My Neighbor, The Cleaner

My Neighbor, The Cleaner

My Neighbor, The Cleaner

IT’S HARD to make generalizations about a huge and diverse country like China. For every one hundred bad things that happen, there are one hundred good things. Actually, I think the ratio is more like two hundred good to one hundred bad. Western journalists tend to focus on the bad news; that’s what they’re supposed to do. As a result, Westerners often get skewed impressions of China. My relatives and friends usually become more sympathetic to the country once they visit and meet kind and warm-hearted Chinese people. Of course, some foreigners remain bitter and cynical. To be honest, there’ s nothing I find more obnoxious than well-off foreigners living in China complaining incessantly about the country. I sympathize with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who once opined about a few foreigners with “full bellies” who have nothing better to do than point fingers at China’s shortcomings. This is not to say that we shouldn’t criticize China. But to my mind, criticism should be balanced with appreciation for the good, and I would add that criticism is most effective if it’s spoken in Chinese and grounded in China’s own values.

Having said that, I’m about to write in the spirit of a bitter and disenchanted foreigner. Moreover, I will write anonymously for reasons that should soon be obvious. I hope I will forgive myself. I also hope the reader—especially the Chinese reader—can forgive me. I’m still fundamentally optimistic about China. But I need to get this off my chest.

It was one of those days when the capital city was in lockdown mode. As with most important political anniversaries of national significance, the government provided top-level security in the center of town, ready to put down incidents that might threaten “stability.” But here in the suburbs, security was unusually lax. For practical purposes, it was almost “cop-free”; perhaps the security forces were almost all posted in the inner core. The criminals, for their part, had little to fear in the suburbs.

It happened late one night after a hockey game. I was being driven home on a near-deserted street by two burly Scandinavian friends. We were talking about the game just played when one friend noticed that there was a curled up body on the right side of the road. A car was next to the body. We drove on, but the other friend suggested that we should go back to help. We agreed. I thought to myself, here’s the admirable part of Christian morality; somehow my Scandinavian friends really took on board the lesson from the parable of the Good Samaritan. The closest parallel in Confucian ethics is Mencius’s story of saving the baby who is about the fall into a well. But Confucian moral concern is supposed to extend in diminishing degrees the further we go from intimates. There are debates in Confucianism about how to treat strangers in distress, but they seem pretty marginal to the tradition and the everyday practices of Chinese society.

We park on the opposite side of the body. Outside, two Chinese men are arguing. One is obviously inebrieted, barely able to stand. The car is damaged in front, apparently as a result of a collision with the unlucky pedestrian lying in the road. I roll down the window and ask, in Chinese, if they need any help. We are told to mind our own business. I then phone the police. One friend goes outside to photograph the license plate of the car with his cellphone. He shows me the number, and I pass it on to the police. The police ask me for the address of the crime scene, but I’m stumped, having only recently moved in the area. My two friends, recent arrivals who do not speak Chinese, could not help either. I step outside, and for some strange reason a guy in a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uniform happens to walk by. He notices the body and is about to phone the police, but I tell him I’m already on the phone with the security forces and could he please tell them the address. I pass him my phone.

At this point, the (Chinese) body—to our surprise (we thought he was unconscious or dead)—lifts his hand and says, in English, “help me.” The scene gets messier. Another car arrives, this time a newish-looking fancy car without a license plate. The driver steps out and speaks to the other two Chinese; they seem to be friends. The new guy then turns to us furious, face red, and says, in English, “This is China, you fuck…” The PLA guy hands me my phone and leaves the scene. The drunk guy from the first car approaches one of my Scandinavian friends and tears his shirt. One of my friends, a former boxer, intervenes and holds the drunkard’s arms, restraining him. The guy from the sports car approaches my friend with the phone, as though he wants to take it away from him. I step in the middle, saying in Chinese, “don’t fight, we’re all friends, we just want to help the injured guy.” As I’m saying those words, I feel my fingers curling into a fist. There is no doubt in my mind that I will use it. Fortunately, the guy from the unmarked car cools down a bit. He says he will handle it. He picks up the injured body and puts it in the back seat of his unmarked car. The drunk guy starts swearing at us, and the unmarked car leaves the scene. We get back in our own car.

My friends drive me back home and the police phone my cell. This time I know the exact address of the incident and tell them to go to the scene—there should still be skid marks from the car that hit the pedestrian and perhaps some blood. I tell them another unmarked car picked up the injured body. I repeat the license plate number of the original car and tell them to phone me back if they need any more information.

Still no news from the cops the next morning. I phone them, and they tell me they went to the scene of the accident and nobody was there. They said they checked the license plate number and found out that the owner of the car lives in a gated community close to my own. They spoke to the owner who told the cops that it was a misunderstanding, just a bunch of friends—including the injured guy—who had too much to drink, although the driver himself was not drunk. Now everything is OK. I tell them that the story can’t be true. Why would they need a guy in an unmarked car—a cleaner, as they say in the underworld—to take the body away? What explains the skid marks and the dented car? And what about the cry of help from the body on the street? He spoke in English, so clearly he wasn’t appealing to his “friends.” I tell the cops to investigate further, go look at the damaged car, and ask some tough questions. Maybe the injured guy was brought to a hospital—that’s what we hope—but maybe he was finished off.

I never hear back from the cops. I ask a well-connected Chinese friend, and he tells me to drop it. We may be dealing with powerful people, and we can’t trust the cops. It’s not always easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad. I say OK, I understand.

That evening, my wife and I take a walk around our own gated community. I feel nervous and uptight. We pass a black cat who looks at us, turns away, and then suddenly decides to run across the street, right in front of us. I’m not superstitious, but it’s not a good sign. I look at the various cars parked on the side-streets and driveways. My wife pokes fun of my paranoia and says that I look suspicious myself, checking the license plates of all the cars. As we’re about to make the full circle back home, we pass our neighbor’s home, and my heart sinks: it’s the unmarked car. But wait, it’s not the same color, it can’t be the same car! I text my friend to seek confirmation and he responds that I got the color right the second time around. He adds, unpersuasively, that I shouldn’ t worry too much, my neighbor has more to worry about if he is exposed.

IN THE past, we lived in a neighborhood surrounded by the shacks of migrant workers; millions have come to Beijing from rural areas to do the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs that urbanites won’t do. I’ve walked and bicycled through the narrow streets that house migrant workers and used to marvel at how safe and secure I felt. Yes, there’s crime, but it’s not an ever-present menace. The comparison with similarly poor shanty towns in Latin America is striking. I once stayed at a wealthy friend’s home in Mexico City—protected by large walls—and asked to see the surrounding favelas. He lent me his driver, but I was told not to roll down my car windows; it was too dangerous.

Why are the shanty towns of migrant workers in China safe in comparison? Sociologists have spilled lots of ink trying to answer the question. Partly it’s the fact that Chinese migrant workers feel relatively optimistic about economic opportunities for their children. Chinese migrant workers have strong family values, and they don’t take (or sell) drugs. The household registration (hukou) system, whatever its problems, provides a measure of social stability. But now I realize that we’ve been asking the wrong question. In China, the criminals live inside the walls.

Postscript: This incident happened about a year ago. During that period, a license plate was never added to my neighbor’s car, and I was surprised that he could continue to operate in flagrant violation of the law. I’ve recently moved to a new home and do not plan to continue the “investigation.”

Homepage image: Clark Gregor / 2007 / Wikimedia Commons