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huzhou, less food-related, musings

The Sound of Intimidation

12.17.09 | 4 Comments

On the road that leads into the downtown district, right where the traffic starts to get heavy, there’s a place called Fumiao. Or rather, a place that used to be Fumiao. Until June it was a warehouse of stalls, where one could by anything from candles, clothes, and motorcycle helmets to plates, bedding, and suitcases.

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Over the past few months I’ve watched the progression of Fumiao as I ride by on my bike on the way to the gym. It was abandoned over the summer and sat empty until two months ago, when it was demolished. For a few weeks it sat in a sad pile of scraps, and lately it’s been a barren, gaping hole between taller buildings. But today as I rode past, it was filled with a mass of people. In front of them was a stage with a white banner and black characters strung behind it.

There were policemen all along the street. Since I got the feeling that I probably wasn’t supposed to be seeing this, I slowed down to read the banner and see what was going on. On the stage was a line of men in bright orange vests and a line of men in black standing behind them. A man who looked like a government official stood to the side of the stage at a microphone reading from a piece of paper.

I’m not going to write the Chinese from the banner here. A few of my students have found my blog and I don’t want to go there. But more importantly, I honestly don’t know if being noticed by HJT and his web cronies could get me blocked or something, so I’ll give it to you in English: Wuxing District [Huzhou’s district] Fighting Organized Crime and Eradicating Evil Public Management Meeting.

I had to figure this out by what its context implied, since the characters on the banner were, to a foreigner, a bit more figurative. “Organized Crime” was literally “hit black,” so at first I thought it was something against the black market or the black society, which is like the mob.

I didn’t have to figure out the exact meaning to know what was generally going on. The men in orange onstage were prisoners. Their hands were cuffed behind their back; most of them stood with their heads bowed, some looked blankly out over the audience. I put the hood of my jacket on and kept my sunglasses on. Despite my best attempt to blend in, I heard some of the men saying “Hello! Hello!” in half-whispers, hoping I’d hear but trying not to be obvious in seeking my attention.

The audience was a gathering of mostly older people, since Fumiao is across from the river where retirees spend their days drinking tea, sitting in the sun, and walking around. There was a woman in the audience with two heavy baskets of vegetables hanging from a pole across her shoulders. Most of the people were in black, navy, or dark gray work clothes, and everyone stood fairly quietly, attention riveted on the stage.

I don’t really understand government jargon, but I heard the official talking about breaking the law. It seemed that this was a public shaming meeting, holding all these young men up as an example. I wondered very briefly and only half-seriously whether this would turn into a public execution. If it had happened, I would have been only half surprised.

After a few minutes the young men in orange jumpers were abruptly led off the stage and the whole audience turned around and walked away as if on cue. I followed suit; I don’t think I was even supposed to be there in the first place. I’m certain if I’d had my camera the cops would have shut me down. I sent Hebe a text message with the Chinese characters from the banner and asked, “What’s this?” I probably shouldn’t have done that.

I got two messages back from Hebe. The first was directed at, I guess, the three foreign teachers :

Hey guys, a quick reminder from the school: avoid any comment on political and religious issues in classroom. That’s it. Stay warm. :)

And then, in response to my question:

A meeting on the fighting with the violence and crimes in huzhou. Did anyone ask you to attend?

I strongly suspect that my text caused poor Hebe a bit of alarm. It’s never a good idea to bring up politics with a Chinese person, especially someone at the school and ESPECIALLY with students. (I bring politics and religion up on a solely factual basis: Obama is president. Christmas is a Christian holiday.)

I could start talking about all the things we aren’t allowed to talk about here, but you can find that in the New York Times. I’ll tell you instead about some students I lunched with a few months ago. They happen to be Christians, which is a pretty brave thing to openly be in China. They told me how their leader/minister was their hero, that he had given up everything—his job, his money, his security, his family—just to be able to do what he does now. I don’t think these kids talk to anyone else about their religion the way they talk to me about it.

I am totally aware of the irony of this Crime Fighting Meeting situation: in such a hush-hush political climate, they were airing the ‘dirty laundry.’ They were warning and intimidating people: Conform to your societal role or this is what will happen.

Life in China is very strictly scripted. I’ve mentioned before the rigid roles to which everyone is expected to conform—and to which nearly everyone does. Work. Get married. Have a kid. Take care of your parents. Agonize over finding your grown kid a spouse pronto, especially if you have a daughter. Raise your grandkid.

This is how it is. No matter how kids seem to deviate in their early twenties, they will almost always, without fail, get on this life path by 26 for girls and 28 for boys.

As they led the boys in orange off stage, I saw one young man with a buzz cut and glasses with thick black trendy square frames look out at the audience. He must have caught the eye of someone he knew, because he gave a smug, slightly amused grin. I guess he has a different life plan in mind.

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