Writing Chinese

Squatting

Translated by Brendan O’Kane, and reprinted by kind permission of Comma Press, 2015.

Read the Chinese here.

 

Summer is high season for criminal offences, particularly at night.

I’m not just referring to crimes of a sexual nature.

That sexual assault is more prevalent during the summer months, and especially on summer nights, is a fact in need of little explanation. Indeed, summer nights facilitate many other forms of crime, as may also go without saying.

Brawling, for example. On summer nights, when the heat lifts a little and a light breeze blows, when outdoor barbecue stands line both sides of the street and fill the air with the aroma of roasting meat, even people who have already eaten dinner will take the chance to slip away from their stifling homes and sit out on the benches by the barbecue stands, drinking beer and husking boiled peanuts or brined flatbeans, nibbling at skewers of roast chicken or slices of kidney or grilled fish, gossiping with friends, playing drinking games, growing louder and rowdier as the night wears on. The combination of strangers in close quarters, alcohol fanning the flames, and a conversational milieu consisting largely of idle chatter, boasts, and swagger is ripe for disagreements, for conflict, for violence, for incidents leading to injury or even grievous bodily harm.

Or robbery. It is considerably harder to rob someone’s person in the winter, when layers of heavy clothing pile up so thickly that no sooner has one shoved the victim into a narrow alleyway or a grove of trees or a tight corner, than one has to rifle through a dozen pockets in different layers of clothes – tissues in this pocket, handkerchief in that one, nothing at all in that one over there – and there’s no guarantee one will even find the money before a patrolman comes running. Much more straightforward in the summer, when people only have a couple of places to store things on their person and the pickings are easier by far.

Breaking and entering likewise. Doors and windows are shut tight in the wintertime but left quite agape in the summer. Many individuals who might be merely satisfying their own vulgar curiosity by peeking through other people’s windows will find, after discovering the ease of egress and the convenient placement of mobile phones on tables and wallets in handbags, that one thing simply leads to another, a problem of morality becoming a problem for the courts.

Or homicide. Chinese people don’t possess guns, or at any rate don’t generally have access to them, so most murder weapons are improvised – clubs, hammers, axes, screwdrivers and whatnot. The padded jackets and insulated hats of winter wrap their wearers so thickly that an attacker using insufficient or improperly applied force will find that even with a perfectly timed attack, these improvised weapons will let them down almost every time. They may manage to tear a hole in the victim’s cotton-stuffed vest or down jacket, or to knock the victim’s cotton or leather or woollen cap out of shape, but the victim will remain physically unharmed, possibly reeling for an instant before understanding the situation. Whereupon most people will bolt like startled rabbits. But from time to time a victim made of tougher stuff will respond by rearing up like a horse and pouncing like a tiger, and then there’s no telling who will end up killing whom. Summer homicides are a different matter altogether, and a malefactor of sufficient strength and accuracy will be able to effect the expiration of their victim with nothing more than a single well-placed blow.

Summer is beautiful, and summer nights more beautiful still, but in our city it was a deadly beauty.

 

The above shouldn’t be taken to reflect the primary characteristics of summer nights in our city – merely a single aspect, incidental, a footnote to a greater whole. In principle, I believe, the overall mainstream big picture situation of our city at the macro level is hardly different from Paris or Warsaw, Pyongyang or London, Tokyo or Beijing, Baghdad or Port-au-Prince, Canberra or Kabul, Sarajevo or Caracas, Addis Ababa or Buenos Aires. Not that I’ve been to any of these cities – but insofar as issues of public security are concerned I am confident, going by common sense, deductive reasoning, and what I’ve seen in books and television, that the problem of increased crime during summer months is by no means limited to the city in which I live. That it is a general phenomenon by whose very commonness we may see that conflicts will arise anywhere people are gathered, and that promoting public morality and social progress is not as simple a matter as, say, acquiring a new production line for the manufacture of televisions or refrigerators or washing machines. Far from it. The road to a better world, as the poet said, is a long and winding one. My colleagues and I therefore composed a delicately couched, politely worded, mildly phrased letter along these lines to the highest-ranking municipal administrator – not to criticise or assign blame or complain or bellyache or grumble; merely an earnest, sincere, humble, written reminder that summer was nearly upon us and, with it, peak season for crimes, and that we hoped the highest-ranking municipal administrator and the relevant departments would find the time to note the passing of the seasons and make such preparations as might be needful.

We sent the letter in the middle of April, when the air was cool and crisp.

 

Every year summer comes to our city a few days earlier than the year before, owing supposedly to the greenhouse effect. Meteorological authorities had already said it would be another veritable scorcher: even our far-northern city would be running into temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius or higher by the start of May, and authorities couldn’t – or wouldn’t, or at least couldn’t honestly – say how hot it would be come July and August. Indeed, by the beginning of the May Day holiday week anyone setting foot outside was instantly inspired to change into shorts and undershirts; meanwhile air conditioners, fans, window-screens, and cool bamboo sleeping mats sold out overnight. During those first few days of the May Day holiday, all of our city’s media outlets – the ‘three mouthpieces’ of newspapers, radio, and television – began replacing front page and prime time coverage of tourism revenues with reports on a new regulation from the municipal Counter-Criminal Crackdown Command Office, stipulating that starting after the May Day holiday week, all public buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and other human-powered vehicles would be barred from city streets between the hours of 8pm and 5am.

