considered one of the greatest threats to internal stability in China and the police knew Chai had been interviewing activists. The two security guys coming into town where actually assigned to suppressing religion and been assigned to Chai since they were the only ones considered able to handle such a sensitive thing like public health.
Now we were in an interesting little dance. My wife and I could just walk away from this. All I had to do is dial the American Embassy. The American Embassy would call Chinese Security and ask what was going on, Chinese security would call up the local guys and likely tell local cops to kiss our ass, make our beds, and swear it was all a misunderstanding. Of course since Chai isn’t American, they’d still detain her. Rather my wife and I needed to stick around and look increasingly pissed off, as if we were strongly considering calling up the New York Times and arranging it so that “Two Americans Detained For Helping AIDS Victims in China” was tomorrow’s headline. Of course if we did make that call, then the Chinese government would have lost face and would likely detain the lot of us for a while to repay us for that loss of face. Meanwhile my friend would be making some calls to see what he could do. Suddenly I was wishing I’d watched “Spy Games” on the flight from Chicago to Shanghai-Pudong as opposed to all three Lord of the Rings movies (it’s a long flight, you can watch all three and have hours to spare).
We consolidated into one room, I fired up some rap music on my laptop and played the waiting game. When the security officials arrived they were polite enough to shoo the cops, whose numbers had swelled, off to the far end of the hall before knocking on the door. Rather than being hauled down the police station, like Chai had in the past, we were taken out for dinner on the Chinese government’s dime, to a rather nice place at that. White privilege has its advantages. Although no one was allowed to sit within four tables of us.
My wife was the real show stopper though. White people meeting with activists in China is not that uncommon and there was a clearly a standard operating to procedure to deal with me. My wife’s Korean passport though was cause for concern. The local cops had assumed that since my wife was Asian she must be Chinese, so her nationality came a shock to the cops when they asked to see our papers. Then security officers assumed that because my wife is Asian she must speak Mandarin and when she said she didn’t, they were convinced she was just saying that to gain some kind of strategic advantage. The Chinese government was currently trying to convince South Korea not to expand its military alliance with America. The security officers were smart enough to realize that if they somehow mistreated my wife and it led to Koreans protesting her treatment, the Foreign Ministry would not be happy with them to say the least. As we sat there at dinner, one of them was always watching my wife, flinching if she scowled and signalling the server anytime my wife ran low on food or drink.
Since our conversation had to be conducted in mostly English it was slow to say the least. The security officials explained their concerns over how Chai talking to a couple “troublemakers” might make others more inclined list to them. “But everyone is so happy here!” I gave the security officers a big fake smile as I cut them off “Surely your people are well educated and know how good they have it. Why would they ever listen to such troublemakers?”. That earned me two glares and furrowing brows. After all the security guys couldn’t admit the locals were basically mistreated serfs, not to a foreigner at least.
They switched over to how people are sometimes impressionable and might not know their best interests. My wife cut in about how “Well surely its not our fault that people are like that, we’re just here to enjoy China’s hospitality.” These foreigners were clearly a problem for security. With a Chinese researcher they’d just riffle through her notes and then decided if they just wanted to boot her or detain her, with us they couldn’t even admit they had problems with social unrest.
We played the verbal sparring game until after 10 pm local time, when the cell phone of one of the security guys rang. He stepped away and when he was returned. He pointed right at me. “Bush gave you a medal?”. I blinked at him for a moment. I most definitely had not gotten a medal from either President Bush. The security official switched over to Mandarin and caught his partner up. “You know President Bush?” the security guy was staring at me. “Well I met him a couple times.” Growing up near DC my parents would always pack me off to youth leadership camps at Georgetown over the summer, the kind of conferences that get sitting Presidents as their keynote speakers. I’ve been on so many tours of the White House I may know the floor plan well enough to be a threat to national security. What had happened was my friend in Shanghai had got on my Facebook account, found some photos of me accepting one of those American flag lapel pins (everyone there got one and they were made in China naturally) and emailed them over over to the local office along with a report that made it sound like I hit the town every Friday with W. W is a pretty sociable guy, he normally stuck around for awhile after his speech, so it was easy to get a lot of photos with him.
Now the narrative of the security guys switched. Suddenly the rural folk were uneducated and security was worried they might attack the white guy because of anger over Obama’s policies being anti-China (since I was a good friend of Bush clearly I’d understand how Obama devoured Chinese babies on a daily basis). So all three of us needed to leave the province right now for our own safety. Any talk about interviewing activists or whatever had been some giant misunderstanding due to the poor English skills of the security officers which they apologized profusely for.
The next morning we were sitting there in the first class berth of a train headed for Guiyang. The security guys were in the compartment next to us. After the train ride to Guiyang we had a flight to Shanghai, first class as well, compliments of the Chinese government. My wife’s haggling instinct had kicked in and she was sitting there counting out the crisp new RMB notes that the agents had given us. My wife had kicked up a giant fuss about all the nonrefundable, paid in advance plans we’d made and the security officers had coughed up a few thousand dollars without any protest along with handling top shelf travel arrangements.
It was a good deal really, we were getting kicked out of the province no matter what. Chai was studying former sex workers in multiple provinces for just reason, when one place got too hot you went somewhere else for awhile. Within the day we’re back in Shanghai, Chai was heading for Henan, and I was sitting at KTV with some security officials and having a good laugh at how dumb provincial security officers are. “That would never work here!” my friend’s boss was slapping his thigh as he told him how I was W’s best friend, “Shanghainese are much too sophisticated.” The fact we had lied to a different security bureau and gotten away with it was hilarious to this security official, as opposed to being something he’d arrest us for.
On my second last to night in Shanghai I woke up at 3 am and couldn’t fall asleep for some reason. I walked out on the Bund in Shanghai. If you’ve seen the movie Skyfall, the Bund is directly across from that skyscraper Bond was fighting in. Party boats, covered in lights cruise up and down the river, they were still going at 3 am, all the skyscrapers were still lit up to the point you need a really good camera with a great light sensor to take a picture or the photo ends up looking like crap. Yet there also a steady stream of fishing scows or river barges cruising by. These ships showed no lights, visible only by the light their shapes blocked out. As they passed into pools of light from the party boats or the skyscrapers you could see rusty hulls and unpainted woodwork on boats that looked like a half decent storm would sink them. An odd little world. In a couple weeks I’d be back in America, my friend with security might on one of those party boats with a hooker under each arm, and Chai would be standing by the dock waiting for that river barge to pull in so she could interview them. If Chai was detained again she’d be on her own, my host in Shanghai had only done this because we’re close friends and there are rivalries between various security bureaus, he’d lectured Chai on needing to find a less volatile research topic. Next time Chai is grabbed she’ll have to rely on any contacts at her Chinese alma mater and whatever pull Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies has to spring her and even then it likely means at least 24 hours at a police station while the cops go through whatever notes she has and then toss her on a train out of the province.
Two days later I was sitting there at the waiting area in Shanghai-Pudong airport, waiting for my flight when ten cops walked in. My heart skipped a beat. Had someone gotten wind of what we’d done and decided it wasn’t so funny? The cops all fanned out and started walking across the waiting one, one of the female ones looking at me. I was expecting her to point and gesture at me, saying “There he is! That’s guy!” but instead she passed without a word. All ten cops reconvening right at the entrance to the jetway, setting up a small table. It was just a surprise bag check. Before you could get onto the plane they just wanted to give you a quick pat down and rifle through your bag. No real reason, just to give the impression Chinese security was watching, even if it is really bad at what it does sometimes. Still even as bad as it is, it’s enough to keep your heart rate up until your plane clears the runway.