Nowhere to Walk


After every lunch meeting with my fellow econometricians on Wednesday, I get a new lease on my interest in research. The often boring presentations and the aimlessly random chatting somehow help me get my preferences right, which should have research on its top. This mysterious effect, although perfectly beneficial to me, let me somehow think of the grassroot organizations in pre-reform China, which played a significant role in the ideoligical rule of the country.

At that time, since the Party and its beauraucracy try to "reach deep into the base of the Mass", people are living in a hierachy of semi-political groups. The groups at the bottom of the hierarchy, whether they are work groups in factories, or production units on farms, or student teams in schools, hold political meetings regularly. At a typical meeting, after first listening to new directives or policies from the Party Center, if any, they usually divide into smaller subgroups to study the Party Center's "spirit" in more detail, to discuss what individuals can do, and to conduct criticism and self-criticism. Such subgroups are often led by one or two die-hard idiologists and have similar size with my time series research group, which has 11 people.

The power of such small-group meetings, which seem ridiculous to us today, should not be underestimated. The small size of the meeting makes it possible to bring in only those who are familiar with each other. Familarity, in the form of teammate, neighborhood, friendship, or kinship etc., does not make the meeting more pleasant or bearable. On the contrary, often with their lives at stake, their familarity brews even bitter hatred toward each other and inflicts even more pain on individuals. It is exactly through such meetings, or sometimes "struggles", that die-hard counter-revolutionaries are exposed and imprisoned, and that the others' preferences (at least apparent) are shaped and molded into one that is compatible with the regime.

Of course there are big differences between my research group and the semi-political group in pre-reform China. The most crucial one lies in the ability to walk. While everyone in my group can leave without incuring unbearable costs, people in pre-reform China can go nowhere. The Party and the Mass are simply everywhere, no one can get out. Even in prison, people are still organized to "study" and "struggle", and thus don't get peace of mind. Only death is their relief. This is why some people vote the pre-reform Chinese government to be the most inhuman human organization that the world has ever seen.

Fortunately the time has now changed. One of the good things about post-reform China is that people live in units that are less and less political. Even during propaganda campaigns such as "Anti-Falungong" or "Three Representatives", people in private sector are free from any political meetings or studies. Even those in state sector, if they don't have political ambition, have no difficulty in finding good excuses to be absent or simply sleep through the "study", which is usually organized for large number of participants. Although the vestiges of the small units still remain, they are no longer active and thus no longer powerful in influencing people. Perhaps TV commercials, rather than political propaganda, exert the most powerful influence on people's preference and their lives. However distasteful TV commercials may be, they are definitely better than small-group propaganda, since whenever you get sick of them, you can just click the button and shut the whole thing up.