Although the events described here occurred only about three months ago, the man’s name escapes me. I’m not at all certain my memory is correct, and of course no one will confirm my recollections. Who wants to remember what happened? Like me, everyone wants to forget.
At the time I was working in the western part of a remote province in China, under an arrangement intended to allow government officials from developed areas to work in economically backward regions. The temporary nature of my appointment meant I wasn’t seen as a threat, and since some of the local officials expected me to be a rising star when I returned to Beijing, everyone was extremely friendly. I was frequently invited to banquets.
Banquets take up a large part of the life of Communist Party officials. Until the party launched the ‘Eight Provisions’ in 2013 – guidelines intended to cut back extravagant behaviour by officials – senior officials frequently attended two to three banquets on a single evening. Sometimes banquets would be held consecutively, leaving the host to struggle home after five or six hours of drinking, but more frequently two or more banquets would take place in adjacent rooms in a restaurant, with the host moving from one room to the other to toast visiting dignitaries. The restrictions on banquets came as a great relief. Most officials slowly reduced the number they attended to two or three a week. Everyone felt better, especially those who had developed fatty livers, high blood pressure and stomach problems.
That afternoon as I left work I stopped to greet a couple of senior officials. We were all setting off home when a female official came in and sat down, accompanied by two men in their forties who were smiling politely and enthusiastically. The female director explained that these two young county officials had recently been promoted to bureau chiefs. This was their first week in their new positions, and since they were in the city to deliver a report, they had taken the opportunity to introduce themselves to the city leadership.
My apartment was about five kilometres from my office. For the first six months I had an official car to take me home, but this privilege was withdrawn as a result of the reforms so I borrowed a bicycle. Compared to Beijing, the air quality was extremely good, and I looked forward to my cycle ride home. That day, as I was cycling, my phone vibrated several times in my pocket. Somewhat unwillingly, I stopped to answer it. It was the female director, inviting me to attend a simple dinner, as she put it. She said it was rare for the two men to come on a trip to the city and meet someone from the central government in Beijing, and that they would really like to talk to me. In any case, she said, it was dinnertime: all we had to do was find a small restaurant where we could chat and eat a few simple dishes. She was so insistent that I could only refuse her by repeating, ‘Really sorry but I’ve already got another arrangement this evening.’ I hung up and got back on my bike. Soon afterwards, a black Audi pulled up. The female director got out and stood in front of me as the two men wheeled my bike to the side of the road. I tried to turn down the invitation again, but she pretended to be angry, saying: ‘The other three city leaders have already arrived and are waiting for you. It doesn’t matter if we provincial people are beneath you, but you have to show some respect to the city leaders.’ In the end I got into the car.
In the restaurant, I saw that the people I had recently said goodbye to were all present. I learned later that everyone else had felt they had to accept the director’s insistent invitation. The meal proceeded slowly, following the usual pattern. First the host proposed three toasts. Everyone at the table joined in. The cup used for toasting holds about 30ml of 50 per cent alcohol. Where you sit at the table depends on your seniority. The two new bureau chiefs sat at the lower positions. One after the other they stood up, walked round the table, and proposed a toast to each official, moving from the most senior to the lowest rank. Before each toast they said a few words of gratitude and greeting, and asked for help and guidance. One of the two was a tall, overweight dark-faced man, about my age, perhaps a bit younger. He praised me for looking young; we touched glasses and emptied them.
After the nine guests had drunk two bottles of spirits – around as much as is usually consumed by halfway through a banquet – I noticed that the female director, who was sitting on my right, seemed distracted. I caught her looking towards the tall, overweight dark-faced man, who was slumped on his chair. Suddenly everyone got up and rushed to him. He seemed to have fainted.
It took all of my strength and that of another colleague to lift him and lie him on his side so he wouldn’t choke on his vomit. He was bleeding from the mouth and nose. We used a paper napkin to wipe away the blood. I used my hand to prop him on his side, and watched the beads of sweat running from under his hair onto his forehead. After a while, he started wheezing, and I heard the officials who were scared to come too close saying: ‘Looks like he’s fallen asleep. Has he fallen asleep?’
Everyone began to realise that something terrible had happened. Someone made an emergency call to the hospital. Two men ran out to a pharmacy to buy some medicine. Others waited outside for the ambulance to arrive. A colleague and I were still supporting him. I pinched the skin just below his nose (人中) and rubbed the area between the thumb and the second finger (虎口), as Chinese medicine recommends, and we kept calling his name (why can’t I remember his name?).
He still looked as if he was asleep, and was snoring loudly, but he didn’t respond to any stimuli. The men who had gone to buy medicine came back, angrily saying that they had been to two shops, but they’d both refused to provide emergency medication because they didn’t want to be responsible if there was a death. The ambulance still hadn’t arrived. Several people were standing silently on the porch. The man’s hand was cooling down, his complexion turning white, then purple. I was scared, and my arm was aching from holding him up for so long. A young driver came over reluctantly to replace me. He called to the people standing some distance away: ‘Boss, he’s about to die.’ No one replied. Everyone was silent.
