Last Minute

China is a last minute country. The issue is not so much time keeping – arriving on time – as late arrangements. I wrote about how trains can only be booked a few days in advance. There might be an underlying logic to it. People wouldn’t bother booking them early, anyway. Because everything is constantly shuffled and rescheduled.

For some reason, this is correlated with a state of permanent distraction. People always forget things, or forget to tell you things. Is it the education system? A coping mechanism in such a complex environment ? Or just laziness? In any case, to the outsider, it makes the situation worse.

Coming from a culture where everything is planned in advance, this constant emergency reaction proved extremely tiring – at work in particular. I’ve always thought arranging everything at the last minute was a form of tyranny. To push their agenda, those in power – in private, corporate or public settings – use ’emergency management’. If something is urgent, there is no time for negotiation and patient discussion. Things have to move, now, and Executive decisions have to be followed.

For some reason, the state of affairs was reminiscent of Paris. And I think I found a key to the French – or Latin – character; why French people are so attracted to Napoleonic ‘strong man’ figures. Why they will prefer to ‘follow Republican rules’, rather than engage in ‘Democratic debate’. Because democracy takes time, and effort, and foreward planning. Whereas you can be lazy all you like when things don’t have to be debated and discussed. You can live the moment fully. Then a wave of emergency comes; and you just obey.


Lifting a finger in China requires, at least, a Masters in politics. Everything is the subject of complex and endless negotiations. Everything involves elaborate power display and threats.

At a basic level, everything is complicated. Alliance francaise, for instance, where I worked. In other countries, Alliance Francaise is run as a local association or a not-for-profit company. But there is no legal status for associations in China. So Alliance Francaise is run as a joint venture between France and Chinese Universities – which breeds endless complexities in hierarchical protocol, project development, and daily business administration.

In history class, I used to hear how people fought for Freedom of association in the late 19th century. But I took so much for granted that I didn’t understand what people were actually fighting for. Freedom of association does not exist in China. People belong to the State and their families.Father – and mother – dictate their rule. Children obey. The arbitrary demands of parents are ‘a form of love’, and as such, must be respected. Where they go, you follow.

I read in one Jacques Gernet’s Essays that Chinese culture can be interpreted as a tension between Confucianism on the one side – a semi-religion that proposes filial devotion as a way to social perfection – and taoism or buddhism on the other side, which on the contrary propose a return to nature and calm through personal meditation, and distance from existing social bonds.

But is the freedom of Buddhist meditation what a European or a Westerner would recognize as freedom? Gernet gives a beautiful analysis of the difference between Christian extasy and Buddhist mediation: “Whereas the extatic Christian mimes the fight between body and soul and the soul’s union with God, Indian meditation exercises aim to reach the depths of the spirit, and fuse it into an absolute beyond all distinctions. In the deepest meditations, there is no ‘subject’ any more. Therefore, there can be no soul and body or, for that regard, fight of the one against the other.’ The self and the world are one. Whereas extasy is extreme tension, dramatic fight, meditation is conceived of as a return to the original quietness. It allows those who have mastered it to reach universal being, in their own depth.”

Is there something definitely ‘Western’ in that extreme assertion of the self? The self asserting its resemblance to the creating God by fighting against its angel. Honouring your ancestors and father by resisting, as they did – including resisting your own father. Hence heroes: Hector, Patroclus, Christian Martyrs, or Che Guevara: all figures of resistance. In the face of evil (or the enemy), they do not embrace the flux of life, but stand hard against it. They were defeated, but they stood upright – and therefore, their defeat became a victory.

Nothing of the sort in Chinese tradition, where supreme victory, quite the opposite, is victory without a fight. China does not have martyrs, or hero worship. Chinese heroes are those who survive hardships, and live on to tell their story.

In the European tradition, freedom is the opposite of slavery. It is the possibility to self-determine, rather than submit to the will of another. Courage is a prerequisite for freedom. Freedom is the resolution to say ‘no’ when we disagree, and live – or die – with the consequences.

