At a conference in Bangkok five years ago our Chinese delegation of about a dozen civil servants was having dinner with four American delegates from the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. The United States and the European Union have had to negotiate, however reluctantly, with the Chinese for many years, so we have got to know delegates from the developed world better than those from the developing world. Occasionally we go for a meal in order to ‘improve our communication’.
We sat on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant beside the Chao Phraya River. The lights of a suspension bridge were reflected in the calm water. Occasionally a cruise boat passed by. A cool breeze blew through the night, sweeping away the heat and humidity of the day.
‘Have you read the domestic news?’ a Chinese colleague asked. ‘Yesterday it poured in Beijing and a man drowned in the city.’
‘How could he drown in the city?’
‘Apparently there was a flood under the Guangqumen overpass. The man’s car stalled in the water. The door automatically locked. The flood water rose so fast he couldn’t escape.’
Everyone was silent for a moment.
‘Not long ago, someone with a knife was opening car doors and stabbing the drivers. Wasn’t that in the same area?’
‘That’s right, driving in that area is very dangerous: lock the door you may drown, unlock the door you may be stabbed.’
‘We have several colleagues living near there, don’t we?’
Indeed, three of us live in the same civil servants’ community, only a block away from the Guangqumen overpass.
‘What is a civil servants’ community?’ an American asked. ‘Do you all live together?’ We exchanged looks. ‘Yes, sometimes our neighbours are colleagues in the same government department. All the residents of a given community are civil servants.’ Their eyes widened.
Soaring house prices mean that most civil servants can’t afford to buy property, so the government introduced in the course of their annual check-up an ‘economical housing’ policy: it requisitions land, builds houses and sells them to civil servants for less than the market price – the greatest single benefit that a civil servant receives. My community consists of 15 identical buildings, with eight apartments on each of their 28 floors. Every apartment in the community is allocated to a civil servant on the basis of a complicated scoring system; the most important factor is rank. Altogether, three thousand families live in my community.
The life of a civil servant is divided between the majestic government buildings in the heart of the city and the identical concrete boxes in her community. It is monotonous, but never easy. When we travel to the provinces, for a field survey or to attend a meeting, the mayor or the general secretary will come out to welcome us. At international conferences, we sit behind a sign that says ‘China’ and speak on behalf of our country. The signature of a 30-year-old civil servant can release hundreds of millions of dollars in funds.
But what awaits us in the magnificent buildings is hardly magnificent. In the three-storey underground garage, I overheard a man crying and cursing, saying that he had already revised a report ten times. ‘What on earth do you want me to do? You just don’t want me to have any kind of life at all.’ It’s harder to make our bosses accept a reasonable negotiation plan than it is to convince foreigners to agree to it. Our superiors take credit for any success, while subordinates take the blame for anything that goes wrong. Land use approval, project construction approval, environmental assessment approval, governmental procurement bidding, personnel selection and promotion: working in any of these fields is a ‘high risk’ occupation. Some of our neighbours have ‘owned’ several apartments outside the community; one hid cash bribes under his bed. We greet a neighbour on a Monday, only to hear on Tuesday that he has been taken for a ‘double set’ (that’s when the Chinese Communist Party’s disciplinary inspection committee orders someone to be questioned at a set time and in a set place). Several are in prison. Just as we receive the ‘double set’ news, someone in another family (usually the husband) will have the good fortune to be promoted.
As they climb the civil service hierarchy year by year, a few people manage to leave our community for the lower reaches of the ministerial residential buildings. Others move to state-owned enterprises whose heads receive seven-figure salaries. Some have emigrated to the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. In recent years, however, President Xi Jinping has imposed new restrictions. The central committee of the Party didn’t only suppress the ‘Big Tigers’, but also requested all civil servants to report in detail on their family property, political connections, social activities and family members. Private passports have been taken away and it is impossible to leave the country except on passports that can only be used for government business. There are other reasons our neighbours disappear. After several weeks of working overtime, one died of a cerebral haemorrhage within an hour of reaching his office. Several others were diagnosed with cancer and left soon afterwards.
News in our civil servant community doesn’t spread from door to door. It’s shared at work via official channels, such as notifications from human resources, and then passed on through office grapevines. Sharing personal information is dangerous, so residents retreat as much as possible into their own apartments. It is no exaggeration to say that neighbours speak no more than ten sentences to each other in ten years. I don’t know my neighbours’ names unless we meet through work. No one will ring their neighbour’s doorbell unless compelled to. In public areas, we walk quickly, to keep communication to a minimum.
‘Going to work?’
‘Yes, going to work.’
‘Just come off work, have you?’
‘Are you leaving work so late too?’
‘Yes, I work overtime every day.’
The lift is the most embarrassing place. Somebody’s phone rings and he has to answer. He lowers his voice: ‘Urgent? Where? OK. I’ll be there in half an hour.’
