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Pallavi Aiyar’s Granta Piece – Toilet Cleaners and Good Government

Pallavi Aiyar’s recent piece in Granta, The Foreign Correspondent, in part tackled the issue of bias in western reporting on China, a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, from the viewpoint of a non-westerner… a perspective I’d never before considered. Seeing as I live in a dorm shared by people from many nations, India included, on a scholarship program whose purpose is to push Chinese soft power to largely non-western countries, perhaps I’m a bit embarrassed by that…

In the piece, Aiyar also considers her time spent as a foreign correspondent in Europe, which (for me anyway) was also eye-opening. It’s so good I’ll link to it twice: Go read it.

That said, Aiyar seems to have a misconception about Chinese history when she talks about “…the relative dignity that China’s Communist revolution had brought to labour, albeit at a terrible cost.”

The passage about Yu Bao Ping, the public toilet worker, and his life as compared to similar people in India is revealing… but it implies that China used to have a caste system like India, or something similar. That is not at all the case. A full explanation is would take a lot more space, but suffice it to say that Chinese society under the Qing dynasty, which fell in 1912, was surprisingly fluid. Individuals and families routinely climbed the social ladder, and also fell off of it. Perhaps my understanding of traditional Indian society is wrong or too limited, but China did not have a widespread, durable system of fixed social rank… save perhaps the imperial family and others at the very highest levels.

Linking the relative dignity of Chinese workers in everyday social life today to the efforts of the Chinese government is a misattribution. Yes, the Chinese government did praise the workers… but it didn’t solve the problem of a permanent underclass, because that underclass did not exist. Moreover, the idea that class differences and exploitation largely led to China’s social ills – i.e. the raison d’être for the CCP – has been in dispute for a long time. Not that it didn’t exist… but that the “evil landlords” were the big shadow of a smaller devil that became the object of blame.

I don’t think Aiyar’s apparent misunderstanding outweighs everything else that’s great about her essay – not even close. It does, however, provoke a worthy question: How well does government policy fix harmful social attitudes? (Class-based disdain being among them.)

In addition to putting workers, even toilet cleaners, on a pedestal, China also vigorously fought a number of “feudal practices” including arranged marriage, superstition such as ancestor worship, and preference for boys over girls. And the track record? Arranged marriage did take a hit, but bride prices did not disappear for a very long time, and still do exist today albeit as a kind of quaint formality (think the father walking the bride up the aisle). It did basically nothing for superstition, although that might not be seen as an actual “problem.” And preference for boys was in fact transformed into a drastically worse problem by the government’s one-child policy.

That last one is particular interesting to me. Aiyar homed in on toilet workers in Beijing, but my guys in Shanghai are cab drivers. A few months back I was chatting with a cabbie and politely asked about if he had any children: Boy or girl? “A girl,” he said, “and I am really happy about that.”

Reading my surprise, he went on to explain that having a boy has gotten far too expensive. Because of the current marriage customs and economic realities, a parent must supply the lad with a house and a car. If he doesn’t have that, he doesn’t stand a chance at landing a wife (supposedly).

Whether that counts as an “improvement” in social attitudes is question for another day, but it’s definitely a change. And not one that was caused by policy intent. By the way, I’ve since heard the exact same thing from a fairly large number of people.

Considering my own country, America, government intervention has not solved race-related problems. Positive government changes in that arena, as well as women’s rights and gay rights, have mostly been a reflection of the demands of the people and not a guiding hand for the people. In this sense, I believe that government can support positive social change, but I doubt whether it can do much on its own to move the needle forward.

Aiyar’s mission to hold up a mirror to Indian government, instead of taking the Chinese government to task as western reporters do, is admirable. And I can see how this works – can our democracy not do what an authoritarian country can do? But one should keep a handle on what the government is and isn’t doing, which is admittedly difficult.

Some authors, such as Perry Link, seem to think that Chinese government deserves no credit for the past 30-odd years of change and development. That’s a ridiculous and reductive opinion. The government itself, on the other hand, claims credit for everything. Neither are true.

My general feeling is this: That any government has limited power to support and encourage progress, nearly unlimited power to fuck things up, and grave responsibility for both. And perhaps that’s a good way to begin measuring the quality of a government – in any case, certainly better than trying to draw a direct comparison between two radically different societies.