One of the standard stories about China is that comrades are becoming citizens, asserting their rights to private space, preserving and expanding their freedoms, and eagerly looking to expand the gains they’ve made in terms of social expression and economic opportunity into the political realm. Civil society, we are often told, is being built by people gradually taking more civic responsibility--such as securing property rights. (Everything in China is gradual, outside observers keep reminding us, and so be patient.)
It would be comforting if that tale was true, but it’s not, at least where social and political change are concerned. Indeed, a good deal of daily local behaviour that often flows from decades of economic reform and opening in China can be best classified as criminal.
Two local cases from personal experience might help illustrate what’s actually and often occurring on the ground outside the usual suspect major cities of Beijing and Shanghai. It’s graft, but it’s neither high-level politics nor even that practiced by local officials to, say, advance a specific project. These are minor events, but they are telling.
One instance took place in a major city in Jiangsu, in an upscale community populated mostly by retired cadres, professors, military personnel, and what foreign outsiders often refer to a China’s middle-class (even though Chinese themselves rarely use the equivalent term of中产阶级 because it makes little sense in the financial context). The city in question has seen an enormous amount of property transfers lately, as the housing market there simply refuses to cool off. Consequently, many new owners—as well as some old ones—are eager to renovate the property they do buy, or make improvements in the hope that their apartment or villa can benefit from the fever that’s driven prices up. In this case, the owner has decided to make a major improvement to his detached residence: adding a cellar, a door to the outside, a small patio, a stone wall, and various other changes that involve a fair amount of work.
Which means materials that need to be assembled and secured on-site, especially concrete to be brought in as components and mixed.
As anyone and everyone knows, you mix concrete on a pad of some sort, or in a barrow or a trough. When you are done, you wash out the mixing tub, or hose off the plywood, and clean up.
But if you’re an inexperienced type of worker, unregulated, or just journeyman labor in China, you don’t much care about how or where, you just get the job done and move on to the next job, hoping to get paid for the work you’ve completed and at the rate agreed to earlier. You don’t have a hope in hell of ever residing in such a community in this life, and so go away when the job is done, not caring a whit about the mess you’ve made, because to you and your employer, as well as the homeowner (so long as it's not on his property—and it wasn’t), there are more important matters in life than taking responsibility. Like making more money.
Which is what happened in this instance.
A few residents complained to the company that did the work while it was going on; they got nowhere. The homeowner was nowhere to be seen, because he’s someone with power and authority; he’s not interested in his neighbors, seeing them simply as adjoining residents, not as fellow members of a community working together to make the compound a better place for all. He’s got to where he is by ignoring others and giving orders, not by seeing himself as a common citizen with the same concerns. He doesn’t care about anything beyond his own future and the comfort of his family. Economic reform has made he and his ilk rich and irresponsible, so why change?
The next stop for those concerned was the property management company, who have Mr. Wang (not his real name, though it should be): he’s a troubleshooter, a middleman, someone to be sought out when there’s an issue that needs to be addressed—such as parking space assignments, noise complaints, trash removal, or dealing with annoying residents.
Mr. Wang the enforcer of the rules and regulations of the community. Or at least those he takes some interest in. Which is to say, a financial interest in.
Mr. Wang's role isn’t to resolve disputes, but benefit from them. He hears about the problem, promises to address it, then visits the site in question and tells the workers and their foreman that he’s had complaints about their conduct. He doesn’t want any trouble, he’ll tell them, and neither do they. The best way to solve the issue isn’t necessarily for them to stop what they’re doing, because that might be inconvenient for their work schedule. Instead, for a small fee, Mr. Wang is willing to forget the whole thing, and simply charge them for the inconvenience of causing him trouble. The workers or company agrees, pays the troubleshooter off, and then they leave with stealth and haste as soon as the job is done.