There was a public outcry, in response to which ‘CrackCom’ issued a full explanation of the new regulation.

The explanation was faithfully transmitted by all news outlets. Through a barrage of interviews, special features, opinion pieces, letters from the editor, recorded lectures, public service announcements, televised exposés, and topical artistic performances, newspapers and radio and television stations informed the masses that while the new regulation would, most certainly, result in minor public inconvenience, any honest comparison against the major public inconvenience of rampant nocturnal criminality would conclude that the restrictions on the ‘three categories of vehicles’ were merely a small inconvenience. The brilliance of the new regulation, in other words, lay in using a minor inconvenience to the public to utterly eliminate the major inconvenience of criminal activity; in employing a minor curtailing of the public’s ability to do its business in order to allow the authorities to discharge their duty of wiping out criminal elements; in engineering a beneficial trade-off between inconvenience and convenience.

The logic behind the regulation was straightforward. Having buses, motorcycles, and bicycles on the roads at night contributed to crime: some vehicles, such as buses, were sites of criminal activity; some, such as motorcycles and bicycles, were implements of crime; some, such again as motorcycles and bicycles, were targets of crime. There were pickpockets and hooligans on buses by day, but at night they ran rampant; likewise, there were daytime thefts of motorcycles and bicycles, and thieves who snatched at people’s wallets, necklaces, and mobile phones from moving bicycles and motorcycles during the daytime, but under cover of night the snatching and thievery became downright brazen. If, during the dark hours from 8pm to 5am, these three categories of vehicle were barred from city streets, then the problems might be resolved, and the ability of criminal elements to commit crimes effectively restricted. Gesturing with his hands as he addressed the television cameras, a CrackCom spokesman said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, citizens of our fair city, we have every reason to expect a sharp drop in crime rates this summer.’

The residents of our city are understanding, law-abiding sorts – except for the criminals – and after an initial period of stunned silence the public came to appreciate the municipal government’s concern, and took to the media to express its full support for CrackCom’s new regulation. Public support or no, however, the new regulation undeniably gave rise to more than a few new problems – most obvious of which, and anticipated by CrackCom, was the massive inconvenience caused to the work and everyday life of people throughout the city.

The inconvenience to people who began or ended their work shifts at night may be imagined. Even for those who didn’t, the inconvenience will be readily apparent. People couldn’t just barricade themselves indoors talking or making love or watching TV or playing mahjong as soon as the sky began to darken. Many enjoyed taking evening strolls in the city’s parks or commercial districts – but how, once outside, were these ordinary citizens to get there without buses or motorcycles or bicycles or other everyday means of transport? More troublesome still: if, at 8pm, a bus or a motorcycle or a bicycle or a cargo tricycle was out on the roads, it would be compelled to stop where it was by the sight of a police car zooming by on its rounds, or by the deafening blast of sirens that signalled the beginning of the curfew. This was no problem for people who were within sight of their homes – they could simply get off and walk, or gun the throttle a couple of times and slip in under the wire – but what about those left stranded between work and home? Unable to afford taxi fare, bus passengers would have to disembark and contemplate the long road ahead of them; riders of bicycles, motorcycles, and tricycles faced the additional question of what to do with their vehicles. The regulation banned even pushing a bicycle between the hours of 8pm and 5am, since any moving motorcycles, bicycles, or even tricycles would place patrolling officers in a position of having to ascertain whether the people pushing the vehicles were thieves or the vehicles’ rightful owners.

And then there were secondary issues not to be overlooked. In one instance, the sudden blast of the curfew alert startled an old lady so severely as to affect her heart. Some drivers, lacking proper respect for CrackCom’s new regulation, would gleefully follow the curfew alert by leaning on their horns, resulting in a blast of urban noise pollution in excess of the regulated three minutes. A young boy on a bicycle forgot what the 8pm alert was for and kept pedalling through the streets while other cyclists throughout the city stopped in their tracks – presenting a problem for the patrolling officer who caught him, since detention or fines would be inappropriate given the boy’s status as a minor. An old scrap collector pedalling back to the little shack he rented was so startled by the alert that he overturned his cargo tricycle, scattering rubbish all over the roadway and bringing the remaining legitimate traffic to a halt for 15 minutes, infuriating the motorists on the scene. One woman chained her scooter to a sapling by the side of the street; upon returning to retrieve it in a car two hours later, she and her husband found that the scooter and the newly planted tree it had been chained to were both gone, leaving only a shallow pit.

Though by no means common, such problems could only lead to greater problems in the future if they continued to go unaddressed. After spending nights compiling a list of such cases, my colleagues and I wrote an urgent letter to the highest-ranking municipal administrator, which we passed to one of his secretaries through the secretary’s wife in order to ensure prompt delivery. It was our hope that the highest-ranking municipal administrator would receive our report on recent conditions from his secretary the following morning.

(It should be noted that one of our number had attended university with the wife of one of the highest-ranking municipal administrator’s secretaries, and had for some years been romantically involved with her).

