Thursday, January 22, 2009

Military Madness

I watched the "changing of the walkie-talkies" for the last time at China Daily today. On February 1 I report to my new "danwei" {work unit) where the guards have real guns, not walkies-talkies.

One of the first sights that greeted me when I first reported to work 11 months ago was a quasi-military garbed security guard* (see comment by Jaxxson below) at the gated entrance standing like a Buckingham Palace guard in a visored cap that made him look like a 3rd world generalissimo. (In winter they switch to black furry Russian style headgear) I've worked at one other paper on the Chinese mainland, one in Hong Kong, a brief stint a Voice of America in Hong Kong and six papers in the US - while about half had security guards, none had soliders. About 40 yards from PLA guard No 1 was his counterpart standing at the door. Both had ramrods-up-their-spine postures and stared blankly straight ahead, but I quickly figured out that they weren't as trained as the UK counterparts when I saluted the gate guard and he cracked a smile.

Closer inspection showed too that these are likely 19-20 year olds, probably fresh off some rural farming area and eager to make a break to the big city. They shove each other and giggle while walking in line their camo fatigues carrying basins of dirty laundry to and from their barracks inside the China Daily building.

Another light relief at China Daily was at 10am and 4pm when the guards changed; marching in lock-step to salute and formally hand off, not or rifles or pistols, but walkie-talkies.

At other designated times inside this bastion of liberty and information, pairs march precisely down the halls in white combat helmets and clipboards to ensure lights are on or off and that most exits, including fire exits, are locked.

"Helmets? Why do they need helmets to check doors?" another foreign worker asked me as we watched them solemnly and crisply make their appointed rounds.

"I'm wondering why they need to lock the fire exits in formation," I replied. "We have one open exit on the first floor. One exit to the stairs per floor and all others are locked on all six floors. No sprinklers anywhere. It's a death trap in a fire."

"Communism," he chuckled. "One dies, we all die together."

It's cute and odd and also initially a little chilling to work in a quasi military newspaper environment as an American civilian, but ulimately it becomes normal. None of the Chinese coworkers see it as strange, of course.

Then I paid a visit to my next newspaper here and noted that the compound it's in is a quasi-fortress, the size of a small Nevada, Wyoming or New Mexico town. A seige mentality. Completely surrounded by blocks and blocks of wall and guarded at all four north, south, east, west gates by soldiers with - not walkie talkies - but pistols. My "handler" as I refer to the woman who recruited me and guides me in and out of the compound found my observation rather boring but expressed surprise that China Daily's guards aren't armed.

"What if there is trouble?" she asked.

"From who? What?" I asked. "Angry readers? Not allowed. All China Daily readers are happy!"

I talked with her later about the differences between how China views its military and the US. While it's a given that US citizen support the troops, there's also always a line between the two worlds - civilian and military. In China military singers and dancers are routinely a part of many variety shows and one of the most popular female singers for the middle aged and older generations is a woman named Song Zuying who routinely dresses in a naval officer's uniform bedecked with ribbons as testimony to her former service with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Naval Political Department Sing and Dance Troupe.

Song is also widely rumored to have served her country as mistress to ex-president Jiang Zemin. As my handler and I dished about Song and the former prez I asked, "Where did she win all those ribbons and medals? She never saw any military action."

She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand momentarily. "For action in President Jiang's bed, of course."


craig said...

Nice postings. I wish you would write more.

Jaxxson said...

The China Daily's guards are not PLA soldiers. They are security guards. Another Justin error -- but sounds better that way, right?

Justin said...

Thanks for the correction, Jaxxson.
I do appreciate it and have made the correction.

Ben said...


We've gone back in postings a month....

Ok, what happened this time. Did you tread on somewons political toes?

Or, like some Rod Serling mindwarp, were the last few blogs only my imagination? If so, I should write them down, just like one of those dreams we wake up from realizing that "I've solved all the problems of humanity!!"...and then drift off for another few zz's....

Anonymous said...

I apologise, but, in my opinion, you are mistaken.