Insights into China's bureaucratic culture: A story of an ordinary civil servant in the government department
The deep-rooted customs within China’s bureaucratic system have cast profound impacts on Chinese culture and the social climate. In today’s post, we share one of the widely read independent blogs on WeChat with more than 100,000 views, which has sparked heated discussions about the cultural essence of officialdom ("官场文化") and the prevalent human relationships ("人情社会") in Chinese society.
An ordinary Chinese government official, referred to as Mr. A, struggled and ultimately failed to meet the diverse expectations of his father, relatives, someone from his hometown, elementary school teacher, and classmates. As a result, rumor has it that Mr. A is unable to wield enormous clout in central authorities.
In today's post, Mr. A's anecdotes will exemplify the challenges and excessively high expectations imposed on Chinese government officials, as well as the ethical dilemmas they may encounter in their occupational and personal lives. It can also be found that the relationship-oriented power-worship culture deeply ingrained in Chinese society is still undergoing far-reaching changes.
Below is Baiguan's translation of the original article:
Rumor has it that Mr. A holds no sway as a Chinese government official
As a friend of Mr. A, the author Agan is overwhelmed by the storytelling of Mr. A’s personal experiences working in China’s central government department, wondering why civil servants, originally an ordinary profession with an austere lifestyle, are now burdened with such lofty yet grandiose expectations from all sides. This phenomenon reflects the hierarchical nature of Chinese society of human relationships, where individuals are expected to accept their place following the power-oriented hierarchy. With a knowing smile, Agan proceeds to write the following essay.
During the Dragon Boat Festival, Mr. A, who works in China's central government department, returned to his hometown and became frustrated.
Hailing from poverty-stricken mountain areas in western China, Mr. A faced numerous challenges as he made his way to Beijing [Baiguan: Beijing is the closest location to China's highest decision-making center]. He started from the grassroots level and eventually achieved the position of director in a central power authority. This career path was generally regarded as having promising prospects in Chinese society. However, why did Mr. A feel depressed?
It turned out that Mr. A's reserved father suddenly asked him if he felt stuck, hesitating a lot with his words. Mr. A was quite puzzled by his father's simple yet stuttering words for no apparent reason, and he replied honestly, "Everything is going well!" The father paused for a moment and said, "That's good! Just remember not to put too much pressure on yourself.”
A day later, Mr. A pondered over his father's words and sensed something fishy going on here. He quickly had a word in his mother's ear. "Don't mention it! Your father heard from someone that you got frustrated with your work in the central government department, and he has been concerned and sleeping poorly for several nights," explained Mr. A's mother.
Where there are people, there is Jianghu [Baiguan: In Chinese, “Jianghu 江湖” refers to a complicated human world of power struggles and conflicts]. Mr. A's hometown is a case in point. Jianghu is rife with inevitable disputes and rumors, originating from various sources and for different reasons.
Through persistent questioning, Mr. A thoroughly understood the ins and outs of the matter. Astonishingly, the rumors contained numerous "secrets" that suggested "Mr. A holds no sway as a Chinese government official."
Father’s disappointment: It is still a long way for my son to reach Zhongnanhai [Baiguan: Zhongnanhai refers to the central political and governmental complex in Beijing ]
Last year, Mr. A's father, a septuagenarian farmer, was finally taken by his children to Beijing, the capital city of China. They wanted to fulfill his long-cherished wish of visiting the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. Mr. A, who was busy for several days, accompanied his father to Tian'anmen Square, the Imperial Palace, and Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden. They not only witnessed the flag-raising ceremony but also paid their respects at Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. Additionally, Mr. A made arrangements for the elderly man to visit Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. [Baiguan: Diaoyutai State Guesthouse refers to an important venue for Chinese national leaders to conduct foreign affairs activities].
Although the elderly person was happy with the full itinerary that was arranged for him and considered it a rewarding trip, he eventually expressed a desire to visit a place that is not accessible to ordinary people. He believed that these popular attractions would not be worth boasting about to others upon his return. He added, "You know, last time, Zhao San, the guy who sells braised meat in the neighboring village, visited the provincial authority's office and bragged about it for half a year. I couldn't stand it. How about taking me to your workplace?" Mr. A thought to himself that his workplace, a small courtyard with a few tall buildings and usually crowded with petitioners, is not impressive at all and has nothing worth visiting.