 

My colleagues and I weren’t People’s Congress delegates or People’s Political Consultative Committee members, nor indeed were we employees of any governmental authority. We were writers of reportage, teachers of history, players of oboes, designers of computer software, extractors of teeth, translators of foreign languages, creators of advertisements, students of calculus, researchers of pharmaceutical compounds. We’d all gone to university and taken at least undergraduate degrees, and if forced to give an account of ourselves we would shyly admit to being intellectuals. Engaged in different lines of work, living in different neighbourhoods, of different ages and genders, we shared nonetheless a common concern for the development and growth of our city, and wrote regular letters to a succession of highest-ranking municipal administrators addressing the strengths and shortcomings of our city and the strengths and shortcomings of municipal policy in the hopes that our suggestions would aid them in the performance of their duties. Our efforts were motivated not by a desire for official recognition or pecuniary reward, but by a sense of righteousness and justice, of responsibility, of social morality, and of love for our fellow man.

Our little group had its roots in a happy coincidence some years before.

While other parts of our city had prospered, the west side was at the time still a desolate swathe of brick shacks, linked together by a few secondary roads, that stared out uncomfortably at the rest of the city. Any attempt to change the fortunes of the west-side slums was bound to be an uphill battle – but, we felt, a battle well worth fighting! Leaving aside more complex issues like housing and employment for the time being, we felt that the simpler issue of transportation could be readily addressed through public transit links between the west side and the rest of the city, and that the remaining problems might not seem so insoluble once this had been accomplished. In virtually every other part of the city, even the unimportant roads were immaculately paved, bordered by gleaming sidewalks lined with emerald trees stretching as far as the eye could see, punctuated at intervals by red and green lights merrily a-twinkle. But on the west side of the city, even arterial roads like Huashan Road or Qishan Road or Buyunshan Road were little better than the dirt roads of the wild North-west: on clear days, they were covered in thick clouds of dust; on rainy days, water pooled waist-deep; and they were so pitted and rutted, rain or shine, that even any senior cadres driving over them would find their sedans being tossed to and fro like boats on a choppy sea. Not that senior cadres took these roads – their residences and offices weren’t in the area. Even when municipal inspection teams visited our city from the Central Committee, and foreign guests and overseas compatriots came, saying that they wanted to see every nook and cranny of the city, nobody ever visited that part of town. But we felt that a lack of visits from officials and foreign friends shouldn’t mean that the west side never got to see brighter days. A city is a single organism. Allowing one part of an organism to wither away while the rest of the organism develops might seem to have no effect in the short term – other than a possible saving in development expenditures – but if matters continued as they had been, the imbalance could potentially cause incalculable damage to the appearance, structure, and overall progress of the whole. Consider a family in which the majority of members never touch tobacco or strong drink, but one member becomes addicted to drugs. The addict’s cash-flow and health problems may not initially affect the other members of the family, but as his money runs low and his health begins to fail, he becomes progressively likelier to drag all the others down with him. Seeing the condition of the west side of our city and its key roads in much the same light, we wrote down our observations in letters which we sent to the official then serving as the highest-ranking municipal administrator, humbly requesting that he consider the west side of town and its pitiful roads.

None of us had ever met any of the others at the time, I hasten to add. Each of us was perfectly unaware of the others’ existence. We were making our proposals as individuals, and so naturally our letters went out separately.

The letters’ common addressee was nonplussed, as you may imagine, to receive so many letters containing roughly the same content at more or less the same time. His bemusement gave way to nervousness and suspicion, and he turned the letters over to the Public Security Bureau. Someone who was with him at the time told us later that he had suspected us of being American spies or Russian special agents before deciding that we were working with a political rival, or were at the very least plants hired to stir up the waters and force him to resign. After analysing the letters, the Public Security Bureau agreed that the evidence suggested a conspiracy. The cover story – that a group of people from disparate backgrounds had written letters for purposes other than pleading their own cases, complaining about their own mistreatment, or making personal demands – was transparently flimsy, and yet the PSB had no idea what to make of letters from authors scattered all around the city – except for the west side, where none of them lived – on the subject of roads on the west side of the city that had nothing to do with them. The more the PSB analyzed the letters, the more serious the situation grew: they raised the municipal security alert level and deployed officers on the west side of town, particularly around Huashan, Qishan, and Buyunshan Roads, while also employing every available method of detection to investigate the senders of the letters and conduct round-the-clock surveillance and tracking operations. Fortunately none of us had sent our letters anonymously, and fortunately we were all cleaner than a fresh sheet of paper and purer than water. The PSB realised soon enough that it had blown matters out of proportion, and reported to the highest-ranking municipal administrator that we posed no threat whatsoever. In its report, the PSB attributed the coincidence of our letters to the fact that we were a bunch of intellectuals who minded other people’s business for fun instead of playing mahjong or going out with friends or getting massages or singing karaoke. Embarrassed at his own over-reaction, and perhaps eager to create an impression of being open to good advice, the highest-ranking municipal administrator actually did take our suggestions to heart. In addition to repairing Huashan, Qishan, and Buyunshan Roads, he drafted an urban rejuvenation plan for the west side of the city with the stirring slogan of ‘One Small Step in One Year, One Medium Step in Two Years, and One Big Step in Three Years.’

