The Obligatory Annual Kiss-up Ritual

My former Chinese company’s annual year-end banquet brought to mind two things: cheesy church services, and a story from my junior high history textbook about a speech by Lenin, after which the applause went on for several minutes because everyone was afraid to be the first one to stop clapping.

(I wrote this after my first semester working at a privately-owned, local English training centre in Tianjin, but waited to post it until now. It captures a North American’s reaction to his first vivid encounter with the Chinese-style boss-employee relationship.)

I know China is a “kiss up, kick down” society where might makes right, but it was surreal to see it in action at my former place of employment’s year end banquet. They worshiped the boss of the company — in song — clapping and singing along, raising their hands, swaying to the music like I was having a nightmare involving a horribly mutated Evangelical worship service.

The Boss — Germany v. China:

It was bizarre. The whole evening was this giant ritual revolving around people kissing up to the boss by affirming his (inflated) position, with the subplot of each table having to get up and go toast every other table with China’s infamous hard alcohol that my previous Chinese boss admitted to hating — actually, every Chinese I’ve ever asked admits to hating it. But it’s professional in China for all staff to drink copious amounts of hard liquor — they have to. Who’s idea was this? It’s like junior high peer pressure didn’t get left in junior high and became culturally institutionalized. Everyone appeared to have a great time. But then I don’t know why they needed to take attendance or save the door prizes for the very end of the night.

They put us foreigner English teachers all at one table in the front row beside the big boss’ table. Our local counterparts, the Chinese English teachers, were placed at the far back of the large banquet hall — that’s where we foreigners would rank if we were Asian. But as the right kind of visible minorities, we were window dressing for the photos and videos of the event. There was a lot of karaoke to applaud from various departments (each department had to do some kind of performance), but it seemed suspiciously obligatory and alcohol-dependent. We couldn’t even think about leaving until after the big boss sang his big number and multiple encores for the crowd of sycophantic employees who’d rushed to the front of the room when he began singing like it was a pop concert. The video guy made a special point to come over and capture the foreigerns clapping and smiling along to the boss’ songs.

This was a privately owned local company. One of my Chinese coworkers (also my language tutor) says the butt-kissing is way worse at SOEs. As a North American, accustomed to slightly more subtle methods of butt-kissing that are covered by a token fig-leaf veneer, seeing the more ‘honest’ Chinese approach in action was striking and memorable, but painful to watch.


Morality, ‘Face’ and China’s religious market

From Caixin, a translated interview about the moral state of Chinese society, the religious market in China, and the commercialization, vulgarization and voodooization of religion written by Yang Fenggang, professor of sociology and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

I don’t actually agree with a lot of what he says – both in fundamentals and particulars – but it’s interesting to read an outsider’s take on Americans and American society, and I found the bit quoted below particularly interesting for the way he distinguishes external (Chinese ‘face’ concerns) and internal (“religious faith”) motivators for acting ethically and morally in a modern, urban context.

The Problem with Chinese Religions: Vulgarization and Voodooization
I don’t think all religions have positive impacts on social morality. But … Why does modern society seems more than ever need religious faith? Because modern society has turned society to be strangers society. … So, this is the real problem: in a “strangers society,” losing face is no longer a big concern in most people’s life most of the time. People can only be moral out of their own consciences. But where does this sense of conscience come from? Religious faith. When you don’t have a faith, you may say to yourself that ‘I want to be a good person, do good things,’ but very often people tend to give up halfway, especially when you encounter sticky problems and when the conflict of interest is very severe. It is usually human nature to think for self-benefit, thus, only with firm faith can we be moral and ethical. As China is developing rapidly, China needs a basis of faith to greatly improve its ethics and morality.

A recent commenter noted that in China people assume a legitimate moral double-standard between insiders and outsiders (the degree of perceived moral obligation to each is drastically different). Another culture reading I’m in the middle of right now talks about Chinese culture’s honour/shame orientation, how those are moral categories in China, and how “individuals do not exist apart from a web of relationships”. So several things I’ve come across at the same time are talking about how Chinese communalism and the relatively bright insider/outsider distinction plays out morally. And all that ties into the larger on-going discussion surrounding “Good Samaritans” in China — a topic recently big in the news but one on which I’ve been writing for a while.

