Collective Punishment, Chinese Style

This is something I wrote a year ago, but it’s still a good read:

I live in a private housing development on the west side of Beijing.  Private housing developments are a relatively new phenomenon in this "socialist" country, but they are beginning to sprout up around town (like weeds, actually, and with funny names, but that will be the topic of another post another day). This development consists of 18 high-rise towers set in a nicely manicured compound, or campus.  It is definitely up-scale, and the people who live here seem to have a lot of money.  Except for yours truly, of course.  My neighbors come and go in their SUV’s and Mercedes and Land Rovers, but I have my trusty Giant 15 speed bicycle.

In the days before housing was privitized (beginning in 1997), the government was responsible to provide housing for urban Chinese via their work units (places of employment).  Work units built and maintained apartment buildings and distributed them to their workers.  Rent was minimal ( a few dollars per month), and the work unit was responsible to provide heat, water, and electricity at no charge to the residents.  The conditions were barely decent, but the apartments were practically free.  There are still housing developments owned and managed by work units, but even their workers now must purchase them, albeit at subsidized prices. 

Now, with the work units no longer responsible for providing the utilities free of charge, and the proliferation of private developments, new systems of payment have had to be devised. In most cases, the management company of the development collects the fees for heating and water from the apartment owners and turns them over to the water or heating company in one lump sum.  It seems workable, but….

Two days ago, when I entered the lobby of my building I spotted a giant sheet of poster paper glued (yes glued) to the marble wall.  Actually, it reminded me of execution notices that I used to see in Zhengzhou 20 years ago.  A notice announcing the name of a criminal and his crimes would be pasted on the wall outside our school.  Over the person’s name was a giant red checkmark, indicating that the person was to be executed.  Obviously, then, this giant notice in the lobby of my building caught my eye, and I hoped it wasn’t signalling that a neighbor was a serial killer.  I walked over to check it out and was able to get the gist: apparantly many many residents of this complex had not paid their hot water bill, so the management company had not paid the hot water company.  In an attempt to force the home-owners to pay up, the water company had announced that if they didn’t receive payment by the 27th, they were going to turn off all the hot water to the entire complex.  This is the collective punishment!  If some don’t pay their bills, then on one gets the hot water.  It’s that simple.

Sure enough, the next morning when I turned on the hot water, all I got was gurgling!  I called my landlady, Mrs. Li, to verify what was going on.  Yes, she told me, the hot water had been turned off to all 18 towers because some hadn’t paid their bills (she being one of them!). I told her that this was very bad news, especially since I had guests in town for the weekend and it was going to be terribly embarrassing for me to have guests and not have them be able to shower.  Well, that was enough to send the deep-seated sense of Confucian hospitality into high gear, and before I knew what was happening she was at my door with a brand-spanking new water heater (we call them "shower boxes." They’re hot water tanks mounted high on a wall).  The worker set about mounting this monstrosity on the wall of the bathroom and installing a second faucet. Once he had gone, Mrs. Li took me into the bathroom to show me how it worked, whereupon a pipe came loose and started spewing water all over us.  Mr. Installation Man hadn’t tightened the bolts properly!  Meanwhile, my guests are in the living room laughing hysterically at Mrs. Li and I wrestling with the shower box. We finally got the bolts tightened, and she was on her way. 

And now I no longer worry when the hot water goes off (as it has done 2 times since then).

Now, let’s just hope that everyone pays their heating bills…..