His successors must have heard the story, because subsequent letters were not forwarded to the PSB, and the urban rejuvenation plan ultimately did make the transition from paper to reality. Like anywhere else in this changing city of ours, the west side today is full of bright lights and all the trappings of healthy prosperity, of families living together in peace and loving kindness in the high-rises that dot the area, and citizens co-existing in amicable fraternity on the streets outside. The public order and strong governance our city enjoys today is due in no small measure to the way the west side was reunited with the rest of the city. Despite improvements, crime rates are admittedly still higher than average – especially during summer, and most especially on summer nights – but this is merely a small bump in the road, the brief darkness before the dawn. I will extend the analogy I laid out earlier: the addict’s family has successfully prevailed upon him to change his ways, and he finally understands the importance of just saying ‘no’ – but he can hardly be expected to quit cold turkey.

But of this, no more. I still have to say how my colleagues and I found one another.

During the PSB’s distressing investigation of us, we’d had to submit evidence proving ignorance of one another, lack of organisational structure, freedom from external control, and absence of malicious intent. But there was an unexpected benefit – namely, discovering that there were others out there who shared our goals and our sensibilities. The woman who did computers and the man who did ads were the first to meet each other after the investigation wrapped up, and they promptly fell in love. Using the list of names the PSB had compiled, they contacted us one by one and brought the whole group together. From then on, acting as a loose collective of friends sharing a mutual concern for the public welfare, we resumed offering advice to the highest-ranking municipal administrators with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. We never received any response from the relevant departments, other than the investigation; nor did we come in for any praise or criticism. But we believed that many of our suggestions had been taken seriously by a succession of highest-ranking municipal administrators and the relevant departments, meaning that at least a tiny smidgen of the credit for the continued prosperity, rejuvenation, modernisation, and growing cultural sophistication of our city belonged to us – or rather, to our letters.

We wrote letters beyond counting in the years that followed, and countless numbers of people joined or left our loose collective as their interests changed or their passions shifted. Throughout all of this, whether our ranks were swollen or depleted, we continued not to form a civilian organisation or even to admit that we were an organisation of any description. We had no name, no program, no charter, no stated goal. Every letter we sent to the highest-ranking municipal administrators of our city was a personal letter: if it was written by one person, then one person would sign; if by three people, then three people would sign; if by seven, then seven would sign. If there were disagreements on an issue, but people felt that the issue needed to be aired, then we would each write our own letters, or one faction would write a letter expressing its views and another group would write its own letter. Our members exercised the strictest self-discipline: never once did anybody attempt to seek personal gain by means of their ‘public service letters.’

 

Never before had we seen such a rapid response!

Three days after we sent off our letter, CrackCom published a set of supplementary recommendations that rendered the new regulation instantly more humane. Firstly: the sudden three-minute siren at 8pm was to be replaced with three snippets of classical music, each one minute long, starting at 7:50pm. Specifically: at 7:50pm, there would be a minute of the Czerny études; at 7:54pm, a minute of the allegro from Chopin’s ‘Les Sylphides’; at 7:59pm another minute, this time of the famous Fate-knocking-at-the-door motif from Beethoven’s Fifth. In this way citizens would be reminded and given advance warning before the curfew, and instead of harsh sirens, the alerts would promote high art in a clear case of killing two birds with one stone. Secondly: the city had recruited 10,000 migrant workers on short notice, and set them working around the clock to put up simple shelters anywhere around the city there was sufficient empty space. These were to be used by cyclists as 8pm drew near for the free storage of their motorcycles, bicycles, and cargo tricycles, to which end CrackCom and the Urban Law Enforcement Bureau had also hired, at no small expense, a crop of strapping young unemployed men – priority given to those with martial arts training – to act as night-watchmen for the bicycles. Finally: people who were caught on buses at 8:00, or who locked their motorcycles or bikes in a shed far from home or work, would be eligible for partial reimbursement of taxi fare. Anyone who could present a taxi receipt time-stamped after 8pm, marked with the starting point, destination, and circumstances of the cab ride, and stamped with the official seal of their work unit or the residential committee where they lived, would be eligible for reimbursement of two-thirds of the fare by CrackCom. At the discretion of representatives of the person’s work unit or residential committee, two-thirds of the remaining one-third of the fare could also be reimbursed, with a full report of expenses incurred in the reimbursement thereof to be presented to CrackCom by the applicable work unit or residential committee at the end of the month.

Once the new recommendations were announced, what little public resentment there had been simply evaporated, and people went happily back to their everyday work and life routines with relatively minor changes. No less happily, my colleagues and I discussed writing a letter of thanks in the form of a poem expressing our gratitude at having city fathers and mothers who cared for us more deeply than our own parents had. The person drafting the letter likened the city leaders to ‘father and mother’ and ‘dad and mum,’ and cast us and our fellow citizens as ‘children’ and ‘sons and daughters,’ a rhetorical flourish that set our little group of thin-skinned intellectuals squabbling. The war of words ended with a decision to leave the phrasing in, even though it did betray a rather serf-like mentality, if only because the government leaders’ solicitous concern for their citizens really did reflect nothing so much as parental love.

We mailed our encomium with a long sigh of contentment in the knowledge that at long last, our city’s public security problems had been solved, and promptly split into separate groups to apply our minds – there were nine of us at this point – to other pressing issues that required our attention. Two of us conducted an investigation; three of us engaged in research; the other four sank into wild cogitation. But just as our three groups began drafting letters based on the fruits of our investigations, research, and cogitation, and as our three groups began to draft our three letters of advice, we found that the state of law enforcement in the city remained grim.