The Chinese word for freedom is ‘Zi You’ – to posess oneself. Self possession, in the Chinese context, is actually the result of a hard fight. Like in the West, the willingness to die can be the touchstone of freedom. And there have been Buddhist monks who decided to suicide, or sacrifice parts of their bodies, as an ultimate form of freedom. Yet they were not part of a heroic resistance, in the Western sense. Dying for your ideas is not a particular cause for praise – not dying, and pushing them ahead is probably better.

People talk about restrictions on freedom in China. They accuse communism, they want political diversity, multiple political parties. Why not? But as a Chinese friend was telling me, this is not the heart of the matter. A very dense web of tyranny runs through all layers of society. Through families, friends, neighbours, superiors, and the complex system of GuanXi that rules virtually everything.

Yet all hope is not lost. There is some progress happening, in individual freedom, through web communities, feminism, gay rights, and relaxed HuKou laws allowing people to change cities more easily, so as to get away from their families and clans. QQ groups and a relaxed attitude to dating, all of those are slowly building a circle of personal freedom, outside family domination. The apolitical youth is, actually, planting and growing the seeds of freedom – like young people in Moliere and Marivaux’s comedies, when advocating for the freedom to choose their romantic partner as their spouse, were preparing consciences for the French revolution.

Untill people wash off the tyrannical ethos, breeding fear and agression, making a joke of civic virtue – what can be the point of multiple parties ? But maybe, step by step, young generations will start saying no to their parents, or bosses; and assert their control over their bodies and their time. Gaining concrete freedom, in their day to day life; and preparing for more, in the future.


Everyone heard about Guanxi, that mysterious web of relations running through Chinese society, that weird tribal archaism, which stands in the way of making business in China. Having often said that China resembles Italy, I would like to try and understand it from my own Mediterranean background.

The main point of Guanxi is that it’s not about how qualified you are. It’s about who you know, and who will pick up your phone calls.

It sounds bad, but let’s have a think. On a professional level, is not the capacity to rely on existing networks of support a key to success in projects? At a more personal level, can you really trust a person with no friends? And at a more metaphysical level, is not our social inclusion fully part of our identity, not just a late addition to the core nugget of our pure being?

Of course, Guanxi can feed existing inequalities. Because it builds with time, and so depends on the family you come from, and the school you’ve been to. Interestingly, I found Chinese people particularly faithful to their high-school pengyous, who stand somewhere in between the family member and the chosen friend, as people we didn’t really choose, and people we’ve known forever.

But there is a democratic element in Guanxi. Sure, some Guanxis are more powerful than others. But the world has many levels, and multiple hierarchies. Here is a story: one of my Chinese friends suddenly fell sick, and needed to go to hospital. Beds are hard to get, especially when you’re not in critical condition. He got a space in a double room rightaway, through his parents’ Guanxi. I mocked him – ‘your parents have a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, they know all the right pepole.’ He corrected me, ‘actually, one of my parents’ very good friends drives the car of this hospital’s director – and it’s much better Guanxi than knowing a doctor here’. So Guanxi-power does not align immediately with social status. A cook, a driver, a cleaning lady, may be more powerful than a company director in a given situation, because they have direct connection to the key person in that context. Because life is complex, and you need all sorts of people for all sorts of situations. Therefore, you should nurture all of your relations, not only the powerful ones. That is the very democratic wisdom of Guanxi.

Guanxi’s about a world with many layers and hierarchies, a complex world – not unlike the one we live in. Guanxi might even be the principal counter-power in China. But Guanxi’s also about what we may wish to call ‘right wing virtues’: being true to your family, respecting people you know you can trust, and relationships that have been cemented with time.

In the end, I think I don’t mind Guanxi.

La Dame du 5e

This is my single worst experience in China. Arbitrary violence in my workplace, without apologies. Here’s the story.

I came to Tianjin to teach at Alliance Francaise, where my old friend Juliette is the director. Alliance Francaise is an international network of French cultural centres, giving French classes, organising French cultural events, and offering a French hub for expats. In short, a nice, quiet, home away from home environment.

In general, they operate under local association laws, with support from the French government. In China, there is no legal status for associations, so they are set up as partnerships with a Chinese university. In Tianjin, the partner is Tianjin Normal University, which is hosting Alliance Francaise on the second floor of a pink fifties building in the BaLiTai campus. For whatever reason, the relationship is tense.

