Thursday, September 15, 2005
A Progressive Education
There had been two others before I resigned from my assistant position on the movie production set. Simon, the head accountant, left after being fed up with overseeing the “complex” finances of the co-production. I did it in order to focus on my own projects. Yong’s excuse was something novel, I thought at first, in the current day and age.
“The school informed me last week that I had to go back for party education,” he told me while setting up the video monitor for the director, “it’s not like we’re having much fun here anyway.”
“You are a communist party member?” I stared at him incredulously. He was a second-year graduate student at the Beijing Film Academy, looking no more than 24 years old. He usually wore a tank top to work and read comic books when he’s not working.
“Wrong decisions in college,” he sighed. “I joined the party in order to get a better job. You would be surprised how many big enterprises, even foreign corporations, would prefer hiring party members. I guess we are somehow perceived more reliable.”
“Surely you don’t need the membership anymore. You are going to be a director,” I helped him sort out the tangled video cables. He had told me once that he would like to make fantasy films that entertain and sell. “Why don’t you just quit the party?” I asked.
“I can’t. That would leave a big black mark on my personal files, which would lead to many future complications. Like when getting a job after graduating, getting a film grant, and dealing with the film industry bureaucracy. Ah Wu, you’d been away from China for too long.” He started laying cables and followed the cables away from me.
Over the weekend, I called my parents in Chengdu to inquire about their fall vacation plan. The summer trip to Jiu Zhai Gou had triggered my mother’s urge for more photo-snapping sight seeing. They had talked repeatedly about a trip to Yunan, arguably among the most exotic travel destinations in China.
“Oh we have to postpone it. Your father had to go back to his work unit for party education, “ my mother then moved on to recount all the ailments discovered in their recent physical examinations.
“But dad’s retired!” I couldn’t believe my ears. “What does the party need him for?” And vice versa.
“It’s not that bad,” my father chimed in. “We only had to go back to study when they called. Maybe two to three times a week. It started in August and will last probably through November.”
“What do you study?”
“The progressiveness of the communist party.”
It’s only then that I started to realize the scale of this education. It’s nation-wide, but apparently not much publicized, if at all. Is it like the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns in the 80s?
No, my father replied - they were still studying documents from the party and having discussions; they hadn’t reached the stage for criticizing other party members and self criticizing. Some not-progressive-enough party members would be asked to leave the party, my father said.
“But aren’t all party members more or less corrupt nowadays?” I wondered if my father also saw the irony. If the Western press is correct, the party could very well be worrying about simmering rural unrest and rampant corruption. But how could the brain-washing communist propaganda compete with the corruptive power of capitalism?
“And in any case, why can’t you just quit the party and go enjoy your retirement?” I added.
“We can’t do that!” my father exclaimed and my mother laughed. “What would the work unit think?”
“Why do you care? You are retired. They can’t cut your pension.” Really, I did not understand.
“And all our colleagues and friends,” my father continued patiently, as if explaining to a 10-year old, “they would be talking behind our backs.”
They probably would, that I know. But, “why do you care?” I persisted.
“Ah son, you don’t understand.” They both laughed.
Before I had a chance to ask again why, my father switched to a hushed voice, “son, your mother and I had a discussion a few days ago about your film.”
“And?” I showed an early cut of my documentary to them a long time ago. The doc was in English so they were very bored.
“We remember some footage about the Cultural Revolution in your film. Are you sure it’s ok? You mentioned last week a magazine in Beijing is writing an article about it.”
The magazine was Time Out Beijing. I assured my parents that the magazine is 100% in English and few Chinese would read it.
“Oh, in that case it’s probably ok,” my father pondered. My mother cut in, “we are just worried that someone might report you, using your film as an excuse. Do you know anyone holding a grudge against you?”
And that’s from my mother who proclaimed once that she would prefers to live in the 70s when people were trustworthy (but at the same time reporting uncommunist thoughts and behaviors of their friends, neighbors, colleagues and even family).
Once again, I’m reminded why I moved away, and why I still refused to admit I “moved back to China”- the neighbors’ gossip, the paranoid, the control by fear, and the constant costs, big or small, of freedom.