We knew, of course, that the size and scope of the problems facing municipal law enforcement meant that they might never be completely resolved. Naive – not to say childlike – we may have been, but we still lived in the same society as everybody else, and we knew enough to be sceptical of utopias and panaceas. Still, the negligible effect of the new CrackCom order on night-time crime rates came as a shock to us. Statistics showed a nearly vertical drop-off in crimes related to the ‘three vehicles’ – buses, motorbikes, and bicycles – but a nearly vertical increase in unrelated crimes, as if the miscreants who’d been committing vehicle-related crimes had suddenly all decided to move into new lines of criminality.

First among these was an upswing in brawls: at roadside kebab stands, in street-side parks, at night market stalls, outside the entrances of internet cafes – anywhere crowds of people gathered for fun, shoving would turn to arguments, would turn to shouting, would turn to cursing, would turn to bloodshed. Second was an increase in rape. Not all the women on the streets after 8pm were able to take cabs, or might not find it so easy to get that second two-thirds reimbursed, and a lack of transportation meant more women spending more time in dangerous areas, which meant more targets for sex offenders. Breaking and entering was up: without transportation, many people didn’t get home from work until late in the evening, providing a window of opportunity for criminal elements to climb onto balconies, squeeze through windows, pry doors off the hinges, drill locks, and strip homes bare – in some cases arranging for moving trucks to haul away their takings. Following the promulgation of the CrackCom order, overall crime was down from the previous summer by one-fifth but brawls, rapes, and robberies had increased by one-fifth, three-fifths of a fifth, and five-tenths of a fifth, respectively.

 

The nine of us reconvened: what to do? Social order was the most pressing issue of the day, and we devoted all of our free time to thought on this new front. This resulted in a new letter, and upon learning that our city’s highest-ranking municipal administrator would attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new bathhouse, we took collective, concealed, coordinated action. One of us darted forward, lightning-fast, delivering the letter directly and vanishing back into the crowd before the highest-ranking municipal administrator’s three bodyguards and three secretaries could stop him. In addition to our usual report on on-the-ground conditions, this letter put forth several suggestions, including cancelling restrictions on the ‘three vehicles,’ removing the current ineffectual head of CrackCom and appointing a new CrackCom leader who might be more effective, and expanding the police force to guarantee no fewer than three patrolmen per square kilometre. We had twelve suggestions in all, several of them eminently practicable.

Not all of these were the product of unanimous agreement. The nine of us had originally planned to write separate letters, as usual, with different groups signing their names to letters representing their own viewpoints. The circumstances of this letter, however, seemed clearly to require an exception. Even if we got past the secretaries and bodyguards, we could hardly expect the highest-ranking municipal administrator to stand there next to the young female compère, holding his oversized pair of golden scissors, celebratory firecrackers going off on all sides, while we each submitted our own letter – and presenting a united front with a joint letter might underscore the importance of the letter and convince the highest-ranking municipal administrator to take it more seriously. And so, in an unprecedented turn of events, we composed a joint letter without unanimous agreement on its content. Our disagreements were on points of principle, naturally, rather than on fundamental issues. Democratically minded intellectuals that we were, we took pains to indicate at the end of the letter which signatories agreed with which suggestions.

 

This time we saw no immediate effect. Days passed, and CrackCom continued to implement the original regulation. The office’s revised recommendations made the regulation more palatable to the general public, but did nothing to address the newly created problems of social order. Brawling, rape, and robbery continued to fill the nights with terror and besmirch the civility and social harmony of our city.

Our minds raced. We had never worried too much about the letters that we’d sent out before, since any misgivings we might have could be explained by the possibility that the highest-ranking municipal administrator had never received the letter. After all, he worked night and day with the pressures of a thousand weighty matters bearing down upon him; where would he find the time to read a letter from a group of nobodies? This time we knew to a moral certainty that he had received the letter himself – so why, when he had always responded to us through real-world policy changes in the past, was there now only silence? Some among us suggested that we write another letter, something more strongly worded than the last, but most of us were against this – indeed, one of us suggested worriedly that we not get ideas above our stations. After careful reflection, we decided unanimously that the highest-ranking municipal administrator had read our letter and chosen not to take any of our suggestions – possibly out of annoyance at us, and quite possibly out of annoyance at the way we had delivered the letter. We guessed, also, that the CrackCom director we had judged ineffectual might keep his position and could retaliate against us at any time – his background was something of an open secret, and his backers outranked those of the highest-ranking municipal administrator. And after all, we weren’t as young as we had been. Our passions had cooled, our impulsiveness given way to rationality. Memories of our time as the focus of the municipal PSB’s attentions elicited a twinge or two of retrospective terror. In the end, the people who had advocated writing another letter abandoned the idea owing to a lack of support and a shortage of new suggestions.

At the same time, of course, we reproached ourselves for our timidity and selfish hesitation. As patriotic intellectuals concerned for our country and our fellow citizens, we felt, we lacked the craft and courage of our literati forebears, who staked their lives on their words. For a while, our loosely knit collective threatened to fall apart in a storm of recriminations. Our manners may have been the only thing that kept us together – all of us were too embarrassed to make the first move to disband the group, secretly hoping it would happen through a gradual distancing and cooling, a shifting of the subject, a slow disassociation.

