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University of Michigan Press
The Otherness of Self: A Genealogy of Self in Contemporary China

The Otherness of Self: A Genealogy of Self in Contemporary China

by Liu Xin


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An exploration of the conflict between traditional Chinese ideology and modern Chinese business practice

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472098095
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 06/05/2002
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.88(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Otherness of Self: a Genealogy of the Self in Contemporary China

By Xin Liu

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2002 Xin Liu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472068091

one - The Dance of a Nissan

On a sweltering evening, a 1993 Nissan, relatively new and well kept but with a noticeable dent on the left-side door, was moving, very slowly, as if the driver were dancing with his car--perhaps not a tango but a waltz--zigzagging across a very wide, brand-new avenue guarded by two beautifully shaped lines of fine trees. The avenue was wide enough to allow perhaps ten such cars to drive abreast of one another, but there were very few moving objects on the road. The Nissan was right in the middle of the avenue, completely ignoring the white lines marking the lanes, as if the driver were the king of the road or perhaps as if the president of some country were visiting. The street was emptied for the Nissan as if it were the only vehicle allowed to be on the road. The Nissan was too slow to keep up even with a couple of bicycles, the only other vehicles, on which two young girls chatted with each other, their colorful skirts blown by a breeze. No one was in a hurry: everything seemed to be on hold, a feeling of suspending or waiting. A very quiet--if not too quiet--evening.

If one were inside the car and looked out from the window, one would probably be astonished by the newness of everything visible. Even if one were driving in the night, one could perhaps still smell the newness of the city; for example, the fragrance of newly planted pines and other trees. These trees were still young, though some were huge, and only through their shadows was it possible to see the new buildings behind them on both sides of the road. It was then, if one were in the car, that one would notice the darkness inside these buildings: some were entirely without lights, while others had only very dim lights that looked like reflections of candles or electric flashlights. Not every building was blacked out, but a large number of them stood in the motionless darkness of their own shadows. Many of these buildings, beautifully designed and modern, were not yet completed--not because they were still in construction, with all the usual noises, but because they were on hold. Investments had been withdrawn and loans suspended. The buildings were abandoned, forgotten, left for nature to take over their fate. The most striking feature of these buildings, standing still and remaining silent in a space created by their own existence as the evidence to deny that very space, was the incomplete windows. The windows were like big, open mouths without any teeth, threatening to inhale immediately all flying insects. If one were to focus on any one of these windows, one would probably feel that behind each of these mouths was an abyss, not in the sense of not being able to find an end in it but in the sense of negligence, so obvious a darkness of human design that it would destroy any hope for their completion in the future. Most, if not all, of these buildings had no roofs due to the sudden halt in their construction, leaving steel bars and girders open and naked, as if bushes or jungles were growing out of the buildings' heads.

This scene was part of the Central Avenue of Beihai, a medium-sized coastal city located at the edge of Guangxi Autonomous District, a province known for both its beauty and its ethnic diversity. Guangxi borders Guangdong in the east and Vietnam in the southwest. Although Beihai (literally, "Northern Sea"), which is probably most known for its tourist attractions, particularly its beaches, is not known in China as an important port city, it is possible to travel via sea routes to Vietnam or to Hainan Island, which used to be part of Guangdong and became an independent province in the early 1990s. The capital of Guangxi, Nanning, lies about 150 kilometers north of Beihai. Few people in China would remember that Beihai was in fact among the first fourteen cities initially granted the status of "coastal open cities" in 1984, an economic-reform experiment that allowed these cities to offer special economic policies to attract foreign investment. Much public attention has been paid to cities such as Shenzhen in Guangdong, partly because of its strategic location in connection to Hong Kong. Few people in China would consider Beihai a member of the category of places that have achieved rapid economic growth. Beihai's economic performance can by no means be compared with that of Shenzhen, which developed very rapidly in the 1980s. A real moment of development in Beihai did not arrive until the early 1990s. During 1992 and 1993, in less than two years, there was an unbelievable flush of development--that is, a large amount of investment, primarily domestic loans and funds, poured into this small city and brought an unprecedented wave of construction of residential and office buildings, partly as a result of the provincial government's encouragement and partly as a result of the illusion generated by Deng Xiaoping's 1992 trip to South China. This heightened feverish moment of development quickly declined when Vice Premier Zhu Rongji took over the control of the central bank in 1994 and decided to freeze real estate investment across the country because the economy was believed to be overheated. All the investing companies withdrew their loans and funds, running away from the city; bank loans for real estate development were frozen; and the city's fever cooled, leaving all the skyscrapers half finished. Just a few years later, in 1998, the dead buildings remained a symptom of the city's terrible illness.

