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State-owned faces? Or is it a psychological identity?

Updated: 2013-10-17 22:08
By Ni Wei (

"Beijing has over 30 million people living here and you only set up one single station to fix the subway card? Do you know how big of a waste this is? What the heck are you doing?"

This is an excerpt from a micro blog written by a journalist that went viral on Sina Weibo entitled, "why I scolded a pretty girl in the Beijing subway". Yang Wanguo had an unpleasant encounter with a subway worker last Friday and later went online to complain.

It started when Yang discovered that his subway card was demagnetized. He asked a subway employee to help him fix the card. The worker, Yang said, gave him a cold look.

"Go to Xi'dan," she said.

The worker refused to help Yang and tossed his card out the window. Yang said his card was not broken but only demagnetized, while the worker insisted she was only capable of selling tickets and could not fix the card. Yang got angry and began scolding the woman.

Yang later explained that his anger was not directed at the subway worker. "I am sure this pretty girl is kind, hospitable and responsible when facing her father, her boyfriend and her family. But why on earth does she get a 'State-owned face' when she is sitting at that desk behind the window?"

"State-owned faces", as Yang describes, are the faces of those who work for State-owned enterprises and governmental organizations. Since they work for agencies that are free from market supervision, they are normally seen as arrogant, impatient, not considerate and lazy. "Everyone in China has experienced that face. Think about those who sell tickets in the railway station," Yang said.

Yang said the system twists people's natural kindness and unleashes the evilness.

Yang's original micro blog has been forwarded more than 40,000 times. He said he's unsure whether it's fair to scold a subway employee who doesn't have a say in how the system operates. One thing is for sure: Those "state-owned faces" that Yang described are all to familiar to Chinese.

It happens when we want to get a certain certificate, when we try to get our passport checked, when we need to buy train tickets. A proper feedback mechanism doesn't exist, so it's no wonder workers inside those places leave bad impressions. And more often than not, the bad impressions check out.

There are many factors that contribute to that phenomenon. Psychologically speaking, it has something to do with how workers identify their roles and how they connect to that. For example, the pretty lady being scolded in the subway might identify herself as a trivial actor who only has to sell tickets.

The woman's role isn't to improve the entire service; just to sell tickets. But to Yang, the worker represented more than a ticket. She represented the whole subway system.

Pan Shiyi, CEO of the Soho China, wrote on his micro blog that he went to 11 different departments to change his sister's residence registration. Pan later added, "Sorry that I didn't say it clearly. That was in 1976."

In some ways, government organizations are no more efficient today than they were 30 years ago. The Henan Business Daily reported that a mother-to-be in Zhengzhou has been trying to get a birth certificate from a hospital since she got pregnant. Four months later, she still hasn't received one.

Netizens blame corruption-ridden systems in China for the low efficiency. Psychologically speaking, it is unfair to categorize this "phenomenon" as another "thing with Chinese characteristics". It might be human instinct to behave differently after being accustomed to a certain role.

While America boasts their efficiency inside governmental organizations, they have their own rub. The conflict between prison guards and prisoners is a constant pain.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted at Stanford University on Aug 14, 1971, by a team of researchers. Twenty-four male students that were all psychologically healthy and stable were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

The participants adapted to their roles well beyond expectations after few days, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and abused some of the prisoners even to the degree of psychological torture.

The prison guards accepted their new identification, and many of the prisoners also passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, harassed other prisoners who intended to prevent it. The experiment even affected the designer himself. Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor who acted as "superintendent", permitted the abuse to continue.

It is not hard to guess the result of the experiment. Two of the prisoners quit it early, and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. It is strong evidence that "State-owned faces" has its doppelganger in foreign countries. Can we call it "prison guards faces"?

It is interesting when people dress a certain uniform and identify themselves as a certain role, they might begin to adopt the behavioral pattern that comes with it. Some officials inside the Chinese government still have those old mindsets that government officials are the "parents" of the people.

While waiting for the system to change, why not think about a quick fix to this situation that might ease the tensions. Civil servants should adopt new roles that they are the servants to the people, but not a top-down supervisor.

Only when they really identify themselves with that role can they truly be helpful to people in need. Agencies should also equip their staff with necessary training sessions as to cultivate those roles. That sense should be instilled gradually. And, certain feedback systems should be incorporated for the public to rate and criticize, but not the other way around.

I hope one day names like "State-owned faces" will disappear. I hope one day everyone in China doesn't have to put up with officials who don't truly care about the public. And I hope that day is not far away.

The author is an intern writer for China Daily.