Tea Leaf Nation

A Peculiar Phrase Finds a Home in China

Frustration at 'Catch-22's' are a common part of life here.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING — For those Chinese who have carried their tales of woe for hundreds of miles and suffered numerous bureaucratic setbacks, this seems like mockery. On April 23, China passed a new law banning petitioners from taking grievances to the central government without first trying to resolve them with local officials, even though the petitioning system, which dates back to imperial times, is supposed to allow individuals to appeal directly to higher authorities when they bump up against local bureaucracy. This latest restriction, with the ostensible goal of "streamlining the petitioning system," all but extinguishes the last hope for many desperate for a sympathetic ear from above. In fact, the petitioning system is blinkered enough that Wang Lin, a law professor at Hainan University, called it a judicial "Catch-22" in a September 2011 essay published in popular newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily.

Over time, public frustration in China with smothering red tape has helped popularize a decades-old U.S. concept. In the 1961 classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a U.S. military regulation stipulates that a pilot is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions; but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. The term Catch-22 has long since become U.S. slang for an absurd and self-defeating rule; now, perhaps as a sign of the times, it is entering Chinese slang as well. A recent search on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, found over 4.9 million mentions of the term, which literally translates as "military rule clause 22."

While, for outside observers, the abuse of Chinese authority implicates high-flying officials and gargantuan sums — on March 30, Reuters reported that Chinese authorities seized $14.5 billion worth of assets from family members and associates of Zhou Yongkang, China’s former top security official — most Chinese do not experience the wantonness of power as attention-grabbing headlines. For a petitioner lining up outside Beijing’s State Bureau of Letters and Calls (the highest rung in the petitioning ladder), or a newspaper editor grappling with the baffling intention of the latest censorship directive, or a migrant worker sifting through layers of bureaucratese to decipher the conditions he must fulfill to gain an urban residency status, a different culprit bedevils daily life: the onerous laws and nonsensical policies baked into many forms of Chinese social control.

According to a report by China Central Television, China’s state-owned television channel, the average Chinese citizen needs to procure 103 permits and licenses over his or her lifetime. In many cases, these permits seem intended more to elicit denial than consent. Take the country’s convoluted reform of hukou, a household registration system that controls in-country migration. In April 2010, the southern city of Kunming released a draft regulation that forbade employers from hiring migrants who did not hold a residency permit there. Yet in order to obtain the permit, the regulation decreed, a migrant must first hold a steady job. With its circuitous logic, the regulation would have essentially banned millions of migrants from settling in the city. It ignited a fierce public outcry, prompting newspaper editorials with headlines such as, "Does Kunming have its own version of Catch-22?" City authorities eventually revised the regulation in its official version the following year, granting migrants a short window between finding housing and employment and applying for a residency permit.

In another case, the Fengtai district government in Beijing ruled in March 2011 that individuals under collective residency status — a type that registers one under a school or company as opposed to under one’s own name — were not allowed to purchase apartments in that district. Affected citizens were incensed, pointing out that according to existing law, an apartment is required before one is eligible to convert a collective residency status to an independent one. Even Xinhua, the Communist Party’s official wire service, condemned the policy, calling it "a Catch-22-style ruse" in an editorial, and wondered if "certain uninformed officials pulled it out of their heads." The government later rescinded the restriction under public pressure, though it still excluded those registered under their schools — namely, recent Beijing college graduates from other provinces — from the ranks of local homebuyers.

The more preposterous of these rules can sometimes undermine their authors. Last summer, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), a government branch that enforces media censorship, ordered several television channels to curb their evening showings of anti-Japanese dramas centered on World War II, a genre that has come to dominate Chinese television screens in recent years. The government has tried to rein in these shows, the cartoonish characters and implausible plots of which have become the subject of derision among Chinese audiences and a source of embarrassment for propaganda authorities. Producers wryly referred to the order as a "Catch-22." They complained that other draconian SARFT rules, including restrictions on show themes ranging from time-travel to crime investigation to imperial court intrigue — had created the situation in the first place. "Only anti-Japanese dramas seemed safe, and that’s why we all flocked to it," confessed Chen Jialin, head of the Chinese Directors Association, at a conference in June 2013.

Such instances are so common in today’s China that they rarely trigger more than a dry laugh from their domestic audience. In a few cases, however, they have made international headlines. Ai Weiwei, China’s prominent dissident artist, found himself in a legal quandary in April 2012, when the government charged his company for tax evasion and required him to pay $2.4 million in back tax and penalties. He tried to sue, but Beijing’s Chaoyang District court told him tha
t he must first produce the official seal of his company, which in reality had already been confiscated by police, and which Ai had no way of retrieving. Eventually, the court took the case, but rejected his appeal. (A second appeal to a Beijing intermediate court met a similar fate.)

Ai was disappointed, but not surprised, for he understood he was fighting "a losing battle", as he later told CNN. "I’m more aware than ever now that I’m just as vulnerable as most other ordinary people in this country." It is this recognition of indifferent power that grants Catch-22 continuing relevance in modern China. "The many characters in Catch-22 feel like mirrors to the men and women around me," one reader wrote in January, in a review of the novel on Douban, a Chinese website akin to Goodreads. "We sneer at the system, yet we can never escape."

A Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard. Twitter: @yuxin_gao

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