After about a year of existence, Alliance Francaise Tianjin is becoming popular. Twenty-five beginner students registered for the summer session – double the number expected. Juliette had to find an extra teacher and, in the meantime, borrow a room on the fifth floor that could fit a large class, since Alliance Francaise only has four smallish rooms on the second floor.

Each floor has its concierge, a person in charge of locking the rooms, turning on the electricity, looking after the equipment, etc. Before starting my work on the fifth floor, I was introduced to the concierge, a woman in her fifties, who seemed reasonably nice. But I was aware that the room was a special favour – although it was empty at that time – and diplomacy was needed.

We had classes over the week-end, and Juliette told me there had been incidents. The concierge complained of students being rude with her, not helping her change a water bottle in the water dispenser, and leaving mess in the toilets. I was a bit suprised – my students were all professionals in their twenties and thirties – but thought they might have a hidden dark side to them. Then on Thursday, I had classes there again.

Class was from 6h30 to 9pm. At 9.00 sharp, the concierge came in to turn off everything. Two students were at my desk, asking questions. At about 9.04, the students left, and I had to take out a CD from the desk computer. The concierge had already turned off power from the main switch on the wall. I asked her to turn it back on, so I could take out my CD. She started shouting and waving her arms around, then left the room abruptly, ovbiously angry. I packed up my stuff, and waited, talking to the cleaner in the room, trying to make my meaning clear – I needed the power on to take out a CD from the computer. The concierge came back, and I asked again. She shouted more, aggressively. I decided I couldn’t handle this situation with my limited Mandarin, so I left the room, went down to the teachers’ room on the second floor, and wrote a note for Juliette there. I explained that there might have been a misunderstanding which I couldn’t get out of, and that she should try to get that CD back somehow.

When I walked out of the room, I saw the concierge approaching in the corridor, waving a CD. I thought it had all been just a misunderstanding so, with a smile, I thanked her, while trying to get the CD from here. She wouldn’t give it to me, but jerked it back and pushed me aside. Apparently, she wanted a word with the director. Juliette had left, but a Chinese teacher was here. She handled the matter, and pacified the angry lady. Then she told me ‘I think it’s not important.’

I disagreed. I was part of the equation, and I was feeling awful. I wrote an email to Juliette, saying that I would not stay in a workplace where I could be shouted at for no reason, without warning or apologies. Juliette explained to me that the situation was tough. Work relationships are hard, and people regularly suffer abuse from those above us. She was abused by the Vice-chancellor of Tianjin Normal University. Some of the students, although very respectful with me, abused the woman at the front desk. Worse, she said, if you never threaten, if you smile too much, people will never respect you. For some reason, in the subtle hierarchies of university life, I, a simple teacher, was under the concierge.

I understood, but I didn’t accept, so Juliette and I negotiated a solution: I would give all my classes on the 2nd floor untill the new teacher arrived – packing students in the room – so that I would not have to see the shouting concierge again. Involving that woman in the solution was not a possibility. There could be no debrief, where the two of us would have a quiet conversation, and look for some reconciliation.

I reflected about this. Why could this woman arbitrarily shout at me, without any mediation happening afterwards. Why was it not problematic for a floor keeper to vent her frustration at a teacher working in the same institution? It made sense from her point of view. At a first level, this woman was rebelling against orders given to her – who knows if she got any extra pay for staying up untill nine? If she made things difficult enough, maybe people would stop annoying her, and she could leave early. At a second level, this woman was defending her own status. Her role is pointless. If the university trusted cleaners and teachers enough to give them a key, she could be dispensed with. Her role as a concierge is a sheer expression of control. Creating problems was a way of asserting her own necessity. Or, at a more primal level, of defending her own turf.

I reflected further, and started seeing that woman, her job and her reaction as a pure expression of despotic power. The Chinese regime is authoritarian. Powers are not clearly separated, and although there are some cultural and social counter-powers, the people in power pretty much rule everything at their will. Under a despotic regime, fear rules. I had read enough Montesquieu to know that. People obey because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t. If your threats are convincing enough, people will do what you say. The rule of tyranny ripples down from the centre of power to all spheres of society. I started observing, and saw that people were indeed often acting angry, as a way to scare off the enemy, threaten, assert their power. Like lions and dragons at the front of their houses, growling to scare off the demons.