Morality — the lack of it, actually — is a hot topic in China right now. So here’s some more about Mainland China’s moral collision with its post-Reform and Opening modern society:

The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

Watching the street vendors and the chéngguǎn do their little dance at the street market near our apartment provides an interesting anecdote for two crucial Chinese cultural concepts: 人情 and 面子

There’s a colourful, bustling, crowded and filthy street market near our neighbourhood (see here for more photos), and I suspect its days are numbered.

Every time I go recently in the late afternoon there are chéngguǎn (城管:”city management” by-law enforcers) cooperatively hassling the illegal vendors who choke the roads leading to the Jade Spring Road Vegetable Market (玉泉路菜市场). By “cooperatively” I mean it’s a big game. The chéngguǎn deliberately and obviously drag their feet. Their van inches around the corner at the far end of one street, giving the vendors plenty of time to yell, bundle up their stuff, and, sometimes laughing, sometimes running, make a show of clearing off. Or they cover up their produce and act like they’re just hanging out… next to closed boxes full of tomatoes. The chéngguǎn take their sweet time pulling around, parking, and getting out. Then they saunter up the street, and as soon as they’ve passed by the vendors roll their sacks back out on the pavement and re-stack their cabbages, fish, rabbits, fruit, or whatever. The day I took the following photo, three of the chéngguǎn were sitting on the side of the road having tea with a couple vendors who had boxed up their stuff and had it stowed away right there beside them. I would have taken their photo, but we had our daughter with us and they were smiling and making faces at her. In the picture below, a chéngguǎn (on the left) ignores a vendor who has obediently folded up her produce in blankets in a pile beside her. She’s just waiting for them to leave so she can uncover her vegetables and start selling again.

I have seen a chéngguǎn in this market get a little mean (it was the guy in the picture above, about 30 seconds before I took the picture), and it was when a cucumber seller decided to ignore him and not make a show of clearing off as he approached. That seemed to make this particular chéngguǎn a little angry and he lunged for the guy’s wooden vegetable box, which was quickly yanked out of reach by a rope and dragged off down a side street. No attempt to pursue, even though he would have easily had it in about two or three steps.

“Humanity” 人情 and “Face” 面子

I described all this to one of my Chinese coworkers, and he explained it with two terms: 人情 and 面子“Human feelings” 人情 is how he explained why the chéngguǎn carry out their orders to the absolute bare minimum ‘letter of the law’ degree, and how they can sit down and chat over tea with the same people they’re supposed to be hassling. They recognize a lot of these people, he said, and don’t want to stop them from trying to make a living; they personally couldn’t care less whether there’s a street market here or not. It’s nothing personal. But they have their orders, and the point of orders in China is to do just enough so that you can tell your superiors that you did them. The actual purpose of the order, the ‘spirit of the law’, is entirely beside the point, especially when your superiors are only giving you the order because their superiors gave it to them and they want to make their superiors happy because they’re working on a promotion.

The other key term he used was “face” 面子。 Why do they bother with the silly charade of bundling up their cabbages in full view of the chéngguǎn (who’s walking toward them maybe only a few meters away), and scooting off down an alley only to come back a few minutes later? It gives face to the chéngguǎn. It’s an acknowledgment of who’s in charge. Chéngguǎn can give these kinds of people all kinds of trouble if they want to; sometimes they can be brutal (see here, here, here and here). Sometimes the vendors fight back. The vendors are almost all illegal migrants near the bottom of society and without legal protection. They’ll yell and run and make a sincere effort to clear off as quickly as possible when they sense that they need to; they aren’t always laughing and you do sense fear sometimes, depending on the circumstances. But at least for now, in our particular street market, all the chéngguǎn require is a little “face”, a show of deference, a lack of defiance, tails between legs, and they’re satisfied.

These streets are easily the most lively (热闹) in our area, but with the consistency of the harassment, half-hearted as it appears, I bet it’s only a matter of time before this one goes they same way as the street markets near our old place.

There are more street market photos in the Our Tianjin 2010 photo gallery, which I just now finally finished uploading. So if you’ve seen it before there’s some new stuff (like sheep brains and an explosive dog). You can also see video of what it’s like to try and ride a bike through this market here: Tianjin Street Market Dash video.

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