If you’re living in China and just barely working out an income from freelance projects, you might take a job doing voiceovers for propaganda films. A string of hours in a Beijing recording booth can earn you fifty, maybe sixty dollars. You can take breaks and they’ll give you lunch. There will be bottled tea. Afterward, you will walk out into the spring air with a new sense of wealth and possibility, financially settled for another week and able to forget what you had just done.
I spent a year doing the odd English voiceover for Chinese Communist Party films. In 2006 I worked on a crushing celebration of Tibetan agricultural practices. “The women do all the cooking and cleaning, which is their pleasure,” I read from the script. “The farmers undoubtedly adore oats.”
“Tibetans love the local plants,” I continued, “using the woody stems for roasting barley. Its young leaves are eaten by goats and sheep.”
At the end of a section the editor, who had a PhD in television drama, played back my recording. I watched the high altitude wheat threshing and the gentle billow of women’s skirts, my voice skittering over the pictures.
On the way to the studio one day, I noticed a series of bright posters decorated with big bubble characters and photographs. I scrutinized the pictures. People could be seen pinning red Communist Party badges to their blouses and sweaters, or standing in a wooded area with their fists raised in the air.
“That’s probably part of the Bao Xian campaign,” an editor told me. “Bao Xian means Protect the Freshness. It’s the Party’s self-promoting campaign, started last year. You should ask Pan about it. He’s the Party member among us editors. He’ll know more.”
“It’s just a campaign,” Pan said. “All Party members have to participate. It’s a lot of meetings, not a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?” an editor named Yi seemed incredulous. “This is the largest political campaign in China since Mao died. Already the Party has spent something like 10 billion yuan on it—propaganda, organizing, everything.”
“A lot of people think that maybe that money could have gone to other things,” Pan said.
Walking into the recording studio, I pointed out the posters to the editors. “Oh, yeah, this is definitely Protect the Freshness,” Pan said. “Look over here, this is funny.” He drew a line with his finger under the main characters of the campaign name and then covered part of a third character with his hand.
“See, if you just read this part here,” he said, “it looks like it says, ‘advanced sex education.’” The two editors cracked up.
The Chinese Communist Party meets once every five years in what’s called the National Congress. That’s often where large, new campaigns get unveiled. Past campaigns include Away With All Pests and Grasping the Large, Letting Go of the Small. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was essentially one massive campaign. The largest and best known campaign of recent years is Promote a Harmonious Society, introduced in 2005 and bolstered by former president Hu Jintao’s addendum of The Eight Honors, Eight Shames, which included the admonition: “Do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.” Campaigns are communicated through ubiquitous billboards and signs, radio commentary, television chatter. They become folded into life in China, trickling down to the village chalkboards. They are implemented through regular meetings of China’s 80 million party members, roughly six percent of the population.
Living envelope to envelope, I had time to find out more about things like Protect the Freshness. I wondered what local-level meetings of the world’s largest political party might be like. I asked the editors if they knew how I could learn more. One gave me the number of Fu, a Party boss in Henan province. “This guy would have been responsible for implementing Protect the Freshness,” the editor said. “Maybe you can learn more from him.”
On the phone, Fu sounded confused, almost baffled, by my interest in seeing him. But he was broadly welcoming and offered to have one of his men pick me up when I got close to Jiguan, his village. I booked a sleeper train from Beijing to Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province. From there I could catch another train and a string of buses to the boss’ village. When I stepped down the stairs toward the platform, I noticed a sign in blue and red: “The moment of boarding is when the happiness of travel begins.”
Jiguan means Cockscomb. The village is located near the town of White Sparrow. The whole area had an especially bird-oriented turn of mind. I considered this as the morning minivan to Cockscomb filled up with smoking men.
“Boss FU!” the driver called when we pulled up. But Fu was already outside. What was this woman doing here? his expression visibly wondered. What does she want from me? Our cursory introductions over the phone coupled with my hesitancy to directly mention Protect the Freshness definitely rendered my arrival something of a random event. I was, by the estimations of all present, the first American to visit Cockscomb, a village of roughly 1,600. This alone drew what local crowd could be drawn.