The Nissan was still right in the middle of the Central Avenue, dancing, not following any traffic rules--if there were any. The avenue was largely an open space, an avenue of quietness, which--at least in the minds of first-time visitors to the city--represented an unbelievable emptiness. Where were the people and traffic jams, the noise, so common to most Chinese cities? Inside the car were four people, including the driver, who was in his early forties, with a facial expression that said nothing about what he was thinking. Both hands were on the wheel, one rough and the other delicate, an interesting contrast, as if they belonged to two different persons. This was not an ordinary driver: this was the general manager of a famous Beihai company, the Beihai Star Group, a promising nationally known high-tech enterprise by the end of the twentieth century. His name was Haihun. Next to him sat a man in his early fifties, with a rustic complexion and a pair of quick eyes, as if he were constantly watching some moving object. It was difficult to make eye contact with him, because when an attempt was made, deliberate or not, his eyes would dart away. This pair of eyes did not focus on anyone or anything but rather were preoccupied with seeing some objects always beyond the focus of another person's sight. This was a man entitled, with considerable awe and respect, to be called Nee Chuzhang. Chuzhang is not part of his name but a title for an important position-- section chief in the government hierarchy. Nee Chuzhang was in charge of the industrial division of the Guangxi Planning Committee, headquartered in Nanning, the provincial capital. His post was rather important, endowing him with responsibility for granting permissions for the export and import of industrial goods and technologies. Behind the driver's seat sat a slightly younger man, with a square face and a disproportionately large nose occupying the center of his face and making all of his expressions look as if he were smiling. This was Tu Chuzhang, Nee's vice chief and assistant. I sat next to Tu Chuzhang. An anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley, I sought to understand the practice of business life in China at the turn of this century as a possible clue toward understanding what lies ahead for a society burdened with a revolutionary past. What was written on my face was not only excitement, brought about by the possibility of doing field research on a new project, but also a great deal of surprise at what I had observed during the past few days. I had traveled with Haihun to Nanning, eventually bringing two government officials back to Beihai for a "business trip" whose meaning I discovered only a few days later.

The Beihai Star Company, Ltd., which I shall refer to as the Beihai Star Group throughout this book, was run by a group of young people led by Haihun and his partner, Panton. It was categorized as a high-tech company. Between 1992 and 1998, the Beihai Star Group achieved remarkable progress in corporatization and became one of the most important enterprises in Guangxi. Two strategic achievements occurred during these decisive years. First, starting with almost nothing in its own stock, the Beihai Star Group successfully took control of two large state enterprises, both in Sichuan province, each of which had more than two thousand employees as well as a long history of producing basic electronic units for the Chinese space program. Both of these state-owned enterprises had been in debt, a severe problem for many such enterprises in the 1990s. With the idea of saving such enterprises from bankruptcy, the government agreed to let them come under private ownership, a reform strategy that was discontinued after a couple of years because, as the government soon realized, transferring public assets into private hands created problems in the form of economic and social disparities. During this short period of selling state enterprises, these two factories became subsidiaries of the Beihai Star Group, which owned a total of six companies in 1999. The second major achievement was that the company became listed on the Shenzhen stock market in April 1998. This listing almost guaranteed the company's success by giving it access to capital: the major problem troubling almost every enterprise in the 1990s was the shortage of capital for daily operation and management. The Chinese stock market was still in its cradle, and to make sure that it did not collapse, the state used strict procedures to select only the most promising companies to be listed (see Hertz 1998). Only one or two Guangxi companies would have the opportunity to be listed on the stock market each year, and the Beihai Star Group managed to successfully go through this process, becoming one of the few privileged enterprises.

The Star Group was owned by its shareholders, both collective and individual. One of its main products was electronic chips, a very basic kind that could be used for a variety of purposes. The production line for this product was imported from Japan in 1996, when the company received special permission from the provincial government as a means of encouraging high-tech industrial development in Guangxi. Into the last few years of the twentieth century, official discourse increasingly emphasized the importance of developing high-tech industries. To accommodate this ideology, each province launched its own special policies. In Guangxi, if the Planning Committee identified a company as investing in the high-tech industries, this company would be exempt from import taxation. Of course, this policy was supposed to apply only to companies that were importing production materials for the development of high-tech products. However, if a company instead were able to get this tax exemption to import consumer goods, such as cars, it would be able to produce a huge profit over a very short period of time, because the taxes on some foreign products, such as cars, were extremely high. The value of this permission was no less than the profit itself; and this permission could be granted only by the Planning Committee's industrial division, where Nee Chuzhang and Tu Chuzhang worked.