I have no clear recollection of subsequent events, everything is in fragments: the clatter of footsteps, an ambulance, a stretcher, a doctor wearing a white coat flashing a light into his eyes, checking his pulse, a loud voice saying: ‘He’s about to die, he’s already close to death, call his family at once!’ ‘It’s too late, he’s not responding!’ the doctor told us while he performed chest compressions. ‘Why didn’t you do something earlier?’
We all looked at one another, like fish dropped on the riverbank. The female director stammered: ‘We don’t know how.’
The man was taken to hospital. We went back to our homes to wait for news. Someone reported the incident and the local police came to the restaurant. After an hour a car came to collect me. The man’s death had been confirmed, and now we had to discuss what to do.
Night-time in a remote town is almost completely dark. We congregated silently in the only meeting room that was lit. Later, three county leaders arrived, together with a police chief. Everyone was asked to reconstruct what had happened, which work-unit the dead man belonged to, his colleagues’ views about how much alcohol he could tolerate, and his prior state of health. ‘I had advised him not to drink,’ the female director said, sounding aggrieved. We hadn’t heard her say that, but no one corrected her. Then we discussed the consequences of his death.
The problem was that all those present at the banquet were government officials, and government officials entertaining themselves, especially if the entertainment is paid out of official funds, always attract unwanted attention. News would spread fast on the internet: ‘Officials drink themselves to death at a banquet in such and such city.’ Everyone present would have to accept responsibility; there had been many precedents in the last few years. Those holding high-ranking jobs would be sacked; those with less important jobs disciplined. We were well aware that when the new day broke, everyone would be an offender, their careers almost certainly ruined. ‘The most important thing is whether the family makes a fuss or not,’ somebody with experience of such events said. Everything depended on the family’s attitude: if they agreed to financial compensation, perhaps the situation could be rescued.
From half-past midnight till six in the morning ten of us sat in the meeting room, telephones ringing again and again. We all tried to get help from our networks of friends and associates. Some of us went to the hospital and provided updates. Finally the man’s wife arrived at the hospital, crying loudly. Eventually she calmed down, but she wouldn’t allow the body to be dressed for burial. Later she asked that the corpse wear a famous brand of overcoat over a well-known brand of suit. Everyone discussed the size of clothes needed, and where they might be bought at 3 a.m. Someone found a shop-owner’s phone number, went out to buy the clothes and took them to the hospital. The family still hadn’t given permission for the body to be taken from the emergency room. The wife said they wanted to wait for the dead man’s parents to arrive from their village, which would take another three or four hours. Then the relatives demanded to see the people who had attended the banquet. The atmosphere in our meeting room became tense; we could only imagine what was happening at the hospital.
Dawn broke, but the body still lay in the emergency room. People began negotiating compensation for the family; the dead man’s wife let it be known that his salary was the sole source of income for the entire family, that his elderly parents were sick and his child still young. The sum she demanded was equivalent to a year’s salary from each of us. The county officials explained to her that the unfortunate banquet guests did not earn large salaries, but that they would all try their best to provide as much compensation as they could. At last the relatives agreed to let the body of the dead man be removed from the hospital, but not to be cremated: they wanted it to wait in the mortuary of another hospital until a decision on compensation was reached. Someone contacted the hospital the van was heading to and urged it not to accept the body, so the relatives had to transfer the body to an undertaker and agree to a cremation that same day.
As the sun rose, the group in the meeting room quietly dispersed. Waving goodbye, we felt as if we had experienced the chaos of war. Everyone went back to work, acting as if nothing had happened. No one had slept or eaten; one female colleague was shaking. As if afraid of a ghost, she needed someone to accompany her when she went to the washroom. She went home, locked her door, turned off her phone, and couldn’t be contacted for two days.
A report of the incident reached the office of the deputy mayor. He decided that what had actually happened was the following: a comrade had died suddenly of a heart condition, brought on by hard work, not drinking; there had not been a banquet; the local police station had never received a report of an incident. Since there had been no banquet, no one could be disciplined. The deputy mayor agreed that the dead man’s family should receive a large sum in recognition of the hard-working bureau chief’s sacrifice. The family expressed their satisfaction.
On the seventh day after death, the ghost of a dead person returns, so families prepare good food and burn a paper ladder by which the ghost can ascend to heaven. At the appointed time, relatives of the departed went to the entrance to the small restaurant to perform the ritual, irritating the owner, who demanded several thousand RMB in compensation for the psychological harm he had suffered. Soon after this ill-omened event he closed the restaurant and left town. For the rest of us, days passed as usual, and the incident slowly faded into the past. Only subtle signs in the expressions of colleagues who had been involved satisfied me that it had actually taken place.