By Isabella Tianzi Cai
U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke’s recent arrival in Beijing generated intense discussions among Chinese nationals about how Chinese civil servants compare unfavorably to their American counterparts. As reported in a September 20th article in The Wall Street Journal’s blog “China Real Time Report,” the central government and its affiliated media bodies such as the Guangming Daily and the Xinhua News Agency tried to cast aspersions over the political motives behind the U.S. government’s choice of a Chinese-American ambassador. But Chinese online netizens focused on something entirely different. After seeing photos of Locke buying his own coffee and carrying his own bags, and learning that he flew coach to China, Chinese web commentators assailed their civil servants for squandering taxpayers’ money on ridiculously extravagant meals, cars, and the like, and for shirking physical work and other chores that they consider to be below their dignity.
Zhou Hao’s 2011 documentary The Transition Period, which will be playing next Monday in Chicago’s Doc Films series on Chinese independent cinema, looks at the working life of one typical Chinese civil servant by the name of Guo Yongchang before his transfer to a new post within the Chinese government. Shot over the last three months of Guo working as the party secretary of the Committee of the Communist Party of Gushi County in Xinyang Municipality of Henan Province, this documentary presents different facets of Guo’s work as a medium- to low-level Chinese civil servant in a leading position. This article aims at laying out some groundwork in China’s political system and its political environment for first-time viewers of the documentary, as sometimes the stories in the documentary are more complicated than their presentations. (Spoilers may follow.)