For fiscal year 1996-97, the Beihai Star Group was granted permission to import $280,000 worth of products, but the company did not use up all this quota, importing materials worth only $260,000. Although the original quota was supposed to be used for a single act of importation, Haihun decided to visit Nanning, hoping to convince officials that a small amount of production material still needed to be brought back to China to run the newly installed production line. I was not aware of what the company was trying to import this time, whether or not they were production materials. Before contacting the Planning Committee for another permission, the company had tried to import some materials into China but was stopped by the Customs Office and told that another permission had to be obtained. This was the reason for Haihun's trip, and I traveled in his car with him to Nanning. This was a couple of weeks after I arrived in Beihai in June 1998 for fieldwork, and by then I had become quite familiar with Haihun, partly because we both belonged to the class of 1978, an extremely significant group of Chinese college students. The class of 1978 connotes more a historical turning point than a group of classmates, because it was the first generation of students to enter college after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and group members went to universities through the system of the restored national exams. Furthermore, I was pleased but somewhat astonished to discover that Haihun had received his doctorate in Marxism and demography in 1992 from the Southwestern University of Economics and Finance. Largely as a result of his understanding and generous help, I came to know some hidden practices of (South) Chinese business life, such as how negotiations with government officials were carried out.

Late one afternoon, when we were driving close to Nanning, a much larger city than Beihai with a number of very impressive ultramodern skyscrapers, some entirely wrapped in glass, Haihun was once again on his cellular phone:

"Hellooooooo, Old Nee, whaaaat? Nee Chuzhang, yes?"

. . . . . .

"What? No? You are not Nee Chuzhang, but I am talking to Nee Chuzhang. Am I talking to someone who is not whom I am supposed to be talking to? What?"

. . . . . .

"He is not there? You don't know, and you don't know who knows? Do you know who knows who knows?"

. . . . . .

"You don't know who knows, what? What? Oh, you are Nee Chuzhang. I thought I was talking to someone else. Whaaaaat?"

. . . . . .

"Who was on the phone? Whaaaaat? You were in the toilet, but you know I didn't know who was on the phone. You are funny, you know that?"

. . . . . .

"Hi, Nee Chuzhang, talk seriously, what are you doing tonight? I happen to be in town and want to see you."

. . . . . .

"You have a meeting until 7:00? What about after that? Fine, I will pick you up at your office at around 7:30."

Having settled the time, we drove to a hotel not far away from a huge sign, Ginza (Yinzuo) Nightclub, that was quite similar to billboards seen on U.S. freeways. I am not sure whether local people could imagine the kind of urban atmosphere associated with the Ginza, a famous avenue in central Tokyo, but it is quite clear that this borrowing suggested that searching for pleasures and good life understood in terms of material gains no longer bore any negative connotations. An ethnographer might be surprised to find that both Nanning and Beihai had a disproportionately large number of massage parlors and nightclubs, whose names were always most imaginative. After resting in the hotel for an hour or so, Haihun went out to pick up Nee Chuzhang for dinner and some sort of entertainment. I stayed in the hotel watching television. When Haihun returned later that night, I asked where they went. Haihun replied, "We went to a massage parlor. They like this sort of thing because they don't have money for it, and then they wait for us to invite them."

The following day, I went with Haihun to Nee's office in an old but well maintained building in the center of the city. Haihun told me that, after the previous day's entertainment, although business was not discussed at all, he sensed that there should be no problem in getting his favor granted. He came to talk to both Nee Chuzhang and Tu Chuzhang, whom Nee promised to bring to meet with Haihun. Although Nee was superior in rank, Tu was in charge of the everyday business of granting these permissions. When we came into Nee's room, he was lying on the bed, taking a break for tea and a cigarette and reading a newspaper. About twenty minutes later, Tu Chuzhang came in, apologizing for being late.

"I couldn't leave--in a meeting, you know."

"Have a cigarette, Tu Chuzhang. We just came anyway," Haihun said.

"You know, so many meetings. You are always in a meeting, you know, I bet you don't know, but I hope you know you don't know." Tu continued his apology while lighting a cigarette provided by Haihun.

"Tu Chuzhang, I think I need to ask for your help with a small matter," Haihun said a couple of minutes later.

"Oh, don't be so polite. Who are we? We have known each other more than a few days, haven't we?" Tu replied.

"We had this quota last year, and you allowed us to import something from abroad. We did not finish using that quota, and . . ." Haihun began to explain.

"You did, didn't you? Did you say you didn't?" Tu said.


Excerpted from The Otherness of Self: a Genealogy of the Self in Contemporary China by Xin Liu Copyright © 2002 by Xin Liu. Excerpted by permission.
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