It was just at this time that CrackCom issued a new regulation, which the three mouthpieces of state media promptly broadcast at full volume, and at once we were back to our old selves again, like balloons re-inflating. Regardless of the content of the regulation, our letter had produced at least one visible effect: the new CrackCom regulation bore a new signature. We couldn’t help but blame ourselves once again, this time for our lack of faith. As for the original director of CrackCom, there was a sense of concern that we might have ended his career with our focus on his shortcomings. Not until we heard that he had taken up a new position – a minor promotion, albeit to a post without many of the perks of his former job – did our sense of guilt lessen slightly. We debated whether or not to write another letter to the highest-ranking municipal administrator expressing our thanks in the form of a poem, but our new found caution convinced us not to write.

The new regulation was: in addition to strict enforcement of the previous regulation, all individuals engaged in outdoor activity between the hours of 8pm and 5am would be required to do so while squatting.

 

…To do so while squatting? How were people supposed to do everything squatting? Why were people supposed to do everything squatting? Wasn’t the ability to rise from a squat to a stand the very trait that separated men from apes? The broad masses of the public didn’t understand or accept the new regulation, and expressed their discontent through murmurs and grumbles and other means of silent protest. Being more incisive thinkers, however – I’m sorry, but we really are just a bit smarter than most – the nine of us instantly understood the reasoning behind the new requirement, which was precisely the same as that offered by the mass media.

First, the drawbacks. There are two major drawbacks to doing things while squatting: how much slower it renders all movement, and the numb legs and aching joints that result from protracted squatting. The negative aspects of squatting are familiar to everyone and will require no further description – unlike the positives, which merit further enumeration. The positive aspects of squatting are complementary to the negative aspects: slow movement, numb legs, and sore joints are objectively positive factors in preventing criminal elements from committing crimes. A group of drunks looking for a fight, for instance, will shortly ascertain that a persistent squatting position renders one unable to move with any physical strength. Even if armed with knives, they will find that the sudden motion of attacking meets with painful protest from their numbed, cramping legs, causing them to drop their knife hands reflexively to maintain balance, and nipping neatly in the bud what might have otherwise been a bloody incident. Imagine a rapist squat-rushing at a woman in short, mincing steps, backing her into a corner, and then – but how would sexual relations occur between two squatting people? Of course, the rapist could throw the woman to the ground and throw himself on top of her, but even ignoring the effects of protracted squatting on the human sex drive and sexual performance, how intimidating could a lowlife be, so close to the ground? Especially when the woman could resist by simply standing up – an option open to her, but not him, under the same legal principle permitting violence in the cause of legitimate self-defence? Even if he dared stand up, patrolmen would descend upon him for violating the regulation before circulation ever returned to his legs, and our would-be rapist would end up worse off than when he had started. Imagine a group of thieves planning to rob the empty home of a wealthy man. They have done reconnaissance, planned their escape route, prepared a car to transport their takings and a full set of pliers, screwdrivers, crowbars, scissors, and other implements of crime; they have waited for just the right moment, and now – but how are they to get up onto the balcony? How will they squeeze through the window? Their sole option will be to enter the building and attempt to pry the iron anti-theft door off its frame, a time-consuming and difficult proposition. Any ideas of climbing onto a balcony or squeezing through the window are doomed to failure: either of these would require them to stand up straight while outdoors, a move that would instantly mark them as thieves to any law-abiding citizen or police officer within the vicinity. Clearly, evil-doers of all varieties would find their ambitions thwarted, were squatting to be generally enforced.

It took only a week for the results of the new regulation to become clear in the form of a pronounced improvement in the state of public security in our city. Criminals of all kinds had simply scattered in all directions and vanished without a trace, like cockroaches after the light comes on. It appeared that squatting was a true panacea for crime. Some of the more arrogant criminals, lacking a full appreciation for the seriousness of squatting, continued in their wanton behaviour, but no sooner had they made their move – which is to say, before they had left the scene of the crime and in some cases before the crime had even been committed – than they were caught red-handed by patrolmen. Some would even manage to flee the scene, but the act of standing, even under cover of darkness, caused them to be noticed and promptly reported by law-abiding members of the public, and in the end all were caught up in the sweeping nets of justice. As you can imagine, all eyes will instantly lock onto a man who stands while everyone else is squatting, and he will be left with nowhere to hide.

But after our initial excitement had abated and we had reflected upon our individual experiences, we came to feel that there was a major flaw in the new squatting regulation. For the majority of the public that had no criminal designs, the matter of numb legs and sore joints was a minor one, and easily addressed with a bit of rest, a slap or two with the hands, some rubbing and stretching – but the slowness the squatting caused was an intolerable inconvenience. An example. When a girlfriend came to visit me at my home one night, the security guard at the gate of my residential compound refused to allow her cab to enter the development. Her only option was to disembark and enter the gate at the northwest corner of the compound, squat down, and proceed towards Building 23, where I lived. Building 23 was in the south-east corner of the compound. She had walked there from the north-west corner of the compound before. While large, the compound could be traversed in three to five minutes. But this time, she had to do it in a squat, simultaneously contending with high heels, a long dress, long hair that kept spilling down over her face, and a handbag that kept slipping off her shoulder no matter how she carried it, all of which contributed to her bursting into tears halfway across the compound. It was a full 20 minutes before she arrived inside the gateway of my building and was able to stand up straight again. I asked her why she hadn’t called for me to go down and get her, and she replied, still sobbing: ‘Wha- what g-good would th- that do when you d-don’t have a c-car? You’d j-just be keeping me c-company…’

She referred to squat-walking as ‘crawling.’ She crawled over to my bed and started crying her heart out, and wouldn’t let me wipe her tears away. We only got to spend the night together once every couple of weeks, and all she did that night was cry.