Party Boss Fu’s home was a cement floored structure with basic wood furniture and a straw roof. A large poster hung on the wall depicting a western style living room. In nearly every rural living room I had seen in China, a photo of a nicer living room was pasted to the wall. The television rested on top of its original Styrofoam box on an old wooden hutch.
I told Fu again that I had come to better understand the conditions in a rural area. Fu nodded and remarked on how poor the place must seem compared to America. He offered me a cigarette before making a phone call to ask—what to do about this foreigner? The options proved indeterminate so Fu cut a watermelon and gave me a piece. I said, “You must be very busy” and he said, “No, no,” “Lots of meetings today?” “No.”
I handed over the gifts that I had brought—a photo album, a new soccer ball and a bottle of grain alcohol. Fu seemed most enamored with the alcohol, which he polished and showed to his wife before stationing it on a rack above their bed. He tossed the other items in the corner and, taking a second piece of watermelon, began to brief me on Cockscomb.
“The average income here is just over 1000 yuan per year,” he said. “Just about everyone is a farmer. One of the biggest events in recent years is that our secondary school moved to Chen village, which is far away. Now the students have to walk too far. Another problem is that the roads around here are bad and need repair.” Fu estimated that 500 people had left in recent years to find work elsewhere, mostly in Guangzhou, Wuhan and Beijing.
I decided to ask him about Protect the Freshness.
“Protect the what? I’ve got no idea about this campaign,” he said. “We have no connection to the bigger government bodies and their discussions,” Fu waved his hands. He threw a watermelon rind on the floor.
My heart sank. Party members and leaders at all levels across the country would have been involved in this campaign. There was no way Fu could have escaped. And yet Fu resolutely shut down any further discussion. I began to wonder what the hell I had done, traveling for days just to sit in a stranger’s home, bringing up political campaigns that he didn’t want to talk about. And why would he? In a place where everything gets done based on personal relationships, I had basically dropped out of the sky. I had become, as both a foreigner and a stranger, a kind of oppressive force—sitting around, eating watermelon, asking about Protect the Freshness. But here I am, I thought. I have to keep going.
Over lunch, Fu talked more about the road and the school. His wife went to the table after he had eaten and piled her plate with leftovers before clearing the dishes. Soon Fu was snoring on the sofa. I decided to go for a walk.
A farmer in suit pants and a button down shirt spotted me and stepped out of his field. He carried a wooden hoe balanced over his shoulder. “Where are you from?” he asked me. “America” I said. “I just came to see the countryside.”
“Well, as you can see, this is a backward place,” the farmer said. “It has not yet developed. Of course, over there they are building a new set of houses and such,” he said, pointing someplace beyond the fields. “But not here.”
“One thing I’m interested in is the government campaign Protect the Freshness,” I said.
“Protect—do what?” he asked.
“Protect the Freshness,” I said again. “A government campaign among Party members. Are you a member of the Communist Party?” I asked.
“Yes, communist,” he said. “But I don’t know anything about this Protect the Freshness. It probably comes from a foreign country.” The man stared at me. “Are you looking for a refrigerator?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“No. I haven’t heard of this,” the farmer concluded. “Just have a look around.” He walked back into the field, his straw hat casting a wide shadow over his shoulders.
I sat down on a rock. A one-legged man came by and introduced himself. He told me he lost his leg in a farming accident in 1991 and was still seeking the compensation he was promised: “Two hundred yuan every month they are cheating me out of,” he said. “Do you know a good lawyer?” I told him I didn’t. “Our biggest problem is corruption,” he said.
A 30-year-old woman who just returned from washing clothes in a nearby stream invited me to her home for tea. Her daughter attended the school up the hill. “Every year the price of attendance gets higher,” she said. “Now it’s up to 300 yuan per year. And it’s supposed to be free. There’s a big difference between the regulations and the reality around here.”
Suddenly Fu’s wife arrived, peering her head through the woman’s window and waving a hat for me. We went off down the road to find Fu who, she said, was “busy fixing the new road.” Fu’s wife paused at a small grocery where four women were playing mahjong. They gave us a package of child-sized popsicles. Fu’s wife and I ate them until, walking back along the road, she decided they were disgusting and threw the whole lot, plastic and all, into the glistening field.
