By Harry Hodge
So I used to work in Beijing. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… It’s a good one. I was employe by the China Daily, a propaganda outlet for the Chinese government as a “foreign expert,” employed to make the content more readable/digestable/palatable on behalf of the nation’s regime in getting their message across. Helping to take headlines like “Taiwan must cease splittist activities and admit it’s illegitimacy as a nation” a little more … readable. I’d love to tell you this ate away at me inside, but really… If it wasn’t me, someone else would have done the same job. Possibly better.
Anyway, this is not the point of the article. The thing I learned in Beijing was that the Chinese were big on face. You know, like never owning up to your mistakes, saying you were in error put you beneath those around you, etc. This impacted the workplace in a number of ways: Since it was 2003, the impending Olympics were a big deal, and I saw in our schedule of stories (the “sked”) that three different sections had a story about the Birds’ Nest Stadium. Sports, business and Page One. How did this happen? Talking to other sections about their story lineups was beneath most editors, so it rarely happened. Only when the lao wei (white ghost/devil (foreigner)) noticed it would it become an issue.
Yeah yeah, get to the point, I hear you asking. I’m writing today because I had to perform a “self-scrutiny” while I was there, and only realized it once I left the country. In a society where admitting you’re wrong is tantamount to social suicide, the notion is so terrifying to most people that they’ll go their whole lives without ever doing it. While working there, I read a book called Red Dust, written by exiled poet Ma Jian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jun/10/travel.travelbooks
A fascinating read. This guy was an artist who was basically subverted to the nation’s sizable propaganda machine, and forced to be accountable for any “wrongdoings” that others reported about him to his superiors. He then basically faked a sexual illness and took off to wander the nation. But what I carried with me to this day is the idea that using your mistakes against you was considered the best method to control the workforce. This couldn’t be further from the truth; its value lies in improving the workforce. China is onto something; they’ve just been applying it the wrong way.
My missing identity book
During my time in Beijing in 2003/2004, I got glimmers of this concept of “face” and “self-scrutiny.” I heard about something occurring in another department, where an editor learned he had printed something either factually inaccurate or politically inconvenient to the government, which of course ran the paper that employed us. He was forced to “admit wronghood” to his department, akin to career suicide in a place like China.
It only touched me as a “foreign expert” working there when I drunkenly misplaced my “identity book” less than a month before the completion of my contract. It’s like an ID card, with your name translated into Pinyin Chinese in case you are ever somewhere you’re not supposed to be. I discovered I’d left it somewhere, and in a city that could be anywhere; an alley, the hot dog stand outside a club/brothel near the Workers’ Stadium; on a subway train. Who knows?
I was told to go to the police station to sort it out, as I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country without dealing with not having an identity! So when I got to the cop shop, I was handed forms that detailed the disappearance of the document, time and date, etc. And I was asked to sign this one particular form, which made me cock an eyebrow.
ME: “What’s this one for?”
OFFICIAL: “Oh, that’s your apology. It’ll run in every paper in the country.”
ME: ” Say what now? Apology for what?”
OFFICIAL: “For losing your book.”
This is when I lost it. I howled with laughter, incredulous. “Are you serious?” I asked. The official clearly couldn’t have been more serious. And not only was I going to sign it, I was going to be billed $50 for the privilege! For the chance to be shamed in publications across a nation of a billion plus people? Awesome, where do I sign?
Misunderstanding its usefulness
Right then and there, I understood that my hosts had been doing it all wrong for generations. Now, hear me out on this one. How many times in the past have we known that if someone had just owned up to their error, we could have saved considerable time and money not only correcting the issue, but looking at how other individuals, groups or nations are making similar mistakes.
This isn’t a vice; this is an undiscovered goldmine!
Imagine all the times in the past you did some dumb-ass thing! That ugly “Chip and Pepper” T-shirt you bought – you could have returned it and got your $30 back and gotten a new shirt. But your pride got in the way and you wore it, no matter how ugly, impressing no one but your ego in justifying your purchase.
That’s on a personal level. Imagine if private individuals, companies, or nations had a “self-scrutiny” arm to call them on dumb-ass decisions and shutting them down before getting any further? How many lives could benefit? How much money and time could you save?
I’m not joking when I talk about this; I believe this is a career of the future. This is the sort of thing that can save companies billions of dollars and minimize “loss of face.” Only in the last year or so have I recognized the value of what a self-scrutiny can do on a personal level.
So I’m putting this out there as a call to firms and nations around the world. Think you mighta fucked up? Hire me as your agent of “self-scrutiny” and I’ll turn your sinking ship around before it hits the iceberg of “pride” and becomes the Titanic! Holla at yo’ boy at @hodgedude on Twitter or message me here. You won’t be disappointed!