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Against the wall

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2011-12-09 10:43

Against the wall

The country's social ladder has much to do with its physical partitions.

Dec 2 brought the first snow of the year-end season in Beijing. He Bing, deputy dean of the law school of China University of Political Science and Law, drove to the campus of the Communication University of China to give a lecture to its PhD students. He was stopped at the south gate. Because the student who met him at the gate did not obtain the permit in advance, He was not allowed to drive onto the campus. He tried to explain the situation to the security guard and showed his business card. But the guard did not budge. In the end, he had to use a side entrance.

The incident did not become a teacup storm until He complained on his micro blog: "Do you think you're protecting Zhongnanhai?"

He was referring to the compound of the country's top leadership.

Against the wall

Not missing a beat, a senior Communication University officer defended the guard's action, saying it was the right thing to do.

This opened a can of worms that includes the debate over whether a law professor should breach a campus rule. Whether he was right or wrong, He touched a nerve when he argued for more "openness" among China's higher learning institutions.

In Chinese culture, the university is the ultimate ivory tower, secluded from the outside world's turmoil.

Students and teachers are supposed to bury themselves in academic pursuits and ignore the vanities of the world.

Even though the reality has long proven otherwise, this antiquated notion that the college campus is a space of relative purity, morally or intellectually, has somehow stuck.

A crime that takes place within the confines of a university tends to make headlines, while the same incident might as well be submerged in the metro section if it happens off-campus. By contrast, if this unfortunate story happens in a prestigious place like Peking University, it could end up with a week's coverage and mounds of commentary.

When I was a college student 30 years ago, schools were even stricter with their gate entrance policy.

All students had to wear their school badges, and outsiders had to register before entering.

Nowadays, much of the psychological wall has been removed. One does not need to complete any paperwork to sit in on most classes or lectures in the nation's ivory towers. If you do not care for accumulating credits, you can pretty much take any course you like.

But the physical wall is another matter. It is unlikely - at least not in the foreseeable future - that college campuses in China will blend into the rest of an urban or a suburban landscape the way a typical US-based university does. For one thing, a school does not want to share its resources, such as canteens with subsidized food or sports facilities that are only available to the faculty and the student body. In the case of the Communication University, this applies to its driveways and parking lots, which are next to a very busy boulevard.

The main unit of a Chinese society may well be the danwei - a business entity, government agency or a school.

A person's position in society is often defined by his or her danwei, which often has a gated compound and, in the old days, vertical plaques painted in white with black words on them.

You may drive around a city but see little other than these endless compound walls.

In the 1980s, I happened to walk along a city street for years without knowing there was a park on one side - until one day I studied the map.

There were as many as 25,000 danwei compounds in Beijing alone by the late 1980s, Chinese National Geographic reports. These were social entities of their own, with their own clinics and kindergartens. None of their resources were shared with the society at large.

Economically, they negated the trickle-down effect, preventing the affluence of a danwei from spreading to neighboring areas.

Geographically, they cut short many road systems, rendering many otherwise perfect streets into cul-de-sacs. If roads are arteries, urban China is clogged with danwei compounds that stop life and vitality from freely flowing.

In some towns dominated by one big danwei, there was not even much intermarriage between those inside the compound and those outside.

Nowadays, many of these compound walls have turned into iron fences, through which you can at least see the small garden and other details of the danwei. A typical city view has become more diverse and interesting.

However, the guards still occupy their posts, and some of the walls crowned with broken glass, which serves the same function as barbed wire, are an ugly reminder of a past era.

A city in a Western country may also have gated communities and security guards. But nowhere is it as pervasive as in China.

The danwei compound is for more than security. It is almost a symbol of social status - something akin to the height of an office tower for a multinational corporation.

The stricter the rules of entrance, the higher the position danwei usually occupies on the social pecking order.

I was once asked to talk about a new opera production at a radio station. I had to go through three security checks.

By the last one, my paperwork was not sufficient, and the host had to run around getting it for me. The show was about to start, but the guard would not let me in, even when the host pleaded with him. I missed the first five minutes of the live show.

There is something in the Chinese mentality that resembles Robert Frost's neighbor.

"Good fences make good neighbors" is a nice way to put it. We need to wall in our little perks, the comfort of private walkways and gardens, and maybe a shield from the hustle and bustle - and the more palpable pollution - of the streets.

We want to wall out anything that does not belong, especially society's unsavory elements.

As a matter of fact, unauthorized vehicles are called "society vehicles" in Chinese, which must befuddle many a Western visitor when translated verbatim.

The inaccessibility of the Chinese danwei is exemplified by the Forbidden City, which is not only one large compound with a 3,400-meter-by-10-meter wall and a moat but also numerous smaller compounds within larger ones. It was a privilege to enter the premises, and the deeper you could go, the more important you were. Those at the center of power were totally impenetrable by either public gaze or stray bullets.

The Great Wall was not erected to bring together tourists the world over. Its purpose was to stop northern invaders - bad neighbors who were to give offense, to paraphrase Frost's poem - from pillaging and plundering the Central Plains. It's an irony that the 8,851-km structure has morphed into an attraction of the best kind.

Fences and walls do serve a legitimate purpose. We are not living in a utopia and should not assume the best intentions of every passerby.

That said, we should take steps to move toward equality for all.

A college classroom that takes in non-students may cause a little inconvenience for the students properly enrolled in the course but the long-term benefits of educating a larger slice of the demographic pie outweigh the annoyance of part of the student body.

Likewise, a residential compound may have claim to a playground on its premises but occasionally letting in a neighbor or two would not create much trouble.

There's so much inequity in the distribution of social resources that the occasional circumvention of some dubious rules may help with the balance of power and the creation of harmony in society.

In a bigger picture, we are all neighbors.