I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. The slight vibrations sent up from the tracks below sort of rocked me. There are few things more comfortable than sleeping on a train. Perfect. Three or so hours slip by, then suddenly I’m jolted awake. I shake to a start and peered at my tormentor. It was the guy sitting next to me.
“Would you like one?” he asked and handed me a Hershey Kiss.
What the? … This guy was just looking out the window silently, showing absolutely no interest in me for the first three hours of the ride and now he suddenly got inspired to wake me up from a full-on sleep to offer me a fckng Hersey Kiss?
It was too odd to be irritating, curiosity usurped annoyance. I took the chocolate and looked at the guy. Mid to late twenties, thin, thick black plastic glasses, typing a WeChat message — standard geek. I kept watching him. There was something peculiar about this guy beyond the fact that he’d just woken up a peacefully sleeping stranger on a train to share a chocolate and then went back to what he was doing without another word. It’s not my impression that I was snoring or drooling on his shoulder or anything. He made himself a cup of instant coffee. Nescafe and Hershey chocolate — not uncommon commodities in China but a shear indication of mindset nonetheless. I figured I’d may as well start talking to him, the least this guy could do was tell me something interesting to make up for ruining my nap.
We made small talk. He mentioned casually that he was part of the team that reverse engineered Quora and made the Chinese equivalent, Zhihu.com. My ears perked up, that was a relatively renown Chinese swipe job. I began throttling him with questions.
“So you stole what Quora did and made a Chinese version of it?”
“I guess, yes,” he replied simply.
“Did Quora get angry that you made a Chinese copy of their site?”
“I think maybe they were angry. But they wanted to know how we did it, so we sent them a report. Now I think they are not very angry anymore.”
Zhihu, which means “Do you know?” in Mandarin is one of the top social sites in China, bringing in over 40 million monthly users.
He did software design (theft) but earlier mentioned that he studied civil engineering in university. I asked how that works. He laughed at me: “I was told when I entered university that I can study civil engineering, so that’s what I did.” Fair enough.
The train was speeding by an area that had been cleared out to build an elevated highway. The construction area gouged out the side of a village. The houses that were allowed to stay now had backhoes butting up against them, and would soon have a highway passing by overhead. It provoked a memory.
“I worked on building roads but I saw them making a high-speed rail line,” my new companion began. “They built it overhead, like a bridge, right over some guy’s house. Like this.” He then drew a picture of a house with a T-shape over it. “This guy doesn’t get any money, they say that the track was not on his land so he doesn’t get anything. But every time a train goes by it goes right over his house and it’s very loud.”
We talked about evictions. I was currently riding up country to finish covering a story about a nail house. He worked on the opposite side of the line.
“What America and the rest of the world does not understand is that things work differently in China,” he began. “You can do things here that you can’t do anywhere else. In America, governments can’t just easily kick people out of their homes to make a new rail line.”
I tried explaining our eminent domain practices, but cut it short. No country in the world even comes close to matching the shear number of forced evictions that China has carried out since the beginning of the economic boom period. In a joint study done by Landesa Rural Development Institute, Renmin University, and Michigan State University, it was found that upwards of 4 million rural Chinese are being relocated each year, which has affected 64 million families, roughly 16% of the total population, and has impacted 43 percent of the villages in the country.
“When we go to other countries we see that things are not like this everywhere,” he added as we looked out the window as we sped past another village.
I asked him about his work as a civil engineer. He was just a young grunt in this profession, but I was curious about what he saw and experienced.
“I would sometimes go to dinner with the government people who would oversee our projects,” he began. “We would drive out and meet them on the highway at the border of our city and give them cigarettes and hong bao that had 200 or 400 RMB. Then we would go and have lunch at a really good restaurant in a house that nobody else knows about. Then later on we would have dinner. We would order all kinds of animals. Sometimes peacock, which is served in a very yellow soup. One time a guy ordered dog and tried to make us all eat it.”
“I used to score road conditions and I once gave a very low score for one road that was very bad. The next time I went back there the road maintenance committee tried to give me a present. They had a big package of something and a hong bao. I refused to take it. They said, ‘Why not? I give to your boss, I give to your colleagues, why won’t you take it?” It is my name that is on the paper so if something goes wrong it is my problem. They then knew that I wasn’t one of them.”
He then told me about how the inspector of the collapsed Rainbow Bridge was given 20 years in prison for taking hong bao to approve low quality construction.
“It is not worth the 4,000 RMB per month they pay me.”
“One day when I went back to the office at the end of the work day my boss called me into his office. He said congratulations and was all happy. He said that I was approved to become a member of the Communist Party. I said hell no. He said, ‘I don’t understand you. I don’t understand why a young guy like you wouldn’t want this.’ I thought that then would be a good time to quit.”
As the president had recently been making a much publicized purge of corruption in the party, I asked my companion if he ever knew of anyone who was shuanggui’ed, the sometimes brutal CPC discipline procedure.
“My ex, ex boss was punished. He was caught taking a bribe of 10,000 RMB. So he had to go to work for four years but did nothing. That was his punishment! He just sat in his office every day for four years doing nothing. After four years he was made the head of a water treatment facility and everything went back to normal for him. That was no punishment! The CPC doesn’t really punish its members just so they always stay loyal to the party.”
