The Problem with Me
LET ME TAKE YOU FOR A U-TURN ON CHANG’AN AVENUE
Ten years ago I rented a XialiI
in Beijing. Now, although I was no slouch, I couldn’t help it that the car was so slow, so I did what I knew I needed to on the airport expressway: I drove in the slow lane. My friend in the car with me was an angry youth, like me, and right as we were in the middle of a heated debate about corruption and senior officials, an Audi behind us turned on its headlights and sounded a siren. The next lane over was empty, so I continued to drive without moving aside. Not ten seconds later, the Audi turned bloodthirsty: the entire car started flashing, and I got insulted by its loudspeaker. My friend grabbed the steering wheel for a moment and told me, “Let him pass.” The Audi shot past us, but its insults persisted for a few hundred meters more. “Man,” I said to my friend. “Those bastards may walk crooked, but they drive like a train on a straight line into the darkness.” “Forget it,” my friend replied. “Did you see how his plate started with ‘Beijing AG6X’? That’s a pretty pow erful number, and it’s usually only given to ———. Make sure you watch out for ones starting with A8, too, since those
are for ———.” All I knew was that you didn’t want to mess with drivers with “Shanghai A” plates under 100, so this had me in a fog. Eventually my friend spat out one last comment to that straight-driving Audi train: “Fuck, when I get rich, I have to get a black Audi.”
Later, the same friend really did buy a black Audi, but he never got a license plate. “Isn’t there a problem with not having a license plate?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “because I have this.” He pointed to a metal placard in the windshield that read “Police.” He later added “Beijing Police,” “Great Hall of the People,” and “CPPCC.” Lined up, the placards stretched over to the passenger side, and during traffic jams we could use them like playing cards. I was most worried about the stack of cards blocking his view. Fortunately, my friend liked to drive fast, so each time he turned a corner, the cards tended to pile up, and we’d have to stop and reshuffle them. I asked him if they worked on the road. “They work fantastically,” he said. “Look at me: I don’t have a license plate, but I’ve added these police sirens and flashers, and with all these placards, I’m such a mystery that no cop dares stop me, because no one can guess my background. Here, I’ll do an illegal U-turn for you.”
We were driving on Chang’an Avenue, a road where it’s extremely difficult to do a U-turn. I remember once, not long after I arrived in Beijing, I missed a turn but was unable to turn around. Then I saw a large gate with a broad clearing out in front and, looking closer, I saw that it was Xinhua Gate, the entrance to Zhongnanhai. But to my mind it was part of the Xinhua bookstore chain and thus vaguely connected to my profession. I drove straight in, thinking I could spin a few times in the open space and pretend I had taken a wrong turn. . . . Following a near execution, a deep fear
of Chang’an Avenue set in. “Forget it,” I said to my friend. “Let’s not test it.”
My friend didn’t answer. When he reached a red light, he turned on his police lights and went directly up to a traffic cop on the road. The traffic cop pretended not to notice and turned his ass to us. “He doesn’t care!” I said. My friend raised a corner of his lip and quipped: “He’s not getting the hint. Normally, the dumbass would stop the flow of traffic so I can make a turn.”
Not one of the cars streaming by let us pass. My friend sounded the siren, and the traffic cop turned to look at us—or, more accurately, at all the plates, which meant he had to stop oncoming traffic. My friend calmly executed a turn. I’ll admit, at that moment, twenty-year-old me felt a sense of delight and importance at that privilege, even though it was fake. For about ten seconds I felt unusually inflated, like I was spilling out the window. But I soon realized that no one looked at us with respect and admiration. They were full of indignation. Involuntarily I slunk lower in my seat.
“Don’t worry about those idiots,” my friend said with disdain. “Did you see that Jetta? Did you see that dumbass’s official plate? I knew from the color that it was fake. He bought it at the Siyuanqiao Auto Parts City. But I got mine from my connection with ———. I’ve heard we’re not going to be able to use official license plates in the future. We’ll have to have a ‘Beijing Police’ uniform.” He went on: “That dumbass in front of me—why is he driving so slowly? Here, say something into this. Press the button when you speak. Don’t say much, just a few words—‘Move aside, car in front. Move aside’—and the dumbass will move aside for you.”
I can no longer describe the complicated emotions I felt when I sat in the Audi that day. We sat on the roadside at
midnight, near Ping’an Avenue, eating lamb hot pot. On the deserted street the cars passed, their strange, drawn-out police sirens wailing. “Dumbass doesn’t have the right decibel,” said my friend. “They got theirs at the Siyuanqiao Auto Parts City, too.”
Yes, we despise privilege when we’re faced with it, but when we’re enjoying “fake” privileges, we’re secretly happy. We judge those susceptible to privilege, but we gloat when we benefit from the same privilege. Lots of people hate special privilege because they don’t have it. I have a friend who thinks that if he had privilege, everyone would follow his advice as a matter of course. This isn’t necessarily true. I believe everyone gets addicted, unless their privilege is special enough that they need only adopt the subtlest of gestures. My friend has had ups and downs in his life, and he no longer owns that Audi; he drives an extremely ordinary seven-seater family car instead. Talking about the past, he laughed and shook his head and called himself egotistical. “I used to whine about all those people, and now I’m copying them.” But he also thought the latest black Audi A8 was gorgeous.
People are always in conflict with themselves. I may be too embarrassed to ever climb into a car with real or fake special privileges and throw my weight around, but every time I’m going to miss a flight, a thought pops up from the darkest part of myself: If I had somewhere I needed to be, and only one flight a day would get me there, and I clearly wasn’t going to make it, what if I just happened to have special privileges? Would I make hundreds of passengers wait for me for thirty minutes? Forget hypocrisy, I’d say my answer would be 80 percent yes. And I’d get the captain to blame air traffic control.
No one knows whether they’ll ride roughshod over other people and the law, no matter how good or gentle they are. Special privileges afforded to certain individuals cannot be
beautified or eliminated through personal cultivation. Even if you are drowning in the spit and hatred of the unprivileged, and no one respects you, you won’t be able to stop enjoying what you have. No matter how the common people criticized the Soviet special supply system,II
even when public discontent boiled over in the face of economic decline, and destruction seemed imminent, those who were part of the system were unwilling to give it up. No one wants to toss all their vehicle permits to the winds. The answer’s not blowing out there.
For a while the USSR fantasized about extending its special supply system to the workers, under the assumption that this would help consolidate power. It never happened that way. And even if that day had arrived, the USSR still wouldn’t have ended well. The privileged classes only wanted to extend those privileges to more people out of self-protection because they felt threatened. They had promised others they’d get something that ultimately would be unattainable, because only by limiting the power of those making the promises would the others get their due.
None of this is important, just a reminiscence about my life in Beijing and scribbling a few lines after watching the news. What we see as social progress or regression is often just
the result of a battle between special privileges. People may be kind or unkind, but power is neither beautiful nor ugly; which way you go is total luck. When power inclines a certain way, people can be taken down at will; and although the country may still keep going forward when one person falls, what happens if it’s the wrong person next time? In a land full of unchecked power, no one is safe, including those in power. I
. A compact car based on the Daihatsu Charade and manufactured by FAW Tianjin. II
. Originally intended to ensure that the central government was adequately supplied for basic needs, the system ended up giving party elites access to special stores offering exclusive goods unavailable to the masses. As a spate of food safety scandals were hitting China, Han Han’s readers would have been reminded of China’s own “special supply system,” initiated along the Soviet model, to provide safe food products to the upper leadership.