[Translator's note: The story happens in China]
One of my university classmates took office as a town mayor of a county of near 100,000 population when he was 28, five years after graduation. Three years later, he was promoted to the head of the Propaganda Department of that county, and later the vice county executive with chauffeurs and chartered cars. He had strong political ambitions and took to it like a duck to water in the official circles. One year, I returned to China to visit him. The first question he asked me was, “Why don't you come back to China? There should be professional positions and opportunities that suit you better.”
“For living with my dignity,” I responded without second thought. He looked at me for a while with a baffled face but did not ask any further, instead, he asked his chauffeur to be on call and personally drove me to hang around the region where he worked and governed. “I haven't driven for many years. But today I'm your driver!” he joked. Although I understood that he meant “you are my special guest today”, I realised that he thought himself condescended to be a driver once I heard it. A driver is an inferior servant in his eyes.
We were always greeted by a crowd with obsequious smiles every time we arrived in a place. When we had a meal in a restaurant, the owner served us in person courteously in every possible way. I experienced the honour of a king's royal progress as if the donkey hide in the lion's skin, which I did not ever experienced in the US.
After the meal, he brought up the previous topic. He extolled me by saying that I would be even more successful than him if I stayed in China, and asked “Why do you think you don't live with dignity in China?”. I did not answer his question but asked if he would have such a courteous reception if someday he became a commoner. “I've never thought I will become a commoner in the future but if so, I guess I won't,” he responded. “Right, actually it is not necessary for you to be a commoner to experience the distinction between the dignity people have. The only thing you have to do is to change your perspective. Can you respect your drivers like you do with your seniors? The only difference between them is only the occupations," I said. He then frankly admitted that he couldn't, but he suddenly understood what I meant. "Even though I'm here like a boss, surely I'll just be a brown nose or even be deemed a flunkey if I go to the provincial capital or Beijing," he sighed.
Correct. In China, whether and how much a person is respected depend on your social status or wealth.
In the US, I am a typical commoner. I rarely have a feeling of being disrespected every place I go although my English is accented and not fluent, and I have a non-mainstream face. The only several times were from my compatriots and new immigrants. I have never been discriminated publicly in my personal experience whether it was a learning, working or consuming place; whether I dressed decently or dressed in rags. However, I feel disrespected and discriminated everywhere all the time in China because I do not dress expensively, I have a non-mainstream or superior accent, or I have a face like the poor. Some people say that the Americans are hypocrites that they do not act like they think. However, at least they are civilised to a certain degree that they will not belittle, discriminate against or even humiliate the others brazenly.
I also told my classmate that I have been proud to be the driver for myself and my family everyday, and sometimes I also drive my colleagues and friends. My boss or the boss of my boss often drive us to go out for a lunch. The mayor of the city I live in, even most of the ministers, congressmen and governors drive themselves to go to and get off work. They treat their drivers courteously even if they hire ones. The reasons are being respectful is the basic values in the western world and, on the other hand, the drivers have the votes.
Similar to my classmates in power, my wealthy classmate does not understand why it is hard for many people in China to live with dignity. When loopholes could still be found everywhere in China's economy and justice, he found his way to become rich in the real estate industry, which was a definitely profitable industry, through his special guanxi in the government department. When the moral standard in China started to fall to a level that people felt honourable to “update” their wives and keep mistresses, not only did he change his wife to a young and beautiful one following the trend, he also never concealed his mistress from his classmates and friends. He is hiring two domestic helpers and a chauffeur in his family now, which is a part of his way to demonstrate his wealth. In short, he always steps up with the times. He often sighs that it is only worth to born to be a man in China. Having such favourable turns in life, dignity is not a problem to him for sure.
The reason why the topic of “dignity” was raised is that he did not understand why I refused to come back to China. It was a gathering among our old classmates which my rich classmate treated us a meal in a restaurant. Once he waved his hand, four waiters approached him in swift steps and bowed to him when it was time to place an order. It was a special box with four waiters standing at the four corners and waiting for orders. He drove the waiters outside the door as he thought that it was not suitable for them to talk secret subjects with the waiters present. Everytime he wanted to place an order, what he needed to do was to wave his hand or shout towards the outside “waiter, one more menu!”, “waiter, drinks!”, “waiter, light the cigarette!” and so on. Moreover, he placed orders with a sonorous and forceful voice. Later, when he waved his hand again, he did not notice that there was a waiter holding a glass of beer behind him and preparing to hand it over to him. That glass of beer consequently was broken on the ground, and some beer was spilt on him. He glared at and scared the waiter. The waiter then apologised with a pale face. I was sitting aside with great interest “enjoying” how he acted in a prominent position like manoeuvring a big situation. I just could not imagine he was once a big boy who would have his face turned red when he saw girls, and would even cry his eyes out helplessly when his first lover was stolen. Money, it can turn a coward into a valiant.
When he eventually placed all the orders, I told him "I also served up and washed dishes in restaurant when I was studying in the US, but I have never been yelled by customers. I often delivered the wrong dishes to my customers as my English was poor back at that time but most of them threw me an understanding smile and asked for a change politely. Those diners who are more humourous thanked me for giving them a chance to taste a new dish. Moreover, they would give me extra tips if they were satisfied with my service." He stalled and did not say a word for a while. This made me thought that he was feeling guilty for his behavior. Unexpectedly, he said "It"s hard to get along in the US. Why don't you come back?".
