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.


california_dreamer said...

this is very interesting in that is a bit different than the other pieces you have published. I was wondering if you mind sharing a little bit more about why you moved back to china so that the reader may be able to get an even better perspective of your stories?

shapinba said...

I would second that. A quite few Chinese have given up freedom and security to return to China. Maybe you should write one exploring the thoughts of your returning as well as Hai2 Gui1 in general.

Beijing Loafer said...

Ok. I'll see if I can find a story to tell about returnees. I try not to focus only on my thinking on things because I consider that close to narcissism. :)

The short answer is - despite all its pollution and greed and chaos, or perhaps precisely because of them, I find China fascinating and stimulating. There's the financial freedom (because living in Beijing is cheap) and cultural freedom (because I'm Chinese), which allow me to explore my creative impulses.

It is indeed ironic that when I was in the US, one of the freest country in the world, I felt trapped by middle-class aspirations; now I'm back in China, I've found personal freedom in the midst of the turmoils around me...

Albatross said...

my father is doing that too. I hope it could at least prevent him from Alzheimer's disease.

shapinba said...

i shared your feeling of "trapped". i wonder if this is only for middle class Chinese in US. In "Ice Storm" by An Li we got to know the lost middle class Americans. on the other hand, the idealist Chinese are still hoping that there are more middle class in China someday. hope they will not feel trapped as well.

california_dreamer said...

I was born and raised in Beijing and now live in the Silicon Valley trying to manage my middle-class aspirations working for the largest internet company. I have recently visited the homeland. My observations tell me that the pressure on the ‘middle- class’ in Beijing to maintain their status is higher than ever. If when you say “trapped by middle-class aspirations” you mean the pressure to acquire material goods, then I’d say the Chinese people in Beijing are much worse than what I have seen here in the US.

Beijing Loafer said...

Yes, I agree that Chinese in Beijing are perhaps more trapped by their materialistic ideals than the Americans. And yes, this trapping is not limited to Chinese, in China or in the US, alone. There has been enough discussion on the drawbacks of globalization, the growing prevalence of consumption culture being one of them.

When I talked about "trapping", I was simply referring to my own. It was this desire to both culturally and materially assimuate into the American mainstream which had kept me unfree. I'm planning to write a long piece on this, but I kept on having writer's block. :)

nope said...


I'm sorry for being intrusive in to your blog. But I am Melissa and I am a mother of two that is just trying to get out of an incredible financial debt. See my hubby is away in Iraq trying to protect this great country that we live in, and I am at home with our two kids telling bill collectors please be patiant. When my husband returns from war we will beable to catch up on our payments. We have already had are 2001 Ford repossessed from the bank, and are now down to a 83 buick that is rusted from front to back and the heater don't work, and tire tax is due in November.

I'm not asking for your pitty because we got our ownselfs into this mess but we would love you and thank you in our prayers if you would just keep this link on your blog for others to view.

God Bless You.

Melissa K. W.
To see my family view this page. My Family

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