After compiling together many such reports, we wrote another letter to the highest-ranking municipal administrator to express our firm opposition to the squatting regulation. In heated tones, we said that preventing crime by forcing citizens to squat-walk was a modern variation on the fable of the man who swore off food for fear of choking, or of the policy that would kill 3,000 innocent men to prevent a single guilty man from escaping, and that continuing to enforce the regulation would hold back the development of our society and inhibit the growth of our city.

But when I say ‘we’ here, I am being imprecise: it still refers to our group of nine, but although we were by and large of the same mind, there was such disagreement over how to express our sentiments that only one or two of us were willing to co-sign letters. The majority of us opted to write our own letters, and three of us decided that although they supported our views, they would not write any more letters – that is, that they would leave our loose collective.

We knew they must have heard the news – all of us had, though we didn’t say anything about it. A few days earlier, the highest-ranking municipal administrator had invited a famous singer to a banquet in our city. She complimented him on the progress our city had made, and joked that the sight of all the people squat-walking under the starry, moonlit night sky made her feel as if she were watching a colossal work of performance art. She called our highest-ranking municipal administrator one of the great postmodern artists of our time. Recognizing a kindred spirit, the highest-ranking municipal administrator replied unhappily that he had worn himself out in the cause of promoting good and repressing evil, of protecting the land and securing the common people. But still there were people who, being given an inch and taking a mile, being given a bit of face and taking a whole nose, being insufferably given to picking nits and finding fault wherever they could, were in the habit of constantly writing negative letters. ‘I envy you your stalkers,’ the highest-ranking municipal administrator sighed to his guest. At least they understood love and loyalty. If only the people of his city could be more like them.

The news filled us with a sense of foreboding, but still – times were changing and society was progressing, and if the involvement of the PSB years before hadn’t made us fall apart, then we could hardly allow a bit of back-alley gossip to scare us into silence now. On the other hand, since there was strength in numbers and we didn’t want to be accused of attempting to sow discontent by sending separate letters, we stuffed the four letters that the remaining six of us had written into a single large envelope and sent them out as one communiqué. As we mailed the letters off, another two members of our group told us this would be their last letter to the highest-ranking municipal administrator.

Our sense of foreboding was basically correct. As I said, we are more incisive thinkers than most. Two weeks went by without any sign that the highest-ranking municipal administrator had considered our views – but on the other hand we didn’t see any signs of a new investigation into us, either. There were only four of us left, and two were married to each other. Many evenings we gathered together in a high building that overlooked the streets, and gazed out to see, under the shimmering lights, parallel to the streams of vehicles, on the streets that stretched out as far as the eyes could see, the ever more familiar sight of crowds of men and women, young and old, shifting their weight from side to side and rocking backward and forward as they squat-walked to and fro. It was a funny sight, but we weren’t laughing. We knew that if we needed to go out to work or visit friends or family, and we couldn’t catch a ride with a friend or put together money for a cab, then we would join the freaks squat-walking outside. Even as we stood inside, looking out from the air-conditioned comfort of the apartment, we might already be among them. It was a chilling, gloomy realisation.

We wrote another letter, a joint missive signed by the four of us. We expressed our firm moral convictions by means of heated, even confrontational language – phrases like ‘human dignity,’ ‘the difference between man and beast,’ ‘no different from mindless tortoises,’ ‘slowness equals death,’ and ‘adapting to numbness is a sign of a tacit acceptance of atrophy and regression.’ We even wrote that ‘an even surer way to protect the streets might be to keep the entire populace as house pets, or to declare martial law outright.’ But after finishing, we looked at each other and decided we didn’t have the courage to mail off anything so fiery. After a long silence, the wife in the husband and wife couple – our group’s only female member, the bright young computing prodigy who had joined us all those years before – burst into tears.

‘Why don’t we just play mahjong?’ she said. ‘We’ve got the right number of people.’

 

And so we began to enliven our otherwise dull night lives with our new found hobby of mahjong – no wonder so many people found it addictive. Hunting under the sofa for a dropped tile one evening, we found the letter that we had written but never sent out. After re-reading it, we all agreed that despite a certain elegance and moral force, it was undeniably a work of juvenilia – trite, ill-considered, focusing on details at the expense of the big picture.

As we played round after happy round of mahjong one evening, two of our old comrades – the two who had sent out the last letter with us – called to say they’d heard we were all together, and to ask if they could drop by. We’d missed them since their departure, we said, but it was already 10pm, and to get to where we were gathered there was a stretch of road that cabs were barred from, meaning they’d have to cover the distance in a squat. Our mahjong club usually got together before 8pm so that we could avoid squat-walking. Never mind that, they said. Just wait for us.

We assumed they wouldn’t arrive before 11, but at 10:17 there they were – driving, each in his own car! They grinned wildly as they parked their cars beside our building so that they only had to squat-walk for ten or twenty metres before stepping inside and stretching their limbs to stand back up in front of us. They had become members of the driving classes, and night-time excursions no longer presented any inconvenience to them.