The troubleshooter tells the unhappy resident or three that he’s spoken to the offenders and they promise to mend their ways. When matters end up with the concrete bonded to the sidewalk and the aesthetic of the lane ruined—well, that’s really too bad; the company left in a hurry without doing the work; and no, he doesn’t know who it is but they certainly won’t be allowed inside the compound again. Nothing to be done; Mr. Wang shares your annoyance.
The other case took place in an equally upscale compound of more recent vintage, and located about 30 kilometers outside the city referenced above. The community is largely full of large villas, or 4 story townhouses with 2 residences. It sold out quickly some years back, with certain officials and well-placed people receiving advance notice of the sale and the first choice of properties. Interestingly, less than 20% of the properties are occupied, and those that are often have violated the restrictions on changing the physical shape of their residence.
For example, while the roof of the 4 story townhouses is public property and not to be used by the residents of the units occupying the upper 2 floors, nearly everyone who has commenced renovation has claimed the roof as theirs, and built glassed-in terraces or other structures where they are strictly forbidden from doing so.
For those on the lower 2 floors, they have a small backyard, with the narrow area behind that (about 4 meters or so) preserved and landscaped as wild space, without a path or access way.
Unless you’re a well-placed member of the bureaucracy who has decided that such rules and regulations do not apply to you and your family.
One resident there has decided that not only does the public space behind his backyard belong to him—and he’s claimed it by building an extension to his garden—but the space on the side separating the townhouses also are his, and he’s located an extensive patio there.
But there’s more. Or at least for him.
Seeing that there’s no one currently occupying the townhouse next to him, at least on the lower floors, he’s taken over the public space behind those backyards as well, planted trees and plants, and claimed those areas as his realm too.
The property management people in this case are not nearly as sanguine about this behavior. Indeed, they called in the local urban management squad to evict the workers who were doing the original expansion--before it became territorial acquisition on an even larger scale. They stopped the construction, for a few days. At that point, the developer of the property who also owns the company managing the compound made a phone call or twelve to the property management people to back off, and let the comrade in question proceed--whereupon he completed the project in his backyard and began to move on his neighbor’s.
Sources indicated that payments were made with banquets and gifts and various other favors to those responsible for enforcing existing regulations within the compound; that’s easily done because the offender in question works for government media in the nearest large city and has all sorts of opportunities to offer jobs or at least entertainment.
One can draw all sorts of lessons about local politics and society in China from these cases.
At one level, this is class warfare—not by the masses, but by a certain type of property owner out to protect the status quo, not overturn it. It’s an ongoing new normal: economic gains that are politically secured largely through small-scale corruption. The situation is unlike the recent protests by parents in Jiangsu concerning college admission quotas in that carefully targeted anger about a specific policy worked to reverse that decision to alter the existing situation. In the case of the two communities, simple attempts to see that rules and standards of conduct are enforced turned out to be futile.
Another takeaway is that there’s graft in the grass: not tigers lurking or flies buzzing, but worms simply slithering in the rotten soil. The payoffs are local, but they’re also lethal: Few regular residents see the system—the local system—as working on their behalf; only officials think so. And those with local power are willing to do whatever it takes to keep it functioning, by soliciting or providing small-scale bribes for their own ends. So, cage as many "tigers" as you want; swat as many "flies" as you please: The "worms" are underground and they aren't going anywhere.
The end result—or the result thus far—is that residents in China aren't citizens and they aren't comrades either, at least not in the new order. Instead, they're left to shake their heads, shrug their shoulders, plan to leave the country in despair, or aspire to get enough influence to be able to get away with the same behaviour themselves someday.
We’re often told by China scholars and writers who don’t work or reside in China that people here are angry and active, or that they actually and often strongly support the current authoritarian system.
But those interpretations are largely wrong. The tale shouldn't be about members of China’s so-called middle class taking to local streets to protest because they suddenly lack normal institutional channels to complain effectively. The real story is that because the local avenues for resolution are seen as corrupt that residents rarely bother.