This summer, following a long travel hiatus due to concerns about COVID-19, Xi Jinping resumed his overseas and domestic travels. His itinerary has included visits to Hong Kong in late June, to Xinjiang in mid-July, and to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in mid-September. (Notably, he did not stay overnight in Hong Kong during his trip to mark the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover from British to Chinese rule, opting to spend the night in Shenzhen instead.) Less publicized, perhaps, is the brief stop he made in Wuhan on June 28, just prior to his appearance in Hong Kong.
These trips by China’s top leader naturally involve detailed preparations, stringent security, and various forms of crowd control—keeping them at a distance, bolstering their numbers, or ensuring that they contained the right kind of safe, “politically reliable” individuals.
In this now-deleted first-person account, originally published by Luoriyudeng 落日余灯 on the Matters News website, a teacher describes the hush-hush preparations—and long periods of tedium and waiting—for an inspection visit by a “certain esteemed personage”:
“Observe Everything. Reveal Nothing.”
I’m a teacher. Imagine my surprise when I was assigned the political task of going into other people’s homes to close their windows and keep an eye on them.
It was around 10:00 p.m. on June 27 that I received an unexpected call from a school administrator. The call was light on details: I was to report to school at 7:00 a.m. the following morning for a 7:15 meeting on some unspecified topic. My colleagues, who would also be present, were being informed individually. This was more than a little strange. Work didn’t start until 8:30, so why were we being called to go in an hour and a half early? Why were administrators calling us one by one instead of posting an announcement in our WeChat work group, and why weren’t they telling us what it was all about? Why the air of mystery? One thing was certain: it probably wasn’t going to be anything good.
I arrived at 7:00 the next morning and found the cafeteria full of teachers waiting in line for breakfast or stowing food in plastic bags. I wolfed down my own breakfast and went into the teachers’ room, where my coworkers and I tried to guess what this was all about. One coworker said she’d seen plastic bags filled with raincoats and shoe covers, indicating an outing of some sort—perhaps it was some kind of community activity? Someone else guessed that we’d be pressed into service as “extras,” crowd-filler for a visit from a senior official. Still trading guesses, we headed into the meeting with a sense of apprehension.
Instead of the principal, who usually spoke at our meetings, the school’s Communist Party secretary was onstage, which suggested that today’s activities would have something to do with the Party. I figured that by the time he finished speaking, the mystery would be made clear, but his speech only muddied the waters.
The Party secretary said he had received orders from his superiors that we were to go to a residential compound in Zuoling to assist the police in a “Bringing Civilization to the Home” campaign. One police officer and one teacher would be matched to each household, and it was our job to enter the assigned apartment and make sure the windows were closed. Not only teachers, but comrades from the city’s transit system and other municipal departments would be taking part as well. The higher-ups had designated this a “political task of the utmost importance.” To ensure accountability in the event of any problems, everyone’s family and work information had been reported to the Organization Department.
A number of questions immediately came to mind. Why would a “civilization” outreach campaign require cops? Why were we closing other people’s windows? And how could such a mundane task possibly qualify as a “political task of the utmost importance?”
The Party secretary added that he’d gone to a bureau of education meeting the night before, and had joined provincial and municipal leaders in location-scouting the residential compound in question. “Perhaps,” he said significantly, “some of you may have already guessed what this is about, but the point is to observe everything and reveal nothing.” Nothing short of a visit from a top central-government official could stir up such anxiety among provincial and municipal leaders, and given the red-carpet treatment, it had to be either the Chairman or the Premier.
After the Party secretary described our task, the school director read out a list of our names and the apartment numbers we were assigned to, then handed out red badges (emblazoned with the Yellow Crane Tower in the center and “SPD” and “WH” above and below) and white face-masks with the Optics Valley logo. She instructed us to pin the badges on the left side of our chests and reminded us to wear the face-masks for the entire duration. To pass through security and enter the residential compound, she told us, we would need our national ID cards, but we were forbidden to bring our phones. After going back to the teachers’ room to tidy up, we trooped downstairs, got our supplies, boarded the bus the school had arranged for us, and set off for the compound, which was even more remote than our school.
Colored Badges Instead of People
Despite the ambiguity of our task, the mood on the bus was more akin to a class trip. The teachers chatted and laughed, and I was probably the only one frowning at the thought of being used as a tool for social “stability maintenance.” As we drove, the Party secretary told the driver where to detour around blocked-off roads, making me even more convinced that a leader from the central government was coming for an inspection tour. I couldn’t be sure whether it was Xi Jinping, though: he would be in Hong Kong on June 30, and it didn’t make sense that he would visit Wuhan in the few short days before then.