After a while, I guess people start finding it normal, and ignoring it, even expats. Juliette had inducted me to the job, but she never warned me that I would have to play power games with the people in the building. Of course, there were superficial cultural differences – maybe that woman’s tone was not that aggressive, I should have interpreted her better. But there were a deeper, and more radical, cultural difference: no collaborative spirit. This woman did not attempt a dialogue with me so that we could reach a common goal – provide a good teaching environment for students learning foreign languages. She was only protecting herself and her own situation. That was an aspect of Chinese life I had never read about in the guides.

That was a bad experience, but I think I learnt from it. And I’m glad I resisted it – demanded a debrief, negotiated a solution, did not accept it, simply, as ‘the way things work here’. It made me realise how good it is to live and work in a country with regulations and processes, where bullying is taken seriously, where people don’t just accept arbitrary violence, in the workplace, or anywhere, as something normal. I came to deeply value the way Australian organisations try to build a ‘safe working environment’. Reducing the fear of arbitrary violence, making threats void, may be the best way to enforce democratic virtue, and the possibility for collaborative dialogue.

And I was thinking – but was I right? Or ridiculous, and homesick? – this would not happen in a democracy.


Everyone’s heard of it. There’s a paragraph about it in any China book. It’s essential in all business and personal dealings. It’s a key to understanding Chinese behaviour. Face.

Face is not just something you have. Face is something you can lose, or give. Win or deny. Face is about social interaction. Face is relational. Face is something money can buy. Face is what success brings you.

Make up can give you more face. So can expensive clothes, expensive cars, holidays abroad, any status item, really. The success of luxury brands in China is directly connected to face.

But face is not all about money. Making money can make you lose face. And face matters more than money. I was talking with Aaron one day about bad service in China – particularly North China. I was proposing what seemed a rational option, saying: service jobs are underpaid, so you can’t get able staff. What if businesses paid more for these jobs, so more competent and dynamic people would do them? That would improve the service, and improve the business. Aaron said ‘even if it paid better than my current job, I would never work in a restaurant. I would completely lose face if I did.’

He added a little story. When he finished high-school – a posh Tianjin high-school – two of his friends got a job in a restaurant. To mock them, he went there the following day, and started ordering lavishly. They served him; then quit the job. They were saving face.

Face is a form of collective property. Chinese parents would rather give their children money than have them work in face-losing jobs. Because if their children lose face, they lose face too. Your face is a common goods, that each of your relatives, friends and neighbours can enjoy, in proportion to their closeness. Any loss of face on your part will affect them, again, depending on how close they are. Then economic rationality plays out. Your relatives would rather give you 100 kuai than let you lose 150 kuai’s worth of face. And if you risk a huge loss of face – your whole network might go bankrupt on it – like a ‘face’ financial crisis. So they find a way; or all take a dive.

But what do you get from having face? To illustrate what face is, Aaron said: for instance, my grand-mother talks to the people in the Xiao Qu everyday. She likes to talk of her grandson making good studies and working for a multinational company. That gives her a lot of face. If I was working in a restaurant, she couldn’t talk about it. If others knew that, she would lose face. So she would just have to be silent, and let them speak.

Face is power. It is, precisely, the power to tell a story. The more face you have, the more you can face others; face them down if necessary. The more face you have, the more people will listen to you. Face has the same function as a mask in Greek and Roman theatre. Face amplifies your voice. It attracts attention to you.

But face is more than just a mask. One common form of mockery – read social control – is to tell people that they are ‘Mian Pi Hou’, literally, that they have ‘thick skin on their face’. That is what you hear when you brag too much, or don’t listen to others’ judgements on your actions. If your face is not affected by the community – then the community will re-assert its power by discarding it as a fake, or as low quality face. The worst scenario being: to not even have face. To pursue your own interest, without any care for what others will think. To build up your own little story, whether others accept it or not. Accepting facelessness.

This is how a shame culture builds itself. That is how social control operates.

(and for those who want further reading on face, there’s a great wikipedia article to read.)


Some things you know about, as a fact, a linguistic statement, something you can repeat, or answer a quizz with. But it’s not emotionally there, integrated. You don’t follow the consequences of it. It’s not part of how you build a world in your head. And then, when you finally experience that thing you’ve always known in the abstract, you feel really dumb, and think: ‘How come I never saw that before?’

