An undergraduate’s video mimicking official “inspection” tours has become a flashpoint of discussion over cadres’ imperious attitudes and the reflexive deference shown to them in society. Shot on the campus of Yunnan State Land Resources Vocational College, the short video features a student clad in what might be called “cadre chic” (厅局风, tīngjú fēng) strolling around the site with a retinue of retainers. The undergraduate recreates official mannerisms—peering, pointing, pontificating. The performance as a whole was realistic enough to convince the school’s staff. This video splices together scenes from the original:
After the film went viral, the school did not move to punish the students but did say it would provide them “proper guidance” on their actions. The phrase raised eyebrows online. The WeChat essayist @亮见 suggested that it was school officials, not the students, who need a reckoning with their actions:
It’s not the students who need “proper guidance” but rather the school. Upon hearing of the arrival of a seemingly unannounced official, everyone’s first reaction—from the students to the lunch ladies, all the way up to the school president—was either to be slavishly cooperative and deferential, or to begin nervously working the phones to figure out who, exactly, had arrived for an inspection.
What is it that makes them so fearful? What is it that makes them so nervous?
It’s the clothing, the mannerisms, the aura of power.
[…] The fact that these students, armed only with a few cheap suit jackets ordered online and some mimicked mannerisms, were able to exert such compliance and anxiety among those they interacted with—and even those they didn’t—made me think of the movie starring Alan Tam, “If I Were for Real.” [A 1981 Taiwanese film banned in mainland China for satirizing the Chinese Communist Party.]
Alan Tam plays Li Xiaozhang, an educated youth sent to labor on Dongfeng Farm [a state run labor camp]. Li’s pregnant girlfriend is hoping to use her connections to get sent back to the city, but the plan has yet to come to fruition, making him nervous.
On a trip to the city to see a play, Li is mistaken for the son of a high-ranking cadre and given a royal welcome by the head of the theater troupe, the head of the local cultural bureau, and the municipal Party secretary’s wife. Li decides to run with the opportunity, using his new-found connections to secure himself and his girlfriend a transfer back to the city.
In the end, the actual high-ranking cadre shows up, exposing Li’s scheme. Li is arrested while at the play, to the befuddlement of the troupe director, who asks whether they’ve got the wrong man only to be told that Li is an impostor and fraud.
It’s at that moment that Li Xiaozhang asks the question that has prompted so much soul-searching:
“Is it only because I’m an imposter that it’s illegal? What if I were for real?”
[…] If it were real… no matter how formulaic, tricky, laughable, or ridiculous it might be, not many would dare to mock it.
Because that is real power.
The courage to mock real power is a rare thing. [Chinese]
The official inspection tour is a staple of Chinese political life. To name but one example, in 2021 Xi used an inspection tour of Tsinghua University to stress the Maoist message that students must be both “red,” dedicated to socialism, and “professional.” The tours are less genuine inspections than highly choreographed dramas conducted for Xi’s benefit.
The tours have often served as the fodder of satire. The now-defunct Twitter account “Xi Jinping Looking at Things” memorably captured the absurdity of Xi’s seemingly omnipotent powers of inspection. Perhaps the most widely ridiculed inspection was one that never occurred. In 2011, local officials in Sichuan doctored a photograph of themselves inspecting a highway, birthing the “floating officials” meme. In response, netizens photoshopped them into moments both real and fictional, including the moon landing, the bunker scene from “Downfall,” and Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final.
Although the Yunnan students have so far escaped punishment beyond “proper guidance,” some netizens called for them to be reported for mocking officials. The WeChat essayist @走读新生 said their desire to punish the students brought to mind an old joke about officials:
Do you still remember the old joke? It dovetails perfectly with this piece of performance art:
“What’re you going to report them for?”
“For repeating what we said, word for word.” [Chinese]