We arrived outside the residential compound at 9:30. After getting off the bus, the teachers milled around talking to one another. The gateway of the compound was right there in front of us, but nobody knew when we could enter, so we just stood there and waited. For lack of anything better to do, I observed the people coming and going. Some wore red badges, like us, so I assume our roles were similar. Others wore black uniforms with green or gold badges, and looked like they were in charge of security and maintaining order. Over by the compound wall, there was a group of people offloading things from a cargo truck. The badgeless people coming and going in relative freedom were presumably the residents. More buses drove up as we waited, each disgorging a few dozen people, and before long, both sides of the street were crowded.
About half an hour later, a man in black with a walkie-talkie directed us to line up and enter the compound. After passing through the sort of stringent security checks you’d encounter at an airport, we split into two teams based on our floor assignments, and made our way through the compound to the designated buildings. The local residents, most of them children or senior citizens, eyed us curiously, as if wondering why so many people had shown up at their community today. We didn’t know ourselves.
The residential compound, the Zhiyuan Apartments, was home to nine 32-story buildings. There were spacious, tree-lined streets and a variety of little signs pointing the way to spaces such as the “Red Living Room,” “Red Cafeteria,” and “Party History Promenade.” A community notice board was covered with text and pictures touting China’s technological development and pandemic prevention measures. All that “red” made me realize that although this compound might look perfectly ordinary on the outside, on the inside it was “both Red and expert,” just the way the Communist Party likes it.
Our arrival outside the apartment building was followed by more waiting, in what was to become the theme of the day. There were sunny spells and scattered showers, so I took shelter under the eaves of the nearby power substation. Without my phone, I had nothing to do but watch people walking past the building.
Posted at the entrance of the apartment building was a graying middle-aged man, wearing black clothing and a blue badge, and equipped with a big potbelly and a walkie-talkie. Eavesdropping as he chatted with the local residents, I heard him mention having recently taken down a gambling ring, so he must have been a police officer who worked criminal cases. Another middle-aged man, also wearing black but with a gold badge, arrived a little while later. He stood at the building entrance, smoking and talking into his walkie-talkie as he gazed at the crowds around him with Olympian disdain. I inferred that he must have been a higher-ranking police officer.
Now that their commanding officer had arrived, it was time for the “grunts” to get to work. Two-person teams cleared away the e-bikes littering the sidewalk, hoisting them into the back of cargo vans to be towed away. For cargo tricycles that were too heavy to lift, they simply steered them out of the vicinity—to eliminate the risk of any explosions, I assume. Another line of people, working conveyor-belt style, passed jugs of cooking oil and bags of bread and supplies through the complex and into the elevators. I’d seen these things when I was hanging around waiting outside, and they were clearly intended as “consolation gifts” for the residents. I couldn’t tell whether the people in the conveyor-belt line were community workers or police officers.
A Chat with the Police
According to a colleague’s wristwatch, we waited for nearly an hour before a black-clad police officer told us we could go inside. After taking the elevator up with my coworkers, I found a group of what looked like plainclothes police officers sitting outside the open door of the apartment I had been assigned to. A man and a woman sat outside, and two middle-aged men were seated inside. The apartment belonged to an old woman, who was watching TV on the sofa. I greeted her, and she got up to offer me a seat and pour me a glass of water, but at the sight of my water bottle she put the kettle back down and returned to the sofa to watch CCTV news.
I reached cautiously for a stool, joined the others outside—as I’d been instructed to do by one of the police officers—and struck up a conversation.
“You from the community?” asked the fat cop.
I shook my head. “I’m a teacher at the school.”
“They dragged you all out here too?”
“I think every school in the district sent their teachers here,” I told him.
“Well, that’s just wrong…” he said pensively.
I realized from our brief conversation that all of us who had been sent here from different systems didn’t know one another’s identities. There was top-down coordination, but little communication between the various systems. We had been subsumed under different-colored badges, which were the only way we could be identified—useful for concealing people’s actual identities. Each individual sent to enforce order in this community knew only a small part of the plan, which naturally aroused our curiosity. Wanting to know more, we were left to trade information with the others and try to piece things together, but we’d never be able to put together a complete picture.
After these perfunctory greetings, the officers left me alone and resumed their own conversational topics, which ranged from a wife getting heart surgery, to setting a coworker’s daughter up on dates, to which coworkers were most severely henpecked. I guess those are the sort of things cops talk about when they aren’t busy working a case.