We were by no means poor, intellectuals that we were, but neither were we politicians or big shots. Though tempted to join the growing number of private car owners, we had decided to wait and learn to drive first, and to date this was as far as any of us had allowed ourselves to go. Partly this was out of a desire to wait until prices fell; partly it was because new expenses kept cropping up – new houses to replace old work-unit housing, private school tuition for children, savings to help parents enjoy a comfortable retirement – and none of us felt particularly wealthy. So how had these two become big spenders?

They sat down across from us and explained how they had come to buy the cars. Big spending didn’t enter into it, they said: their new luxury cars had been practically free, thanks to special vouchers they’d been given by the director of CrackCom. This flummoxed us – what did cars have to do with CrackCom, and why would they have vouchers from CrackCom anyway?

They squirmed a little at the question.

‘Maybe the letter?’ one of them said.

The last letter we wrote to the highest-ranking municipal administrator? we said. But we wrote to him too, we said. How come we didn’t get anything?

Their new car-owning self-assurance returned, and they began to look amused.

‘You want to join the driving classes too, is that it?’

But before we could accuse them of having forgotten who their friends were, they leaned forward earnestly.

‘After all the years we’ve known each other, after all we’ve done together,’ said the one who was the lover of the highest-ranking municipal administrator’s secretary’s wife, ‘what’s ours is yours. We were just worried that you were going to say we’d sold out, or that we’d just driven over here to lord it over you. You know the saying about the bravest person in human history being the first man to eat a crab? That’s us – we tried the bourgeois crab first so you wouldn’t have to.’

As he spoke, he pulled out four vouchers authorizing low-cost car purchases and slapped them down on the mahjong table, where we could see the red seal of CrackCom and the signature of the CrackCom director on each.

The secretary’s wife’s lover explained that a few days earlier he had received a call from the secretary asking him to come in for a chat. Naturally he found this unsettling, but the secretary’s wife assured him that he had nothing to worry about – her husband knew they were old classmates, but had no clue that they were sleeping together. So he went and sat down with the husband of his lover, the secretary of the highest-ranking municipal administrator, in an office just across from the administrator’s own. After a prodigious amount of small talk and conversation filler, the secretary finally brought up the topic of the squatting regulation.

‘I understand that you intellectuals may have a hard time getting used to the regulation,’ he said. ‘The leaders don’t have to squat, because they have cars; the big shots don’t have to squat, because they have cars; the labouring classes mostly don’t mind squatting because they’ve got strong knees and waists, but you intellectuals… CrackCom has made an internal decision to periodically offer batches of high-quality cars to select intellectuals at borderline suicidal discounts – so what do you say? If you’re interested, I’ll get the director of CrackCom to write you out a voucher right now.’

‘Not interested,’ our comrade nobly replied without giving the offer even a moment’s thought. ‘There are plenty of intellectuals out there like me, and if they have to squat, then I’ll squat along with them.’

‘You’re a stand-up guy,’ the secretary/husband laughed. ‘No wonder my wife is always saying good things about you. How about this: there are five cars in the first batch. I’ll get CrackCom to give them all to you, and if five’s not enough then you can have the second and third batches too. How about that? Any problems with that arrangement?’

Our comrade immediately called the other comrade who had left our group with him, and they went to CrackCom to get their vouchers. Instead of startling us with the sudden news, the two decided that they would each take a car home first. After 8pm they took their new cars out for a long spin around the city. Then they called us.

The four of us rushed forward to shake their hands. Tears filled our eyes as emotion overwhelmed us.

Our sole female member broke the silence some moments later, her eyes sparkling as she stroked one of the vouchers with a fingertip.

‘Even if he’ – she meant the secretary/husband – ‘didn’t mention the letter, it’s obviously what all this is about. But’ – she laid a hand gently on her husband’s chest – ‘how on Earth could he have known that two of the six authors were married to each other? And that no matter how cheap the cars were, the married couple would only be able to afford one?’

She spoke seriously, but we all laughed, including her husband. Sometimes being a little naive, a little silly, a little dumb, just makes women more lovable. Even if they’re former computer geniuses.

 

In no time at all, we became members of the car-owning classes. The five of us would go out for drives together, enjoying our new status. When we got together in the evenings, we could drive wherever and whenever we wanted, without having to concern ourselves with being unable to take a cab down this street, or having to squat-walk down that street. So far as squat-walking was concerned, I had it better than the others: there were times when they couldn’t avoid squat-walking – like when the two of us who had first received cars had come to visit: they’d still had to hunker down and squat-walk the ten or twenty metres from their cars to the doorway. It was a short distance, and it was inside the residential compound, but not squatting was still against the rules. I, on the other hand, had simply hired a chauffeur, since I’d never learned to drive. When I came or went, the chauffeur would drive to the front of my building. The burden of squat-walking to and from the parked car was his, and I never had to squat down again – one long stride would be sufficient to carry me from my building into the car, or from the car back into the building.

My comrades joked that I was acting like a leader or a big shot. They were right – leaders and big shots had chauffeurs and people to do the squatting for them, too.

‘Never mind leaders and big shots,’ our sole female member said. ‘Why not just say he’s acting like me?’

We laughed, after a moment of surprised silence. That was our former computer genius – an analytical thinker. She was right, I was like her. Her husband was her chauffeur, and any place or any time she didn’t feel like it, she didn’t have to squat down either.

 

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