The incident was disagreeable enough, but it gave me my first authentic experience of the CCP: I was a few months into my job of being the assistant to a well-connected mainland businessman – he habitually hobnobbed with well-known CCP-related figures – when I realized he’d never reimburse me for items (like presents for his friends) I’d paid for at his request. It took me another few months to realize other employees were recipients of even shabbier treatment – one was only paid half her promised salary.
Having previously worked for multinationals that treated staff with the utmost courtesy, I was puzzled by my mainland boss’s conduct; it wasn’t like he lacked money.
The woman who received half her pay, in contrast – she was a much older mainlander who came from state media – accepted his behaviour as normal. “This is simply his way of showing he has control over us,” she explained.
I didn’t fully understand her words until much later, after I bore witness to many more cases of mainland bosses keeping their underlings in line by degrading them, after I read more CCP history and came to the conclusion that this weird workplace dynamics is more or less a descendent of the relationship style Mao Zedong had with Zhou Enlai, the PRC’s first premier.
For Zhou, playing second fiddle means being cast as a bondservant. According to Mao’s physician Li Zhisui, a meeting to discuss Mao’s itinerary once took place in the following manner: Zhou knelt on the ground with a map spread out in front of him, while Mao, relishing this spectacle of Zhou’s subservience, stood beside him with a mocking air and smoked. Mao continued to taunt Zhou even when Zhou near death: it was at this point that Mao chose to knowingly falsely accuse Zhou of having once deserted the party in the1930s, leading a distraught Zhou to – shortly before an operation – lock himself up in the hospital bathroom to finishing writing an account of his innocence, lest he would die on the operating table and become known by posterity for his disloyalty.
Over time, I developed a theory of why mainlanders in power and those under them relate to each other this way. Back in the 1940s, the CCP seized power by inciting peasants to rise up against their landlords. After landlords were extinguished, another outlet for discontent was needed, so former Kuomintang soldiers were labeled the enemy. This cycle went on and on; party survival was at stake, for each time the CCP succeeded in directing public anger outwards, it managed to avoid being its target. Its hounding of manufactured foes was therefore unrelenting, oftentimes capturing and releasing them repeatedly until they collapsed out of exhaustion – just like the way, former party insider Zhou Jingwen once observed, a cat torments a mouse.
Even today, CCP’s origins continue to exert their hold on China.To earn a place in the party hierarchy, elite wannabes have to strengthen party rule by manufacturing lies and fomenting hatred against, say, the Uighurs and Hong Kong protesters. The rush they get out of attacking others is addictive, so when they arrive at a position of power, they get a kick out of debasing their subordinates too. If there’s one thing the CCP excels in, it’s its ability to bring out the worst in human nature.
I do wonder how much the CCP has made a cynic out of me, when I found myself having an interpretation of the national security law that’s very different from most Hong Kong people’s. When I hear lawyers complaining about the law’s vagueness, when I hear friends bemoaning the way the law has granted judges arbitrary power to detain Jimmy Lai, I suddenly have an inkling of how that former colleague whose salary was cut by half must have felt when I expressed bewilderment over our boss’s treatment of us. I’m the enlightened one this time round: the national security law has a “legal precedent” all right. It’s the Mao-Zhou style of relating, the cat-and-mouse analogy: The law is vague by design. Some of us will be caught. Some of us will remain free. Others will be caught and released, and then caught again. The CCP’s aim is to torment us all, till we collapse out of exhaustion and give up rebelling.
Yet understanding the national security law the way I do is oddly liberating, because when anything can be a red line, there is no red line. As I tell friends who tell me to be careful, my line of work is one of the few professions that can “profit” from current-day Hong Kong, for writing is a vocation that transcends ordinary notions of happiness. Ted Solotaroff expresses this better than I ever could, so I’m going to quote him at length: writing “converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality.”