The Gobi Diaries 2: A Cold and Lonely Beginning
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2016-05-26 11:19:43

This is part two in a series. For part one, click here.

No welcome party. No dinner invitations. Not even a meeting with my new bosses. In my first afternoon as vice-secretary I found myself killing time by eating lukewarm instant noodles.

My bedroom was small, unheated, and contained only a single bed, desk, and closet. A small door led directly into the town hall, but the only bathrooms were public ones outside on the street. Because our town was so isolated, most of the other employees I worked with commuted the 17 miles to a nearby city where they lived with their families.

The tiny, remote town seemed to be saying, “I don’t know who you are or why you have come here, but it’s obvious that you’re not at all important.” I was pretty sure this was the first time that a cadre of the guazhi program had ever been sent here, and it seemed that the townspeople were just as apprehensive about me as I was of them.

I was ranked sixth in the local government in terms of authority. Beneath me were five others and together the 11 of us formed the town’s cabinet, but in such a small government only the first and second in charge were of any real importance. 

As someone with a doctoral degree, I should have been afforded a much more important position — at least at the county-level. However, there had apparently been too many participants of the Grassroots Service Program (GSP) that year and many of us had drawn the short straws.

But the town officials of course didn’t know this. They probably just assumed that I was less qualified than other candidates in the GSP. It would take me a long time to gain any respect.

The town hall, where I was to live and work, was the tallest building at four stories and the town’s population was around 300.

Still, I had ended up with a better deal than many others in the program. Because of my tenure with the Communist Party — I had been a member since my undergraduate studies — I was appointed to one of the town’s three vice-secretarial posts. For an ordinary person in the position directly below mine — deputy town chief — it would take at least 10 years to be promoted to vice-secretary.

A regular government employee without any prominent background or outstanding performance would have to serve for 25 years to move from party committee member — the lowest level of the town governing committee — to the secretary of the town. And this was assuming that they were promoted at every possible opportunity.  

I inspected my living accommodations and examined the photos on the desk of my colleagues. After a while one of the other vice-secretaries appeared and offered to show me around the town.

The crossroads of two streets formed the main activity hub of the place. Around half of the buildings there were related to government services, while the rest were dirty little restaurants. The town hall, where I was to live and work, was the tallest building at four stories and the town’s population was around 300.

And yet, I quickly noticed that with the exception of the town hall, the courtroom, and the police and power stations, all of the government buildings were locked, and only two or three restaurants were doing business.

“How strange,” I remarked, turning to my new colleagues. “Why is everything closed?”

They told me that the government buildings were all closed since there wasn’t enough in the local budget to keep them heated throughout winter; they wouldn’t be reopened until summer. Most of the restaurants were forced to close after Xi Jinping released his “Eight-point Regulations” — measures aimed at cutting down corruption by restricting government officials from using public funds for events like banquets or other extravagances. But without government money, many of the town’s restaurants could no longer stay in business since most of the local population couldn’t afford to eat out.

Boxes were piled up along the road packed with unsold food items. Seeing this I quietly remarked that the town must be experiencing a hard time, but was immediately refuted by the town staff. They assured me that local business was actually doing well.

I quickly realized that I had made a misstep. As an outsider, my negative comments about the state of the town were viewed as an insult to local officials. I quietly assured myself that I would watch my words more carefully in the future — I did, after all, want to establish harmonious relations with town officials.

When I returned to my room, I found the staff climbing onto the bus to return to their heated homes in the town center. At that moment, I no longer felt sympathy for their dim career paths. At least when they left work they could get out of this forsaken place.

And I suddenly wondered if it was I — alone, cold, and hungry at the office — who was a source of consolation to them.

To be continued.

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