Back From the Brink
By Zhao Guangming, China
At the beginning of the 1980s, I was in my 30s and was working for an architectural design company. I considered myself to be young and fit, treated people with loyalty and respect, and did my work responsibly. My architect skills were also top-notch, and I was sure that I was going places in the company and that once my career really took off I would be living like a prince. This was my goal and so I stayed with the company and worked hard for many years. But despite my impeccable caliber, in both character and professional skills, my efforts never seemed to be recognized by the company, which is something I never understood. The top salary grade in our company was grade 6, but my salary never got above grade 3. I watched a number of colleagues, who had neither my skills nor my time served in the company, get pay raises, but it never happened to me. I was puzzled and resentful about why they got raises and I didn’t. Finally, one of the colleagues who I got along with quite well gave me a tip: “In this company, the most important thing is to butter up the manager by giving him gifts at Chinese New Year and other festivals.” On hearing this, I finally understood the real reason why I had been overlooked by the company, and the injustice of it made me furious. But although I hated those ass kissers in the company, and had even less time for the colleagues who did little work but still got ahead by using underhand methods, I needed to firm up my standing and so I had to adapt to these unwritten rules. So the next time Chinese New Year came along I “expressed my heartfelt good wishes” to the manager and was immediately promoted to team leader.
As team leader, I worked even harder and more conscientiously. I would go to the construction sites to strictly supervise and guide the work and make sure the project targets were met. I also made worker safety one of my top concerns, and my work attitude and professional guidance were universally praised by the workers in my team. But none of this mattered much when it came to keeping or firing team leaders—what counted most was the value of the gifts each team leader gave to the manager. To survive in the company I had no choice but to be a part of this culture, which gave me first-hand experience of the cruelty and helplessness embodied in the law of nature that “Natural selection ensures only the fittest survive.”
In the years following, economic reforms and a loosening of restrictions by the government led to large-scale construction projects being undertaken all over China. My company thus began to allocate projects to individuals, which meant that the team leaders had to compete for the contracts. This meant even more giving of gifts and building of connections, and whenever we team leaders heard that a government unit had a project up for tender we would scramble to get our gifts to the officials in charge as soon as possible. In order not to put these senior officials in a difficult position, we gift givers went to great lengths to find out what they wanted and how it should be delivered. Sometimes we put gold inside of fish or chickens; sometimes we gave cash; sometimes it was gold jewelry or diamond rings. I also got caught up in this culture of bribery, and spent many hours thinking of what gifts to give to toady up to these officials. Eventually, I won a contract with much difficulty, but no sooner had we started work than officials from the Construction Bureau, the Construction Design Institute, and the General Administration of Quality Supervision—as well as local government officials—all came along to “supervise” the work. They said there was this or that problem with the site, that such and such was not up to standard, and after a whole morning of inspections we still couldn’t start work. I immediately invited them all out for a boozy lunch at a classy restaurant, a meal which cost me thousands of yuan. And at the end of the meal I gave bribes to each one of them: 2,000 yuan for the junior officials and 5–10,000 yuan to the senior ones. It was the only way to get their approval for work to continue. But even after work started these supervisory agencies still regularly sent inspectors to inspect the project. They called these inspections “routine” but in fact they were just another excuse to squeeze us for more money. Every time they visited the site, I was busy, before and after, arranging meals and drinks to entertain them, and these cadres from the supervisory agencies even found reasons to get me to go with them to shopping malls where they would shop for designer garments and expect me to pick up the bill. Sometimes they were even bold enough to say they were hard up and ask me directly for cash to spend. In order to keep the project on track, all I could do was grind my teeth, swallow my anger, and be nice to them. Even worse was that for a long time I had to go drinking with these cadres in the red-light districts and often didn’t get enough rest, with the result that I got stomach problems, high blood pressure, and always felt exhausted. When the project was finally completed and I had been paid, I discovered that I’d hardly made any money. At that time I really wanted to cry. Faced with such a hard way to make a living I thought: “Why is it so difficult for me to make money by relying on my skills and hard work? How come these department leaders, part of the national government, are so corrupt?” I felt extremely helpless in the face of these issues but I had no other choice but to pin all my hopes of making money onto these officials. I had originally reckoned that building good relationships with them would also be building the foundations for the development of my career, and it never occurred to me that all I was doing was sinking deeper into a slimy pit of evil and bringing about my own downfall.
In 1992, after a complex and difficult process I won the contract for a construction project in the city, expecting that the project would earn some money for me. Just when I was enthusiastically putting my all into preparations for the start of work my manager told me that I had to first build a villa for each of 4 city officials. He said this was a good opportunity regarding my career development, and that doing a favor for the city officials would guarantee that I would never be short of projects in the future and would soon be living the good life. With a heart brimming with hope I took out a loan from the bank, and also borrowed money from friends and relatives and other sources to raise enough capital to build the 4 villas. But just as the building work was nearing completion officials from the Commission for Discipline Inspection showed up, and I had to spend more money to smooth things over and protect the 4 city officials. But in the end all of my efforts were unable to keep the long arm of the law away from them: Because of accepting bribes they were prosecuted by the prosecutor’s office. So all of my fine plans went up in smoke, and the 4 unfinished villas were confiscated by the authorities. I lost several hundred thousand yuan, and the inexpressible bitterness sat in my belly like a heavy rock.
In my state of helplessness I could only pin my hopes on another construction project. In order to pay off my debts I started to do something that I’d never done before in my whole career, the thing I was most unwilling to do—cutting corners and using inferior materials. Instead of using national standard steel I started using 2nd grade stuff, and instead of bundles of 6 rebars in the concrete I started using bundles of 4, thus reducing my steel costs by a third. I also mixed inferior concrete to further reduce my overall costs. To be honest, every time I did this my heart was in my mouth because I was terrified that the quality of the finished construction would be seriously affected. And when I heard reports of shoddy constructions all over China that had collapsed and killed, injured and bankrupted so many ordinary citizens I would get particularly anxious and have nightmares. It even got to the point where the sound of thunder was like an announcement of my impending doom, perhaps by being struck by lightning or something. Fear stalked me every day. This situation caused me to eventually fall ill, and my high blood pressure led to frequent dizziness, headaches, insomnia etc. I was tormenting myself, both physically and spiritually, and life became a living hell for me. This is how I lost myself in worldly trends and sank deeper and deeper into that slimy pit of evil. But I never expected that when the project was half done the unit I was doing it for would refuse to pay me as agreed in the contract. The loan I’d gotten from the bank wasn’t enough to cover the workers’ wages, so I had no choice but to take out a high-interest loan with a loan shark. After more twists and turns, I finally found out that the contracting unit was already heavily in debt and had no way to finance that construction project. So another of my projects failed, and I racked my brains for a way to make some good of it. I was totally exhausted and was living in absolute desperation. Then I heard news about a team leader in another company who had taken out a huge loan and was unable to repay it and had ended up hanging himself. It felt like I too was standing at the gates of hell with no way out. Following that, the creditors started coming to my house to get repaid: Some of them lay on my bed and refused to leave; some of them kicked up a fuss and threatened me. I was as polite and humble as I could be with them, and felt totally humiliated. Even my closest relatives thought that I was not going to repay them and started giving me the cold shoulder. It was during those days that I truly experienced how cold society can be. I recalled all those years of hustle and bustle that had not only left me penniless but had also left me physically and mentally exhausted and with debts of several hundred thousand yuan to boot. I looked up at the sky and let out a long sigh while saying: “Old Man in the Sky, this is just too hard. I really don’t want to live any longer!”