Let the Party Begin

 

(SHANGHAI) October 5, 2005 – The whole nation took a week off as it always does during the beginning of October. On the Wednesday of that week, when I walked outside my apartment to buy some bread, I found a long queue, in the rain, huddling under umbrellas. Young people, mostly. Students, probably. They were all lined up in anticipation of something. I asked what was up and was told it was a “community” meeting. I’m in the community; I’d like to go see how this plays out. I did have an inkling of what the “community” meant. But I decided that it was easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission so as the line moved I allowed myself to be swept up with it, the only white for as far as I could see among what must have been at least 5,000 Chinese students. I attached myself to one of my less-than-sharp former graduate students in meaningless conversation as the line folded up their rain wear as they filed up an endless set of increasingly wet sports stadium stairs. Everyone fell into the bleachers.

 

Some students had hidden English language articles – obviously homework – in their readers. From where I sat I could see the handouts were on topics like free markets. Other kids were dozing in the first hour. On the stage below were seven men in suits who sat behind a long table covered with a red tablecloth. There were plants in front of it. Behind them was a slogan in Chinese that purported the latest theme of the Communist Party. After a song or two (I suspect we were supposed to be singing Internationale, or the national anthem or both, hard for me to distinguish one from another in Chinese) Everyone took out little booklets – the sort a proctor will hand out for an exam – and started writing down what the folks in the front were saying. Or, made it look like they were.

 

It was like a huge class, or a mega church meeting. What it was was a meeting of the Fudan University Communist Party. So terribly boring for everyone. People started filing out when I left an hour later. Apparently everyone hates these things but they have to go if they join. “Why don’t you all get together and change the rules?” I asked just to provoke those around me. Apparently that idea hasn’t yet caught on.

 

I’m told the frequency of meetings has increased. At the English language library on campus they were usually held on Tuesday afternoon, thus closing down access for that period.

 

My friend, whose husband works at a newspaper where everyone disappears for these mandatory weekly meetings — he is not a party member so he doesn’t have to go — asks “Who is going to do the work while all of you are out at meetings?”

 

My students have asked me for leave so they can attend their own meetings that are held during my class. I have told them that they have already made a choice: they must decide for themselves if it’s more important to go, but they will not be excused and it will effect their grade if they leave. It has been a curious conflict for them to resolve: Western teaching methods of personal responsibility versus the promise of adhering to regimented collectivism of a bygone age.