“You hold an advanced degree from a prestigious university, yet your work duties are not much different from what Filipino maids typically do,” a colleague once teased me good-naturedly.
Her banter was spot on. At the time I was working as the assistant of a mainland businessman with CCP ties, who would chide me for things like not waving to him long enough when I saw him off each day (“You should only stop waving when my car has driven off to such a distance that you know for certain I can no longer see you,” I was told); slamming the cabinets in his open kitchen while arranging catered food on plates, and therefore disturbing his peace – he was having a meeting several feets away.
Before I got that job I had already worked in mainland for a few years, but I was with multinational and Hong Kong companies. Prevailed upon by the impetuousness of youth, I thought I was ready for an unfiltered version of China. What better way to satisfy my curiosity than work for a mainlander directly?
Like I said, it was a case of when-the-gods-wish-to-punish-us-they-answer-our-prayers. All my boss needed was someone well-spoken to lend his enterprise an aura of worldliness. So, when outsiders were present I was paraded as a prop; behind the scenes, however, I was of no value – they had absolutely no use for my brain – so any menial task that happened to be lying around was my responsibility.
It was then that I understood the significance of a scene I’d borne witness to back when I was a mainland-based reporter, and part of my job was to be on friendly terms with the PR people at China’s securities regulator: among the staff of around eight were two to three Phds who graduated from China’s best universities. I used to wonder how they reconciled themselves to the reality of having to toil over mundane tasks in a cramped office day in and day out. Now, having found myself in a similar situation, I could grasp that even more discomfiting than the unpalatable present was the prospect of a dim future. As an anonymous mainland civil servant once confessed online: “If you’re deprived of all creative outlets long enough, you’ll be reduced to worrying over how to keep your job – since it requires no expertise, you can be replaced in a flash. Under such a system, the only competence you get to develop is servility; you want your superiors to like you enough to let you stick around. It eats at you constantly that nothing you do is of any value.”
I have since left the CCP system, but that experience has left its mark on me: I cringe every time I see Xi Jingping stepping into a peasant’s cottage and heading straight for the kitchen to carry out his signature act of “lifting the lid off the pan” (掀鍋蓋) – examining what the peasant is cooking, as a way to check how plentiful food supply is. Xi’s gesture reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s theory of why higher forms of learning are anathema to totalitarian rulers: dictators are so preoccupied with power that they “(won’t) allow for free initiative in any field of life,” so they harbour “natural resentment against everything they cannot understand.” Indeed, how can I explain to Xi the psychic toll of being a cog in a machine? He’d probably admonished me the way he once admonished foreigners who’d asked Beijing to give more freedom to the Chinese people: “now that your stomach is full, you have nothing better to do.” (“吃飽了沒事幹”)
Naturally, I also cringe when I read about that Harvard Phd who recently assumed her post as an officer at one of Shenzhe’s sub-district offices (the bottom rung of CCP’s bureaucracy); when I learn 70,000 of mainland’s food delivery personnel have a masters degree. I even cringe when I think of Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng spending her days going after young protesters instead of putting her expertise on arbitration to use: her antics carry so much irony, for in undermining the international community’s faith in Hong Kong’s legal system, she is making her original line of work less and less relevant.
These days, when someone drops me off, I still wave till the car’s occupants can no longer see me – old habits die hard. But that’s about the only act of servitude I’ve retained from my adventure as a one-time CCP underling. Otherwise, not only have I escaped the CCP unscathed, I’m left with a more nuanced understanding of freedom. I get it, for example, that E B White isn’t contradicting himself when he alludes to the high writers get from writing – “sheer luck, like getting across the street”- while maintaining it’s necessary for this breed to voluntarily subject themselves to duress (““a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him”). I now know with surgical precision that finding my equilibrium in the realm that White speaks of – this is freedom to me.