This time it was my turn to stall. I realised that he was still insisting his thought that waiters are inferior to him, a wealthy person, leading to sympathise his old classmate who worked as a waiter. “I spend my money for service, and therefore it's part of their jobs to be ordered,” he said. I want to tell all rich men, however, you pay for the service but it only includes their responsibility to take orders, serve dishes up and put away plates gently. It does not include extra efforts to bear your arrogance, disrespect, belittling and even humiliation. In this society, people directly or indirectly provides service for the others regardless of what occupations they have, from Chairman and President to porters and cleaners. Different occupations are deemed superior or inferior just because of the unequal distribution of division of labour, opportunities and some other factors. The remunerations have already been realised by money and social status. There is no difference between the dignity of living as a man and the dignity of occupation.
People are born with dignity. In a normal society, one should be respected as long as he or she is a person. In China, however, one has to obtain his or her dignity by gaining something external, such as money, power or social status. This is why most of the people in this country climb towards the top by stepping on the others. They step on those of lower status, looting the dignity of them and at the same time enjoying it when they have climbed to a certain level. As the old Chinese saying goes, “Being an erudite is above all trades”. However, it is only a subjective view from the intellectual in ancient China. There is only “power and money are above all trades” throughout thousands of years.
Originally, living poor does not necessarily degrade a person; being humble does not necessarily deprive one's dignity; and being powerful does not necessarily equal to having dignity. There are many people who lives in poverty with dignity in the world, but in China, poverty does mean no dignity. This is where the Chinese saying “Poverty is more shameful than prostitution” sprouted from, and is the best explanation of the values that money is more important than dignity.
Actually it is not accurate to say that people living in China do not have dignity because those who lack dignity are only the ordinary people. Those who are powerful, influential and wealthy are not in lack of dignity. Government officials are superior while civilians are inferior, the upper class is superior while the lower class is inferior, and the rich is superior while the poor is inferior. This is what we call the Chinese-style dignity.
In the past decades, the Chinese government repeatedly mobilised its people to respond to the slogans, including "follow the examples of Lei Feng and do good deeds", "five demands, four beauties and three loves", "eight honour and eight disgrace", etc, in order to advocate the virtue of mutual love and respect. [Translator's note: These are empty slogans proposed by the CCP Propaganda Department; also refer to P.S.]. It turned out that these slogans, which people have been chanting since they were in kindergarten, could not stop the moral standard in China from lowering, and the trend that people live without dignity from developing. Our officials and moneybags took the lead turning "eight disgrace" into "eight honour". Our moneybags "followed" the example of Lei Feng that they donated money to the poor and the disaster victims so brazenly. Those who donated a certain amount of money even proudly had their names listed in the front-page news in newspapers or announced in radio like declaring themselves saviors. The poor were not able to express their sincere appreciation in time because the money donated would continuously come back to the moneybags’ pockets by initiating several jerry-built projects, several products glorified in advertising, several performances and several "service for the people” frauds. In the spring festival of this year, our leaders who have the common touch finally discovered that our people are not living with their dignity, and then a new slogan was given birth -- “Let the people live with dignity”.
Leaders, how can the people live with their dignity? Those who are slightly kind-hearted and do not possess “three loves” were jailed under improper judicial processes which originally are not fair though. Want to say something that should not be said or petition? Do you know the police have guns? The least forcible action is still done by batons. Even the urban management force, chengguan, who are only armed with wooden sticks, have the right to beat people at their very own will. When there are more and more people disobeying the government and the army comes, will you tenaciously resist? With the vanguard, machine guns and tanks, approaching, those who die under the gunfire are all lawbreakers. They are guilty when alive, thus they have no dignity when dead. It is guilty to memorise them of course! Don't agree on housing demolition and relocation? Are your house and grave harder than my steel-made bulldozer? We are hosting the Olympic Games and World Expo, and the foreigners are coming. You dirty, ragged workers dishonour our city's image and disgrace our international image. Get out from the city and get back to the country. Be sure to come back to the city to take care of your hard, exhausting and dirty job after our precious foreign guests left. Are these the efforts done by our leaders in order to let the people live with their dignity?
In fact, it is not hard to let the people live with their dignity. If the people have the decision whether a person can be a government official and the control of the officials’ careers, will the officials dare to abuse their power and trample the dignity of those controlling of their careers? There will not be a permanent relationship of superiority and inferiority when there is no permanent officials. Will there still be the problem of “superior upper class and inferior lower class”? If we are provided a society that allows fair competition and possesses a fairer judicial system, which everybody has the opportunity to become wealthy by efforts instead of power, will the rich still show off their money?
What will it remain if we remove the coat of power and money from Chinese people? How long do we ordinary people have to await until the day that we really live with our dignity finally comes?
P.S. Five demands: civilised behaviour, politeness, hygiene, discipline, and morality
Four beauties: pertaining to the soul, language, actions and environment
Three loves: love of motherland, socialism, and the Communist Party