Chapter Eight – Passage Three
“Freaking better than YouTube and videogames, eh?”
After the obstacle race, there is a raging afterparty that’s held on the top level of the Coliseum. As the plebeians of Xi’an file outside, we stick around in our seats for a while longer and I watch a small army of Chinese janitorial staff begin dismantling and cleaning the obstacle course.
“They take it apart after every competition?” Kristen asks curiously.
“The grand competitions take place the final Sunday of every month,” Alan explains. “Each time the configuration of the course is different. The obstacles themselves are the same but they’re arranged differently.”
“And occasionally,” Jack says, his eyes twinkling, “they even introduce a new obstacle!” He slaps Alan on the back. “Ah, grand times! Grand times!”
From my stone bleacher, I watch the custodial staff, all decked out in matching grey one-piece suits, attack the cleaning job. There must be at least a hundred of them and they are well-coordinated, moving briskly and efficiently, as if on some invisible timer. They work in small groups of three-to-five people and quickly move to their respective tasks. A handful of groups begins draining the mud swamp. Two other groups work on dismantling the scaffolding for the monkey-bar obstacle. So on and so forth.
I can’t help but think back to what manual labor unions look like in America where it takes a dozen grown men an entire morning to fill a pothole in an asphalt street. At the rate they’re working, the legion of Chinese custodians will have cleared and cleaned the entire obstacle course in under an hour.
For the larger sheet metal that needs to come down, several teams of the Chinese cleaning men and women work a complicated-looking mechanical pulley crane to take down individual sheets before placing them on steel gurneys to be wheeled away by other teams. Bereft of any kind of electronics or technology, they need to hoist the giant sheets down with nothing but thick twine rope, six people to a side, collectively lowering the sheet metal until it’s safely reached the ground.
“So these are all 18-year old trainees, actually,” Li says to me. I turn and apparently she’s noticed that I seem to be more fascinated by the ongoings of the deconstruction and cleanup crew than I am by the free-flowing alcohol.
“Isn’t it dangerous, doing so much by hand?” I ask. “It seems unnecessarily risky and old-school. Simple industrial grade machinery would make this whole process a hundred times safer.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Li clicks her tongue. “You Americans are always so concerned about safety. Yes, of course people get hurt every month. Minor or major injuries. Every few years, at least one of the kids will even die on the job, an unfortunate fatal accident usually caused by carelessness. It’s part of their training to cycle through all of the activities though, including cleaning, construction, and maintenance.”
“You think it builds character?”
“That and comradery and empathy and respect.” Li looks at me. “In America I know you westerners outsource your cleaning to a lower class. And to be fair, we do too, once the kids become adults. But in the beginning, for at least a single year, every Chinese citizen, no matter how rich or from what background, or whatever their family name, will learn what it means to mop grime off of public restroom stall tiles, plunge toilets, and–” she motions to the obstacle course rapidly being deconstructed “–work in teams to accomplish dangerous tasks.
“Laws don’t hold a society together, Dexter,” she says to me. “Shared experience does.”
“For instance,” Li says to me as she points over at a small team of teenagers trying to dismantle a scaffolding of steel beams, “over there, you’ve got 18-year old Ming Tao, the heiress of Tao family fortune, working side by side with 18-year old Zhi Zhen Wong, scion of the Wong family fortune. The Taos are an ancient bloodline that dates back to the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Great-Great-Great Grandpa Tao started with a single aluminum canning factory that canned tuna and sardines. Three generations later, the Taos are the steel magnates of China, one of the two major manufacturers of the metal.”
I follow Li’s gaze and see a small group of Chinese youths indeed working very efficiently. They’re working as if they’re being timed; which I guess they probably are.
“And?” I ask.
Li rolls her eyes. “And the Wongs are the rival steel manufacturing family.”
“Ah.” I frown. “Wait, but they don’t–“
“–of course they don’t. Mandatory two year service is required of everyone. But the wealthier families will of course submit their children to the national training regime under pseudonym. For security and privacy purposes.”
“So you’ve essentially got a modern-day Montague and Capulet situation going on here then?” I say. To my American, fan-fiction writing mind, this arrangement is positively wild.
Li shrugs. “Maybe and maybe not. But the National Program takes great lengths to place, let’s say, optimally. Of course, the cadets are all informed that placement is wholly random.”
“Which is a lie, of course.”
“Of course,” scoffs Li. “That goes without saying. Millions of 18-year-olds filter through this program in Xi’an every year. The organizing committee–“
“–who I’m guessing you’re of course familiar with–“
“–yes, but of course–” Li bats her eyelashes coquettishly, “but more to the point– once the kids are handed off to the National Training Regime, great pains have been taken to build a Chinese Wall between the civilian and military arms of China. And the National Training Regime falls under military jurisdiction.”
“So the idea is that all of that Tao family aluminum money won’t help Ming here.” I say. To say the least, I’m a tiny bit skeptical. That’s akin to saying in America that a Bush or Obama somehow went into service and was given zero preferential treatment.
“Well,” Li says, “it actually works better than you might imagine. As you know honor of the family name is still a big deal here. You may be training under pseudonym, but cadets are still assigned to barracks–“
Li searches the air a moment, apparently trying to figure out a suitable analogy for my apparently uncivilized and puny American mind.
“Maybe something to your Gry-fan-dor home or Pufflehuff house system?”
“That’s the United Kingdom, an entire ocean away, but okay– I get your point.”
Li shrugs. “Whatever. All is the same to us. West is simply the West.” She continues, “In China’s two-year system, there is likewise a ‘House Cup’ conceit and the barracks which scores the most points per each year will win eternal glory and go onto the Wall,” Li explains. “Similar to your Top Gun program of your Tom Cruise? So it behooves the teams to work together in all of their interests. Finishing poorly likewise bring eternal shame upon your family name.”
I nodded. In a ridiculously twisted way, I’m starting to slowly understand how China’s authoritarian and behemoth autocratic system has survived so long, amidst an ocean of western liberalism. Buffeting always against inexorable tides of progressivism and human rights constantly crashing against its shores.
“For instance,” Li says, “now that they are about to finish cleaning, “inspectors will come in to evaluate the quality of their effort.”
As Li speaks, I see teams of adults now descent upon the scene; these people are dressed in pale-blue jumpsuits and have clipboards in hand. They are apparently here to judge.
“China is not as large as you might imagine,” says Li. “Swift shame accompanies any hint or scandal or impropriety or preferential treatment. So it’s in the wealthy and powerful’s interest to keep the identities of their children secret throughout the course of the program.”