Next stop was another village corner store and another game of mahjong, this one attended by Fu. A group of toddlers and children drifted around, barefoot and grubby. When one player tried to determine my Chinese level, I told him I speak Beijing style Mandarin but no Henanese. “Oh! Beijing-hua,” he said. “The language of lies!” The other players laughed and returned to their pieces.
Another player said between moves, “From the time of Mao, this place has not changed. Except now we are getting a road.”
Fu and his wife took me around the corner and down a dirt path to the Central Cockscomb Government Offices. “The Protect the Freshness campaign is over,” a man seated behind a desk told me. “It’s still continuing elsewhere, but it’s certainly not open to visitors. And it is not here.”
“This campaign was important to advance Party members and help us to remember the key theories,” the official continued. “I think all Party cadres benefited from Protect the Freshness. We had regular meetings here in Jiguan and we worked hard at it. And now that it is over we are even more engaged.” I asked if it was really, really over. He said it was really, really over.
A black sedan with tinted windows and plush, leather seats pulled up to the office. The officials directed me to the front and drove slowly, with all the windows rolled down. We pulled up to the biggest restaurant in White Sparrow and the men led the way to a private room in the back. White Sparrow is a gambling town, dusted with mahjong tables and little shops that sell playing cards, grain alcohol and sunflower seeds. The officers immediately seated themselves around a padded card table and began playing for cash. 70 yuan changed hands in the first round—about a month’s salary in Cockscomb.
Teenage waitresses began bringing in plates of fried egg with tomato, diced cucumber, braised turtle. The men commenced shouting, drinking, pleading that I call the boss “Fu Jintao,” a play on then-president Hu Jintao’s name. Faces turned red, crying with laughter.
The men drove Fu and me back to Fu’s house, as far as the car would go in the narrow village lanes. A profound blackness had settled on the fields, pierced only by fireflies. Fu lit the way with his cell phone.
His wife rushed over to me. “That legless man you met today,” she said. “He opposes us. He’s a cheat, nothing he says is true. Yes! Nothing! He takes everything from his parents. 45 years old and his parents support him. So he has nothing. It would be best if you don’t listen to him.”
She took a sip of water.
“What are you writing? Don’t write about him!” she shouted. “If you write about him, he will find out and get into my business! He cheats people. Forget you met him! He is a bad, bad man.” And with that, I slipped off to my cot by the pigsty and the Fu household retired for the night. In the black paddy fields the bullfrogs croaked one long, sustained greeting.
The next morning I got a better look at Cockscomb, its narrow meandering dirt roads, the canopy of tree branches overhead. The paddies were shallow, square pools packed with bright shoots. Several women in broad straw hats worked to transplant the rice shoots bunch by bunch.
The mammoth Fu family pig roamed through the courtyard, consuming ladles of slop at his trough. The following day would be dang wu jie, one of many Chinese holidays that celebrate a dynastic official’s triumph over corruption. A young woman entered the courtyard with a bowl of fatty, blood-smeared flesh. The morning was filled with the business of washing and feeding, of ensuring the chicken stay inside and the pig stays outside.
In preparation for the holiday, Fu decided to take me with him on his market visit. Suddenly, we were back in White Sparrow, the center of business and commerce as far as Cockscomb was concerned. A woman carried a large bloody fish by a handle of rope through its mouth and gills. The fish flopped and struggled as she brought it through the crowd.
We stopped briefly in the bird market. First their throats had to be cut. Blood spurted and then thickened. A woman ripped off their feathers. But this left behind a fine layer of downy fur. So she dunked the birds into a vat of black, bubbling wax and then threw them into tubs of water. The blackness congealed around the animals in a hard casing. This the woman peeled off with quick movements. The birds emerged spotlessly clean and unmistakably dead, not at all what they had been moments before.
Fu and his wife loaded their groceries and two of these birds into an old rice bag. They carried it through the market, each holding an end. At the convenience store on the corner, Fu’s wife inspected detergent while Fu drank a cup of tea.