I had that very feeling, three weeks into my third Chinese trip, when I suddenly realised: ‘hey, there’s a lot of people in China.’

China is a crowded country, and I fully came to grasp it when walking towards Alliance Francaise from Nankai University, along a kind of bridge underpass. I thought – hey cool, a secret place. But as it turned out, about a thousand bikers and pedestrians already knew my secret place; a peddler had heard of it, and set up his business on the pavement there.

Chinese city planners must have a hard time thinking of the crowds, and their movements, especially with a rising number of cars on the road. The huge roads are often congested, and crossing them is like a 3D Wii war game. But sometimes, between two beats in traffic light rhythm, like the sudden quiet in the eye of a storm, you catch a sight of pure empty space, for a few seconds – the hollow form of the crowd, in negative.

One thing I’d like to explore more is how Chinese intellectuals have theorised the tension between the crowd, the anonymous mass, and individuals. At a book shop in 798, I saw a book of LeBon’s work, that French sociologist who wrote about the crowd in the early 20th century. What is the reception in China of Elias Canetti’s Mass and power? How exactly do books about the cultural revolution – Yu Hua’s and others – articulate the submission of individuals to the power of the crowd? How do Chinese individuals, in a world of masses and all powerful family networks, resist the pressure of the collective? How do people, still, stand as one, playing their single role in life’s theatre?

If anyone has anything about this question – please post it here in the comment – or if you find a text in Chinese, submit it to the Marco Polo Project.

Xiao Qu

Chinese cities, with their imposing residential towers and busy streets, can create an impression of alienation – how can one survive there? Is not this environment completely against the human?

But these towers – and smaller residential spaces – are organised in a way particular to China: the Xiao Qu (literally, ‘small district’). A Xiao Qu – my friend Aaron spontaneously translates it ‘community’ – is a group of buildings organised around a common yard or laneway. That space is not locked out from the street – you don’t need a key to get in, or a special nod from the front-door person. But it is not open on all sides either – there are just a few too many walls and fences to make it easy to get in. Generally, the Xiao Qu only has a couple of doorways, that mark a passage into the semi-domestic space shared by the community living there.

Xiao Qus are not purely residential spaces. There can be little gardens, a playground for children, but also, sometimes, windows on the wall selling water, juice and cigarettes, even mini-supermarkets, little hawker-style restaurants, or fruit and vegetable sellers offering their goods at the back of a van, or in an old style cart.

Some Xiao Qus, in Wu Da Dao or the old French concession area, can be very beautiful, ornate even. Nonetheless, they remain semi-private space, which people use it for all sorts of purpose – storage, parking, laundry.

Xiao Qus are the inner space of internal interactions, between neighbours, from window to window or on a stool – with its intimate dramas and secrets. This is the world painted by Wang Anyi in The Song of Everlasting Regrets, that most masterful of domestic novels.

In one of his essays, Jacques Gernet discusses one major difference between European and Chinese cities. European cities are built around an agora, a central square where the people of the city met to discuss political concerns, and take part in the city rituals. Not so in China, where cities are built around a grid of parallel streets, without a central square. Tian An Men, that symbolic centre of communist China, is an open space so monumental it cannot serve as a discussion ground for the people. Attempts to use it as an agora have not proven very successful.

The space for freedom was not the agora, but a smaller residential district, where the community had a relatively high level of independance from all external powers – in terms of self organisation and internal debate. In the capital, the Hu Tongs are these traditional ‘free spaces’ – nothing but a local form Xiao Qu – a network of laneways connecting houses, defining an interstitial space somewhere between public and private. No wonder there is so much passion associated to their destruction.

I have read and heard how replacing traditional hutongs with towers, and moving in – or up – the residents, is an act of violence against communities. My students were telling me you no longer know your neighbours, and that contemporary life has become very anonymous.

I have seen the big, anonymous shopping districts and plazas. But very close to them, I saw what seemed like a lively street and community life.

Maybe the situation is not as bad as they paint it? Or maybe I was lucky to live in a good neighbourhood? I hope it wasn’t just the second.