After several explanations, Mr. A finally realized that the place the old man wanted to go was actually Zhongnanhai, which is often mentioned in TV news. However, this left Mr. A stumped because Zhongnanhai is where the central leadership resides and works, and unauthorized individuals are not allowed access. He only goes there for meetings or official business.
In the end, Mr. A had to take him to visit Beihai Park to save his father's face and show respect. Pointing to the opposite side, Mr. A said, "Look, that is Zhongnanhai! Unfortunately, it's the weekend and we can't go for a tour." "That's alright. We can go next time," the elderly replied, clearly disappointed but understanding the reason they couldn't enter when they reached the entrance.
Returning to his hometown after leaving Beijing, the elderly talked about Mr. A in front of everyone, "My son was unable to give me access to Zhongnanhai. He still has a long way to go to reach the central leadership!”
Elementary school teacher’s helplessness: Mr. A tried in vain to secure a hospital bed
Mr. A's elementary school teacher has been diagnosed with a serious illness suspected to be cancer and has gone to Beijing for professional medical treatment. He requested Mr. A's assistance in contacting an eminent doctor at a major hospital. Despite having lived in Beijing for many years, Mr. A is currently a low-level official with limited social connections. After all, Beijing is the capital city.
What is the capital city? There is a joke that goes like this: The driver of a county magistrate was speeding on Chang'an Avenue (just a joke, don't take it seriously), and was stopped by a traffic police officer. The driver quickly got out of the car and waved his hands, indicating that the officer had better not to stop the car because the county magistrate had urgent business. The traffic police officer gave a faint smile and said, "Mayor? Just you wait. Believe it or not, I can wave my hand to stop several mayors, directors, and ministers' cars. They all have more urgent matters than you. So go wait on the side quickly.”
Thus, Beijing lacks various resources, making it challenging to address any issues in this area. Nothing is more important than human lives! The kindness of teachers is as vast as the ocean! Mr. A has exhausted all efforts and pulled strings to seek help, which turned out to be quite successful. Finally, he managed to get in touch with a renowned doctor who, after a thorough examination, determined that hospitalization for observation was necessary.
Mr. A is very persuasive in his imploring manner, but unfortunately, there are not enough beds available. It is simply impossible to prioritize and accommodate everyone. After approximately two or three days, the teacher's family could no longer wait and begged Mr. A to explore other connections and arrange for hospitalization as soon as possible.
"After all, I appreciate your previous teaching! At this point, I have exhausted all of my social connections. This is too difficult in Beijing! Honestly, I haven't even asked anyone for help regarding my wife giving birth or my family being hospitalized," Mr. A said.
After waiting for a few more days, and despite Mr. A's repeated attempts to coordinate, there has been no progress. Feeling helpless, the teacher had to take some medicine and go home to rest while waiting for the news. However, since then, rumors about Mr. A have started to spread in their hometown, suggesting that he has no clout in the central government department and is even unable to secure a hospital bed.
Fellow villagers’ criticism: The county leaders no longer give Mr. A weight
Mr. A started his career in rural areas and understands the challenges of working as an official at the grassroots level. As a result, whenever someone from his hometown asks for help, as long as it does not go against disciplinary principles, he assists them with enthusiasm. Mr. A stated, "Actually, many things are just procedural, and we may not play a key role. It's mainly about attitude!”
Mr. A is a sociable man who has built a large network of friends over the years, many of whom hold positions in municipal and county government agencies and are regarded as county leaders by Mr. A's fellow villagers.
"In the past, whenever I went home, I would receive polite invitations from everyone. Some of these invitations were sincere, while others may have been out of necessity. Regardless, once I attended one, it was unavoidable to attend another. Maintaining a good reputation is highly valued in our hometown, so it would be considered inappropriate to not attend any of these events," Mr. A explained. "Therefore, when I return to my hometown in the name of visiting my parents, I spend the limited time talking and chatting with them." Mr. A added, "It's a burden for everyone! However, this is the current social climate in Chinese society, where interpersonal relationships are highly valued, and I am unable to change it single-handedly. The only thing for me to do is adapt and go with the flow!”