Fu told me he was 51 years old and had been the Cockscomb Party Boss for “about 30 years” or “since I was 21 or 20,” he said.
“Isn’t that kind of young?” I asked.
“Huh,” he said.
Fu married in 1981. A matchmaker made the introduction and a pig and several chickens were slaughtered for the occasion. They have two children: a 24-year-old woman and 20-year-old man. I asked Fu how he could have more than one child given the country’s One Child Policy. “It’s not that you strictly can’t have more than one child,” he said. “If your first child is a girl, then you can try for a boy. But if your first child is a boy than you can’t have any more children.”
Back in the village we walked up the dirt path to Cockscomb Elementary. The school had over 100 students, 6 to 12 years old, not enough supplies, dirt floors and brick walls. I peered slices of blue through the cracks in the roof. The statement “Education Forms the Basis of the Long-Term Plan” ringed the school’s outer wall. The slogan dated to the 1950s, the principal told me. “Mao Zedong Thought,” he said, as if identifying the make and model of a used car on a lot.
Inside we were flanked by portraits of Mao, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhou Enlai, all the heavy hitters of Chinese communism. We engaged in protracted silences and tea sipping as I tried to gauge their intentions and they, undoubtedly, tried to gauge mine. “The curved rooftop tiles are several hundred years old,” the principal pointed out.
“The government is not giving us any money,” Fu lamented. “We have to fix the leaks ourselves.” I recalled the gambling, the banquet and the fact that just by strangely, unexpectedly, being there I had probably caused money to be spent. “The school is actually free to attend,” Fu continued. “There is a lot of loose talk around here. We are charging 300 yuan per year, yes. But that is for necessary repairs, not for attendance. Of course, we have not yet been able to begin these repairs.”
I took down the school address, which read simply: Henan province, Guangshan county, White Sparrow Township, Cockscomb Village, Primary School. If anything got in the general area it was sure to reach its destination, no postal codes needed.
It was time for me to go. I thanked the Fu and the principal both with many handshakes. Fu flipped open his cell phone and placed surely a long awaited call for a car to come and take me away. One of Fu’s associates drove me in a red van out as far as White Sparrow. From there I caught a bus to Guangshan, and then on to Xinyang.
Along the way we passed more slogans, each printed in fading white paint on brick walls: “Care For and Love Your Daughter,” “The Road to Happiness Starts with Family Planning,” “Pursue the Study of Science,” “Oppose Evil Religions,” “Build the New Socialist Countryside.”
I told Fu’s driver I had heard the average Cockscomb income was now around 1000 yuan per year. I asked if the same was true of government officials. “Oh, that I couldn’t possibly know or guess,” the man said, chuckling as he gripped the wheel. “Our leaders do very good work, though. They are paid accordingly.”
Back on the train, three middle-aged men gathered around me. The fattest sat down on the end of my bed. They held court on America (good but full of blood-lust) China (on the up and up) the study of language (difficult) the merits of independence (mixed).
One of the men jotted a phrase down in my notebook to describe China’s interaction with the outside world as he saw it:
“Lang yan si qi,” it read. Smoke rising on all sides.
Another said he was a government official. So I asked him about Protect the Freshness.
“Oh yes, since last year we have been having Protect the Freshness,” he said. “Sometimes we meet every day. We study key texts and also write essays and responses, our thoughts on how to best implement this campaign. I myself have written over 300,000 characters in support.”
I asked him what the point of the campaign was. “Capitalist countries, like Germany, England, your America, they have all had a little bad influence on our communism,” the man said. “So we reviewed our mission. The result was Protect the Freshness, for the advancement of the Party.”
“Did you also criticize yourself and others in these meetings?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “There has been some of that.”
Outside the day passed: hot, flat and dry. Henan is part of an agriculturally rich valley that feeds off the Yellow River. From the window I could see some of the land was on fire. Sheets of smoke rose into the sky.
Suddenly the official got up and walked away. I still wanted to ask him how much longer the campaign would last, if it would be possible for a foreigner to go to a meeting. But he was gone and I did not see him again.
One of the remaining men grabbed my notebook and wrote: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Central Entertainment Troup. He showed me his PLA-issued belt.