I mildly countered him, mentioning how Bo Xilai was punished. But my companion just laughed at my nativity and told me that Mr. Bo is currently a resident of Qingchang, the same prison that Mao’s wife was held in. “It is said that he eats organic food, has good wine, and wears a suit.”
But then he added, “Even the rich people are very anxious because they know that if one thing goes wrong or they upset the wrong person that they can lose everything.”
We were talking politics now, and I asked him what he thinks the Chinese Dream really means. Again, laughed at me.
“Chinese Dream? It doesn’t mean anything! It’s just something the party says to confuse people.”
This term has been getting thrown around since the current administration took over, and represents an ideological framework of what the role of the individual is as China continues its political and economic assent. The streets of the country are covered with posters of rotund dolls bearing messages like, “Dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.” It’s propaganda not unlike that of the time of Mao. Though it’s my impression that it doesn’t seem to be gaining any real traction with the populous, and most just ignore it. When asked what these slogans really mean many just sort of shrug and say they have no idea.
At the time I had this conversation a summary of the CPC’s Third Plenum meeting was just made public, so I asked my companion if he bothered reading it. He said he did but added that it didn’t make any sense, which is more or less the predominant sentiment among people who struggled through the cryptic, twisty, multifaceted text. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he repeated.
“When we are in school we are taught Mao Zedong policy and Deng Xiaoping policy and all of the CPC policies. They teach us this and teach us this until we can’t think anything else,” he said.
I asked him what he thought of the political transitions that have happened in the past thirty or so years, but he didn’t seem impressed. “Before they broke into your house and took everything. Now they walk in, talk and act nice and take only a few things at a time. America assumes that Chinese leaders will get better and start to do the right thing, but they won’t. America does not understand how evil these people are. There is no measure for how evil they are.”
I asked him what he thought of the current president.
“He doesn’t say so much so maybe they thought he would just do what they tell him.”
“Who are they?” I asked.
“The people who really run the government,” he said simply, as though talking about white rice. “We have a saying: Zhu miao tang zhi gao’ It means, ‘Living deep in the Miao Tang.’ It is like a problem that is so deep that you can’t see the answer.” I asked him what miao tang meant. He thought of a translation for a moment, then said that it meant temple house, “like the place in the Forbidden City where decisions would be made, the place where ancient lords worshiped and had meetings.” His explanation then got a little fuzzy, and I’m unsure if he was expressing himself as well as he wished. “It’s like they see you but you can’t see them,” he concluded.
He then described how he thinks the government of China is made up:
He was talking shadow government stuff, the same things that people rage about from Omaha to Osaka. I’ve had this conversation before in China, and his were not uncommon sentiments and probably to be expected in a country where even the official government functions like a secret society.
This reminded me of a story from an American journalist working in the Middle East that was in some documentary that I saw. The journalist pressed an Egyptian women to backup a rather ludicrous political statement she made. Defeated, she said something to the effect of, “The government doesn’t give us any information so we have to make it up for ourselves.” The same can be said for China.
I asked my companion if he talks openly to other Chinese people about things like this, and he replied, “We don’t talk about this to each other. Common people can’t do anything so we don’t give a shit.”
I highly doubted the first part of this statement, as it is innumerable the amount of times that Chinese people have gone off on similar rants to me. It seems as if you have an 8 out of 10 shot at pulling the rip cord of a taxi driver and launching a diatribe on politics just by asking the guy what he thinks of his country. They usually start out with, “In American you have democracy. In China we have no democracy, we have no human rights . . . ” and continue on from there. I can’t be the only one they’re saying this stuff to.
Heretical outlooks seem to be the norm here, it’s extremely rare that I’ve ever met anyone who is not among the 8% of the population who are CPC members who express support for it. In an odd way this unites the country, which is perhaps an unintended hallmark of a one party system. Everyone seems to be calling for reforms, but these calls are coming from exact opposite sides of the political field. Half is yelling for more liberties, more political and economic openness, for democracy, less authoritarianism and increased internationalization, while the other half seems to want to return to the “glory days” of communism when “everyone had the same.” “Everybody in China is on fire,” is how it was once put to me.
Our conversation then turned a little more personal. I asked him if he had a girlfriend, and he just laughed. “Dating is coercion,” he said in English. “My parents once told me that I should date some girl they knew. They said that we should be boyfriend and girlfriend for a couple of years and then get married and get a house. I said go fck yourself, I never even met her!”
Of course, this was an expression, he didn’t really tell his parents to go boink themselves. But again, his sentiments were not uncommon. This is a country where marriage is more or less a high pressure economic arrangement between families, and it has been reported that 2/3 of young people direly fear the union of man and wife.
More on Vagabond Journey: Marriage in China, What’s Love Got to do With it?
I publish this conversation not because my train companion’s outlooks were rare and unusual, but because of the opposite: they are rather common. There is a massive undercurrent in Chinese society that’s not going the direction it appears on the surface. There is an entire class of young adults who were born with one foot in the Old China and the other in the New who don’t seem to know where they stand. They are the first generation to grow up in the Reform and Opening period, and take their country’s gains for granted. They are China’s internationalized sect. They are educated, seek opinions beyond what they were taught in school, speak foreign languages, live entangled within the internet. They are information seekers who want change and are not afraid to express it. They are the linchpins who will more than likely establish a revised social protocol when come of age and take the helm, but for now they grudgingly float along with the tide, ranting to foreigners on trains.