After the launch of the Eight Rules [Baiguan: the central Party leadership's eight-point decision on improving work conduct], the spending on official receptions was slashed, the reform of vehicles for official use was implemented, and the oversight and enforcement of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was strengthened. With the government's commitment to streamlining administration by delegating power and improving regulations, the number of local officials coming to Beijing for projects has significantly decreased. "Restrictions on extravagance, the alleviated burden of social connections, and the delegation of authority have truly relieved every government official!" Mr. A said with a sense of relief. "Previously, it was difficult to decline dinner invitations, but now we have a valid reason to do so! Everyone understands!”
Initially, everyone would show their respect and cautiously invite each other. However, after encountering several refusals, they gradually became accustomed to it. Mr. A remarked, "Isn't it better now? Whenever I come home, I simply use the convenient e-hailing service without drawing any attention, and I no longer exchange greetings with them. This enables me to have a meal with my parents, spend more quality time with them, and engage in more conversations!” Nevertheless, Mr. A did not anticipate that his low-key manner and infrequent social gatherings with friends over the past two years would trigger significant questioning and criticism from some people in his hometown. They argued, "If even the county leaders no longer give him weight, it suggests that he has no voice and “useful” connections, and carries no considerable weight within the government authorities!"
Classmates’ grumbles: Mr. A failed to apply his full strength to handle affairs
Mr. A received an unexpected call from a middle school classmate whom he hadn't been in contact with for over twenty years. The classmate seemed very enthusiastic during their chat, but eventually got to the point. He expressed his desire to secure a construction project contract in their hometown, but was struggling to make the necessary connections. He had heard through word of mouth that Mr. A was working for the central government and had connections with local leaders in municipal and county government agencies. Therefore, he reached out to Mr. A, hoping to leverage his connections for assistance.
With a perfunctory smile, Mr. A responded, "I only have a nodding acquaintance with the local leaders, but we don't have deeper connections, so I may not be able to assist you in any way. I'm really sorry." This not only goes against disciplinary principles, but even if he wanted to help, sometimes “the heart is willing, but the strength is insufficient." In the case of projects that receive central investment subsidies, the relevant central departments are responsible for the initial approval. However, once the project is underway, including the bidding and construction phases, it becomes the responsibility of the local government, with many eyes fixed on him. "How could anyone assist a director in a low position? Moreover, there are disciplinary principles to adhere to." Mr. A shook his head, saying, "How could I dare to have such unrealistic confidence and expectations?”
Mr. A's high school classmate has a younger brother who is seeking a job at the deputy section-head level in another county. Taking into account their bond of friendship from their school days and the young man's CV, which meets the job requirements, Mr. A personally recommended him to a county leader who has some connections in Beijing.
Although the leader saved Mr. A's face and didn't directly refuse, they provided a lot of excuses. The implication was clear - there were too many competitors and each leader had more reputation and social connections than me. They simply couldn't handle it and suggested waiting until next time. Surprisingly, within a year, that county leader was transferred to a position in the municipal organization. As a result, this matter remained unresolved and completely ruined.
"I have a clear understanding of my own capabilities. Some things, even if I want to do them, cannot be accomplished!" Mr. A said. "To be honest, over the years, there have been some private matters at home that have troubled me. At the crucial moment, the ones who stepped up to help and the ones I could rely on were none other than those few close friends!”
Last year, at the end of the bull market, Mr. A's wife had a classmate who was involved in business. After seeing others make a fortune from stock trading, she decided to sell her commercial property and raise funds to enter the stock market. She even hired a professional trader. She went to Mr. A's house specifically to discuss so-called insider information and promised to share the profits, but Mr. A firmly refused.