I sat in silence as they chatted, pricking up my ears whenever a voice came over the walkie-talkies on the dining table next to them. At first, all I heard was police from different divisions—the criminal investigation squad, the narcotics squad, the armed police—saying “Copy that, over.” Then I heard someone say we’d be able to relax a bit until 2:30 that afternoon, at which time we were to close every window in every apartment in the building, and ensure that nobody was near the windows. Apparently the leader, whoever he was, would be arriving at the compound at 2:30.
I asked the officers when we’d be able to leave. Not before 4:00 or 5:00, the fat one predicted. That was disappointing. A bag of KenGee bread rolls outside the apartment reminded me that I’d left my food on the bus. Stomach grumbling, I pointed at the rolls and asked if I could have one. The skinny cop said they’d brought them for themselves, and suggested I find the person responsible for this building and ask if we could get someone to bring us some food. Grasping at this straw, I went to find my coworkers assigned to the same floor and asked what they would be doing for lunch. They hadn’t brought anything either, and had resigned themselves to going hungry. Nothing to do but “lie flat,” I thought.
A Long Wait for a Short Visit
The residents of that apartment were an older couple: a bedridden elderly man with terminal cancer and his wife, who fussed over and fed him. According to the wife, Zhiyuan Apartments were resettlement housing for workers at the state-owned Gedian chemical plant, and she and her husband had moved here after the plant was demolished. Seeing that we had returned, she kindly offered us bottles of mineral water and invited us to sit on the sofa and watch TV.
Without our phones, even watching TV was a luxury. We took turns channel-surfing, trying and failing to find a watchable drama. After watching the news for a bit, we just left the TV tuned to CCTV 5, and watched whatever random sporting events happened to be on. One of my coworkers joked that it was like being forced to go cold-turkey to cure our smartphone addictions.
Thankfully, other coworkers brought us bags of rolls around lunchtime. I pounced on the bag and tore it open, stuffing one roll into my mouth while reaching for another. Between us, we managed to wolf down all the rolls in about five minutes. At around 1:20, a middle-aged man dressed all in white came and told us to shut the windows. With the permission of the elderly woman who lived in the apartment, we made sure the windows in every room were closed, and then resumed waiting for the important personage to appear. Every now and then, I edged toward the balcony and tried to sneak a peek at what was going on below, but I didn’t see anything.
There was nothing to do but watch TV and dart into the hallway to peek out the windows every now and then. Around 4:00, outside in the distance, I saw a group of people near Building 6. All of them were dressed in white. By matching this up with the images of people in white Mao suits I’d seen on the TV news, I could tell that the “esteemed personage” had finally arrived. About 10 minutes later, two mini-buses and a sedan drove away from Building 6. I assumed that the motorcade would leave and that we’d be free, but shortly afterward, the motorcade reappeared outside Building 1. This time, I didn’t see anyone dressed in white, so perhaps they entered the building directly. When I looked out the window again, 10 minutes later, the motorcade was gone. People dressed in regular clothing began coming out of the building across from ours, and not long afterward, the police officers told us our job was done. We were free to go, finally! “Why such a short visit?” I groused to myself as I went downstairs. “Maybe he lacks stamina because he’s so old.”
Back in the sunlight, the teachers talked excitedly amongst themselves, marveling at the visit from none other than Xi Jinping. Some said they’d seen sentries posted at the top-floor windows; others said they’d seen Xi Jinping standing next to the community notice board. Still others said they wanted to retrace his footsteps. On my way out of the compound, I heard one of the female teachers say, laughing, “I never imagined we’d accomplish such a great mission today!”
But I just felt like it was a waste of a perfectly good workday.
There were so many buses departing the compound that it could have been mistaken for a popular tourist site. As we drove off, all the teachers eagerly reclaimed their phones and checked their notifications. A friend of one of the teachers had sent video stills of Xi’s visit, and the other teachers crowded around to see, like they were catching up on news about a favorite celebrity.
I hadn’t brought my phone. I sat there in my seat, feeling mixed emotions. Had I accomplished something that day, or had I done nothing at all? Yes, I was right there on the scene, but it hardly felt like I’d been there.
Despite the Party’s lip service about “From the People, for the People,” during Chairman Xi’s visit, “the People” were treated like adversaries to be wary of. The people he interacted with at the Zhiyuan Apartments must have undergone careful political vetting, and their function was to serve as supporting actors, to help manufacture a “harmonious” atmosphere. Xi’s visit wasn’t about listening to the real concerns of the people, but about underlining the will of the Party. [Chinese]
Translation by Mick Barry.