One day, a screw will come loose
Prior to resigning from my last job, I worked as a legal affairs correspondent for eight years. Three of those years were spent filing reports from the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. Sometimes, a criminal hearing might last a mere two or three hours, with the final ruling being announced in a fifteen-minute session several months later. I saw all sorts: from drug lords trying desperately to protect their wives, to couples venomously pinning the blame on one another to escape punishment. In particular, I will always remember the moment an African defendant was served a ten-year jail sentence for trying to carry a few hundred porn DVDs out the country. A translator had to repeat the court’s verdict several times before the man could believe what he was hearing. When he finally understood, he broke down in tears, whimpering like a small animal.
The air-con inside the courthouse was always set so low that I and the other female journalists carried long-sleeved shirts with us to keep warm. I often spotted relatives of the defendants and victims sitting ghost-like in the lonely corridors, yet never quite knew how to approach them. As a result, there was always something missing from my reports. Everything I experienced during those years left me with an image of the Chinese courtroom as a cold and unforgiving place. Little did I expect that, several years later, I would take solace in the fact that at least this coldness was visible to the real world — that at least us clueless Chinese journalists were watching from the sidelines.
During my career as a journalist, I covered five annual sessions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). At the 2008 NPC, I also attended Premier Wen Jiabao’s official press conference. Despite queuing outside the Great Hall of the People from six thirty in the morning, my colleague and I had to scramble for seats at the very back of the hall. Though Premier Wen’s voice sounded very far away, I remember him saving his final question that day for a French journalist. Instead, a Reuters correspondent stood up to ask about Hu Jia, a Chinese citizen on trial in Beijing for ‘inciting the subversion of state power’. That was the first time I ever heard Hu Jia’s name. One month later, Hu was sentenced to three and a half years in jail. During Hu’s time in prison, I got to know his wife and daughter, who lived just across the canal from me in Tongzhou. They often came to visit — Hu’s daughter tried her first Magnum ice cream at my home and loved my home-cooked cola and honey BBQ chicken wings. She even taught herself to shell sunflower seeds while I chatted away to her mother. One year, I bought Hu’s daughter a pretty white chiffon dress as a Children’s Day present. Even though I bought the smallest size, the dress was still too long, so Hu’s wife hung it in a wardrobe for safekeeping. Every now and again, the little girl would pester her mother for another look at the ‘wedding dress’ that I — her ‘aunty’ — had given her.
To start with, Hu’s daughter believed her daddy had ‘gone away to study’. But she became suspicious as time went on. Much as we tried, we adults were unable to sustain a sanitized world home only to cartoon characters like McDull and Garfield. Children grow fast, and it did not take long for ‘guobao’ — the Chinese word for national security officers or secret police — to pop up in her everyday vocabulary. This was the first tear in the veil we had tried to throw over the real world, and from that point on there was no stopping that world from unfurling itself in front of her. Now Hu’s daughter is living in Hong Kong, it makes me happy to think that her windows open out onto the waters of Victoria Harbour, with their salty tang. In her old home in mainland China, her view was of black sedans and blackclothed men – the guobao – permanently stationed outside.
It took me a while to accept that ‘they’ do in fact exist, and are not just characters confined to the clumsy plot of some Eastern European or Soviet era film. Now I have had the dubious honour of actually meeting several of ‘them’, I am still little closer to understanding what makes them tick. I think of them as tightly bound screws that, on being fastened so quickly, become giddy and disoriented, and then morally desensitized in their work over time. On Christmas Eve in 2009, I invited a few friends to my home, one of whom was under the care of two national security officers — or, as we joked, his ‘chauffeurs’. It was a freezing night in Beijing, at almost minus ten degrees and with force five winds blowing. When my friend’s ‘chauffeurs’ dropped him off outside our building, my family and I decided to invite the two men up to our apartment, where our enclosed balcony had both heaters and an electric fireplace. Sometimes even fake flames can bring real warmth, and who knew whether that warmth might help a rigid screw discover a softened heart?
At midnight, as my friends embraced, I exchanged a gentle hug with one of the strapping national security officers. It was only when our bodies met that he melted from a dutybound screw into a normal human being. Of course, I have no way of knowing if he felt the same — perhaps he was just going through the motions. Another time, national security officers came to search my apartment while my parents happened to be staying with me in Beijing. In her Sichuan dialect, my mother timidly asked one of the officers if he might like a cup of tea. Although the officer declined, his official persona seemed somewhat shaken when confronted with an old lady offering him a simple drink. Sadly, every such moment is fleeting and, within an instant, ‘they’ have returned to their duty as faithful screws. ‘We’ are still us — the dissidents who, in the words of China’s former Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ma Zhouxu, ‘do not exist’.
Not so long ago I watched the Les Misérables film in New York. As the end credits ran, sobs and applause filled the cinema around me. I will never forget Javert’s decision to kill himself on discovering that the law, in which he trusted so deeply, was incapable of delivering a truly just interpretation of the world. How I would love to invite ‘them’ to watch that film. Although I am not one to hold unrealistic expectations when it comes to human courage, I would still hope that the film might help ‘them’ to quietly unwind just a little, and then a little more… The undoing of a world does not have to entail the tragedy of a Les Misérables-style revolution. Sometimes the loosening of a few screws is all it takes.
I consider myself reasonably well read, and no writer has influenced me more than Hannah Arendt. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt introduces the ‘banality of evil’, a now familiar concept that, in my opinion, is best summed up by two phrases from her book:
the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them
in politics obedience and support are the same.
In 2010, The Kindly Ones, a novel penned by Jonathan Littell — an author of Jewish ancestry — was published in Chinese. In The Kindly Ones, Littell uses almost one thousand pages to expound on the concept of the banality of evil:
the machinery of State is made of the same crumbling agglomeration of sand as what it crushes […] It exists because everyone — even, down to the last minute, its victims — agree that it must exist. Without the Hösses, the Eichmanns, the Goglidzes, the Vishinskys […] a Stalin or a Hitler is nothing but a wineskin bloated with hatred and impotent terror.
Just as Oscar Schindler concealed himself in Nazi Germany, I believe that, in China, there must also be a loosened screw somewhere among ‘them’. Just when the mammoth machine of state appears to be operating in all its glory, this screw will detach itself. As it awakens and regains its senses, this screw will be shining brightly, unperturbed that the world around it is still dark as night.
 Li Jingrui refers to Littell here as ‘犹太作家’ [Jewish author]. According to Littell’s Wikipedia page (which quotes a 2008 interview published in the major Israeli newspaper, Haaretz http://www.haaretz.com/the-executioner-s-song-1.246787): ‘Although his grandparents were Jews who emigrated from Russia to the United States at the end of the 19th century, Littell does not define himself as a Jew “at all,” and is quoted as saying, “for me Judaism is more [of] a historical background.”’ I therefore chose the phrase ‘of Jewish ancestry’ to reflect this point accurately.
 The English edition of The Kindly Ones contains 992 pages, and therefore reviewers frequently refer to Littell’s ‘nearly 1,000-page novel’. The Chinese edition contains 788 pages, so Li Jingrui refers to ‘700 pages’. As this article is aimed at English readers, I have used the number of pages from the English edition to avoid confusion.
 Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones: A Novel (London: Vintage, 2010), 21.