"My stocks have all lost money. How can I dare to tell him about the policy information I know and have control over? Wouldn't that be harmful?" Mr. A added, "By the time the information reaches me, such an advantage is already widely known and it's too late. In fact, there is no insider information, only the policies that are about to be introduced!”
Relatives’ collective complaints: Mr. A is even unable to help with his own family affairs
One day in May last year, Mr. A was on a business trip when he received a sudden phone call from his aunt in his hometown. She urgently said, "You need to call the leaders in the province right away. Your cousin is about to graduate, and we need to quickly arrange a job for him." Mr. A was shocked by this message. His cousin was just a junior college student, and now they expected him to make a phone call and secure a job at the provincial level. This was a very challenging task and felt like pulling teeth.
He quickly explained, "Nowadays, national policies require all public institutions to hire people through exams, following specific procedures and requirements. Taking the exams is necessary!" Upon hearing this, his aunt made a concession, saying, "If that's the case, then let's compromise and arrange for him to work in municipal agencies instead.”
Mr. A smiled rather wryly, but he had to continue patiently explaining it was still impossible to secure a job at the municipal level. Hearing this, Mr. A’s aunt became a little annoyed and said, "It’s your business. Arrange the lowest position in the county, but it must be a good agency. Even a section chief in the county has arranged a job at the power supply company for his own cousin. You are in the central government, and you can't even handle this for your cousin? Does it lose your father’s face if other folks know this!"
This made Mr. A mad. "Working in the central government? Being a laborer would be much more suitable for him! A job at a power supply company is a great position, offering both free time and a desirable income. I want to work there too! But nobody wants me!" In the end, the talks broke down in discord and the knot that held them still remains.
Nowadays, the market economy plays a crucial role. As long as young people are ambitious and willing to work hard, there is no need to worry about having enough to eat or lacking prospects. It is time to change the old mindset.
"Look at how many young people nowadays are willing to pursue stable jobs," Mr. A expresses his resentment. "You can do it if you want, but you still need a reasonable plan, right? How can you just sit back and expect everything to be arranged for you? Who am I? Is the national institution your family's private property?"
Mr. A remarked, "Such things happen quite often! It's like I am the all-powerful God in their eyes, but in reality, I'm just a civil servant who writes official documents." Additionally, when it comes to his cousin's daughter, who only scored enough for a vocational college in the Gaokao [Baiguan: Chinese national college entrance examination], Mr. A's cousin pressured him to use his connections to help her get into a prestigious undergraduate institution. Despite Mr. A's attempts to explain the Gaokao policy, his cousin remained dissatisfied. After ending the call, his cousin even had the audacity to say, "If she meets the requirements, why would I still need your help?”
Mr. A added that it was one of the most ridiculous requests. During last year's Mid-Autumn Festival, his uncle got into a fight with a drunk pedestrian while attending a meeting in the county, resulting in a broken arm. While lying in the hospital, his uncle insisted that Mr. A call his friend at the Public Security Bureau to quickly have the local police station arrest the drunk man. "With just one phone call to the Public Security Bureau, the station chief would be scared out of his wits. Would he dare not obey obediently?!" Mr. A was speechless, angry, and anxious due to his uncle's arrogance, ignorance, and short-sightedness.
Mr. A initially didn't want to get involved, but then his father personally called him and said, "Have a try, or else I won't be able to explain it to our relatives." Later, Mr. A asked someone to explain the situation to the local authorities, emphasizing the importance of not escalating the conflict and handling it fairly. After several days of deadlock, both sides finally reached a compromise. However, it seems that Mr. A's uncle-in-law was not satisfied because the results didn't meet his expectations.
A wry smirk lifted a corner of his lips. Mr. A sighed, "I just try my best to do everything! It's still sad for myself to carry so many burdens! I have no voice and social connections in the central government, and I have disappointed the fellow-villagers. I can only apologize!"
But why are civil servants, originally an ordinary profession with an austere lifestyle, burdened with such lofty yet grandiose expectations from all sides?
Well, that's just Chinese society, where the climate of social connections and power-worship prevail!
*Disclaimer: Baiguan only translates and cannot verify the authenticity of the stories and content in the original article.