Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Welfare and the Leviathan

"If there is no God, everything is permitted." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

During our first long road trip we visited three friends who we knew in Guangzhou. Two were students and one was a staff member who decided to emigrate with his wife. Each meeting brought different responses into that question of how it is to live in New Zealand and what discoveries had been made. The youngest, whom I'll call Vinni, was the most interesting to speak to, although for all the wrong reasons. He was in his last weeks of his three week stint in New Zealand to study:

"Are you sad to leave?" I asked in English.
"It's hard to say," he replied in Cantonese, in a tone which was obviously meaning he was happy to leave. New Zealand is not his cup of pu'erh tea. And the fact that a student of English answers in a Chinese way is analogous to how he handles the questions posed by life abroad. 

Vinni had been a popular student among teachers. He was apparently approachable, chatty but scratch the surface and you'll find many interesting views. When asked what he wanted to do once he finished his studies he'd replied: "I want to be a landlord." I had only met him once or twice before he headed to New Zealand, and then he came to our reception in Auckland, flying up from New Zealand. He gave us ornate Dragon Phoenix cups as a gift, which was very kind. He had a lot of expensive antiques in his family home in Guangzhou.

It was once he was in New Zealand that I started to frown a little more when I heard his words.
"New Zealand is very corrupt," he mentioned in a text exchange. He went on to explain that there was a student who failed a course and went to the lecturer to cry about her grade and was subsequently allowed to pass. In another incident which irked him, a fellow international student did his own translation of a prerequisite document, explaining that there were no notary offices in his small home country. Vinni railed that this country and society was fit for cheating, that any sensible person would take the chance. And Vinni was sensible.

We contacted him before we returned: "I'm in your industry, too, now," he messaged. He'd set up a business to do the homework that other international students were too lazy or merely unable to do. It was a lucrative loop-niche. He was a very smart person. Later when we finally met him in Wellington, he mentioned that he was invited to a dinner at the Beehive (which he pronounced "behave"). A Green party MP was the main host, but he couldn't remember the name. 

In English the word smart is partially synonymous with shrewd and cunning. Chinese has a word that covers all these:  精明. Some of the 精明 behaviours are sometimes unethical or even illegal in western eyes, though. As we chatted over brunch, he listed more things: No one forces businesses to pay GST, so many don't. In fact, one one guy earned a lot of GST free money and kept it in cash on his roof, only for it to be stolen. All $200,000 of it. But the theft wasn't reported because of the questions that might lead the victim into a legal corner. He showed a picture of a set of charity Christmas gifts given to some well-off recent immigrants. Apparently they didn't have jobs and noted a way to get access to Christmas welfare gifts. The way he said it was the key, though: He didn't look down on these 精明 people in these cases. He looked down on the system and society that allowed it.

I said my views on this: We live in a society where there is trust - it's a beautiful thing. This kind of behaviour will slowly destroy it and ruin the image of Chinese (most of the examples he raised were done by Chinese). I mentioned the case from several years ago of a tour group being scheduled into a Christmas charity lunch for the needy, and the impact that it had. You have to fight through paperwork, bureaucracy, rolled eyes, queues, expense to do simple things in China because of that lack of social and bureaucratic trust. Would anyone want that really? 
"New Zealand will be like that in ten or twenty years, just like China," he commented later echoing my sentiment. I tried to bite my lip because he wasn't my friend and it was the wrong place. (I only speak English to students, whether they be current or former, and we were in a public place where if I got excited I might say things to implicate others.) I suddenly wanted to release my inner racist mockery, channelling an old white conservative like my father, and tell him and his kind to go back to China, but of course he already was.

He elaborated back on the story about going to the "Behave". Anyone could go in. The security was light. There was no awe to be had in its simple democratic openness. A single Xinjiang/Urewera separatist or ISIS freedom blighter could take out the leadership. The same could never happen in China, where even symbols have the highest security, and the leadership is barely seen. (Everyone dropped their chopsticks when Xi Jinping had his baozi moment.) 

The quote in the beginning comes from a Dostoevsky book, The Brothers Karamazov:

"Rakitin now—he doesn't like God, doesn't like Him at all. To people like him, God is a sore spot. But they hide it, they lie, they pretend. 'Will you,' I asked him, 'try to develop these ideas in your literary criticism?' 'They won't let me do it too openly,' he said, and laughed. 'But tell me,' I asked him, 'what will happen to men? If there's no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn't that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?' 'Didn't you know that already?' he said and laughed again. 'An intelligent man can do anything he likes as long as he's clever enough to get away with it. But you, you got caught after you killed, so today you have to rot in prison.' He's real swine to say that to my face; a few months ago I used to throw people like that out of the window. But now I just sit and listen to him."

I think that about him and a lot of people: they somewhere lost their God (which I'll say is their conscience toward any kind of idealised good), they need or worship Leviathanesque power to keep them in check because they themselves cannot. Without scrutiny you are free to take. The welfare they exploit is paid with, not by "the country" but by the taxes they're avoiding. I was glad when that conversation was over so I could get some free air. He was also a 富二代, second generation rich, the son of a highly placed civil servant and expectations of life are quite different.

The other two Chinese friends we saw were adapting well and enjoying the new environment and thriving, paying tax and embracing the difference. 

On a slightly different story, I saw a comment on Facebook from some childhood friends that I couldn't help cringe at. They'd bemoaned the fact that they need to pay a holiday service charge "even" on their fruit smoothie from TANK. There has been a failure somewhere in education, eastern or western, to know that it isn't all take-take-take, whether by them or us. Take your time and a half and pay your holiday service fees.

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