The Gobi Diaries 1: Why the Communist Party Sent Me to the Desert
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2016-03-31 12:03:00

My adventure began with a phone call late one summer night. It was my boss, the deputy director of the state-funded institute of international studies. He had some unexpected news. The personnel department of our academy had selected me as a candidate for its Grassroots Service Program (GSP) in one of China’s most underdeveloped provinces, located some 1,500 miles from where I was living in Beijing. Before hanging up, he gravely informed me that all of my peers had refused to join the program — leaving me with little choice but to accept the offer.

What followed was an incredibly difficult decision for me. As a sophomore researcher, I had spent the past year doing staff work instead of academic research, and I feared I might have fallen behind my colleagues. After consulting my wife, we agreed that the call from my boss was to inform me of my participation in the program, not to ask my opinion on the matter. I reluctantly called back and accepted his offer. In hindsight, most of us — the 17 researchers who accepted GSP posts — wished we had never received that call.

The GSP also has a Chinese name: guazhiGuazhi literally means “to hang your position,” in the way one hangs a coat, and it is a common phrase among China’s state-sponsored entities, including research institutes like the one I was part of. It involves temporarily moving to a new position for at least a year, while your old job is guaranteed upon your return. At the time it was common practice for young China Communist Party (CCP) members to take on this responsibility at some point. This temporary job sometimes has no relation at all to the cadre's previous field of work. For example, it would not be unusual for a researcher on U.S. foreign policy to be asked to manage rural development in the Gobi Desert.

The guazhi program is based on the traditional Chinese belief that different experiences lead to true knowledge and make a man competent. In its most radical form during the Cultural Revolution, this traditional belief was manifested as the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” movement. During the Cultural Revolution, universities and colleges in China were closed, and urban youth were sent to poor, remote rural areas to, in the words of Mao Zedong, “learn from ordinary people.” Although this is far removed from the modern-day GSP, the intention behind the two is similar: namely, a notion that the most thorough education comes from diversified experiences.

Never try to be a specialist. If you become an expert on any subject, you can never be a leader. Leaders know nothing deeply. Instead, it suits them to know a little about everything.

This is a belief that is still widely upheld in modern-day China. My roommate in university once told me: “Never try to be a specialist. If you become an expert on any subject, you can never be a leader. Leaders know nothing deeply. Instead, it suits them to know a little about everything.” The government prefers officials who have had experiences in different fields of work, believing them to be more competent and reliable. Thus, there are two main purposes for guazhi: to provide fresh men and women with hands-on training experience, and to indicate that a promotion is coming.          

I was hesitant, but I knew deep down that the GSP was a worthwhile undertaking. However, although I accepted the offer in late July and was scheduled to depart in September, there was no further news until a detailed schedule was sent to me in the last week of November. Suddenly, the academy’s personnel department summoned all of the candidates to a sleek, white meeting room and notified us that we would be leaving in five days. We must have seemed dispirited, because the personnel officials first offered us carrots for encouragement, but then brandished sticks as a warning when we didn’t perk up.

The personnel officials promised us that when we returned from our isolated locations we would enjoy priority rights in executive promotion, in academic title evaluation, even in the distribution of academy-owned apartments in Beijing. However, they also warned us that if we refused to go at the last moment or performed poorly in our new job, the academy might not renew our contracts at the end of our three-year terms. We were told that the living conditions in the rural towns where we'd be living would be much better than we might be anticipating, and we were assured that we would all have a personal office and a fully-furnished bedroom. After much encouragement, we began feeling that we might not actually have anything to worry about after all.

Local officials were waiting for us at the airport when we landed at our destination on Dec. 1. After a short rest and a dinner full of animated speeches, we — the 17 exhausted researchers — were dispatched to our new homes by town officials. Upon getting in the car, I was told that I would be working almost 13 miles from the urban area.

During our drive along the rugged country road, I had a good talk with one of my future colleagues, the vice-secretary of the town’s CCP committee. At one point, he asked me a strange question: “Secretary, where will you live in the city? Will the municipal government rent you an apartment?” It seemed that my future colleagues did not even know I was required to live where I worked. I began to realize that there would be no bedroom, no bathroom, and no nice furniture waiting for me.

It was immediately apparent upon arriving at the town hall that I had been right in my premonitions, which did not make me happy at all. There was no breakfast or dinner provided, and I wasn’t allowed to cook in the office. There was no hot water and no heating at night, despite temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius. I later reflected that, compared with the other problems, the outdoor toilet I had noticed upon entering was the least of my worries. But on the plus side, my office was bright and clean, and I had a bed where I could rest during overnight shifts. The first vice-secretary — I was the second — told me that since all government employees nowadays lived in the city rather than in these smaller communities in the outskirts, the building was designed only for daily working, but not for living.

I tried my best to consider all the positive aspects of the situation. At least there was one truth among all of the things that the personnel officials had told me: “If you open the window, you will immediately find yourself face-to-face with beautiful, snow-capped mountains.”

To be continued.

(To protect his identity, the author has used a pseudonym.)

(Header image: A general view of the desert where Heng Xiao was sent for his ‘guazhi.’ Heng Xiao for Sixth Tone)