Neighbours whose children are of similar age have something safe to talk about, and the lift is the best place to chat; the trip is neither too short nor too long.
‘I heard your son has just started piano lessons?’
‘Yes, but making him practise every day is as bad as getting someone to pay a debt!’
When I returned to Beijing from Bangkok, there was almost no trace of the flood under the overpass. Everything appeared normal in our community. Before I had time to talk with my family about the drowning, I was told about another death. The man at Number Six had committed suicide. My husband, who used to work in the same ministry, heard that he had been taking antidepressants for several years. He stopped going to work and had been at home for six months. One hot, humid summer morning he walked to the nearest subway station and jumped in front of a train. Staff from the ministry helped to deal with the accident. Local media announced that Subway Line Two had stopped for half an hour, because of an accident. They didn’t mention the nature of the accident.
I tried to collect my fragmentary memories of the man at Number Six and his family. The husband was an unremarkable man in his fifties. He was a little stooped, with no beer belly, and had rather unusual thick black hair and eyebrows. He didn’t greet people automatically, but would quietly look you in the eye before speaking. I had met him several times while I was waiting for the elevator with my son. He let us go in first. After he stepped in, he stood by the door, pressed the button, looked at my son and then looked up at me, smiling. ‘He’s grown quickly.’
‘Yes, time passes so fast,’ I replied.
Then he stood still, in silence, while we descended more than twenty floors, until the door opened and he said goodbye.
His wife is also a civil servant, working in a different ministry. She looks like any other woman in the community. She is educated, discreetly dressed, greets neighbours in Mandarin, always speaking at an unhurried pace. I don’t know if there was a memorial service for Mr Number Six. Another neighbour, working in the same ministry, had no news of it. Most civil servants who now work in Beijing come from the provinces. We call ourselves the ‘first-generation migrants’ who got into university through the Gaokao (the national entrance exam), beat most competitors in the civil service recruitment exams and settled in the capital. We left home as teenagers and have had little contact with our relatives since then, so our experience of death is limited. In Beijing, a metropolis of thirty million people, we are not sure how to organise a funeral, where to hold the ceremony, whom to invite. Usually, we fall back on the old customs, which vary from province to province.
Suicide, however, is taboo; even the family of the deceased tries to be silent. After the man in Number Six died, I met his widow at the lift, as she was saying goodbye to several relatives and friends. They were just standing there, not saying much to each other. Another time, I met her alone at the lift. While I was thinking what to say, she started talking about the weather. She looked calm. Had it not been for her black dress, I might have wondered if I had misunderstood about her husband. The old subway lines were later equipped with glass security doors on the platform. More than five years have passed. I haven’t seen the occupants of Number Six since.
At the end of November last year, I came home from work to find my mother-in-law stammering excitedly. Someone had died, but who? She has been living with us in Beijing for more than ten years but still has a strong dialect that I find hard to understand. The mystery was solved when my husband came back from work. It was our neighbour in Number One. ‘Director Zhang’s wife. Two such incidents on the same floor of this building. So strange.’ I suddenly felt cold.
That day our floor was more silent than usual. The family in Number One disappeared behind their iron door. My husband stopped me from knocking to offer condolences. ‘It’s for their own good,’ he said. In any case I don’t know what to say to the family. I don’t even know their full names. Usually, when we chatted, we addressed each other as the mothers of our children. She worked in the radiography department at a children’s hospital. Many years ago she did me a favour when my son had pneumonia. The children’s hospital was overcrowded and wouldn’t admit him. I knocked on Number One’s door, late in the evening. She was surprised, but promised to help. The next morning, I took my feverish boy to her office. She went to the clinic and found a doctor on duty to open a ‘backdoor’. I was extremely grateful. But after that, when we met in the corridor, we returned to the same distant politeness.
She was an agile woman, slender and straight. In the stairwell, she always wore a faint smile. Even if she was going downstairs to throw out the rubbish on a hot summer day, she dressed neatly. For three years, her daughter went to a famous boarding school far away. On Sunday evenings, I occasionally saw her dragging her daughter’s suitcase to the garage. I never met her daughter. I heard that she hadn’t done well enough at school to get into one of the prestigious universities in Beijing.
My neighbour jumped from the window. I heard that she threw several quilts down to the ground first. I thought, as she worked in a hospital, she could have got hold of sleeping pills. My mother-in-law told me that she had come home at noon. ‘Did she go to work in the morning?’ I asked. ‘Don’t know. I heard about it from the old dancing sisters. They said, fell like a kite.’ She tried hard to pronounce ‘kite’ in Mandarin so that I could understand. But I don’t believe it. I think she jumped from an east-facing window, which the old ladies who dance in the central garden can’t see. And a person jumping from the 25th floor doesn’t look like a kite in the air.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.