Formalism and that scripted class I’m still bitter about

Beijing launches campaign against obsequious behavior by requiring party cadres to study leader’s remarks on ‘formalism and bureaucratism’

Xi Jinping’s Eager-to-Please Bureaucrats Snarl His China Plans

I highly encourage you to speed read through this piece on WSJ. But if you don’t, the summary is: centralization of power causes every cadre to be accountable in one direction: the top. And when everybody is trying their best to appease their bosses, their work becomes more detached from the actual people they serve.

One thing I’ll insert here that is not a part of this WSJ piece: I think the key catalyst of this ossification is reduced attention span. In a decentralized system, even the highest officials are only accountable for a part of the whole. In China’s case, everything goes up to Xi. And under him, everything in each division goes up to their respective highest officials and nobody else. At any point in this hierarchy, information flows through a single, narrow tunnel, as opposed to many tunnels in all directions in a decentralized system. So the content of that information has to be highly abstracted as bandwidth is reduced. Home visits become stamps of trip completions. Inspection reports become lists of scores. That’s the only way to centralize power without making the planet spin slower: delegate, and rely on abstraction.

I remember that in middle school, when there’s a provincial inspection of teaching quality, we’d rehearse a scripted 50-minute class over and over until we can perform perfectly in front of the officials. This might be unimaginable for some: 40 or so students, each have their own line, acting as if they were in a real class. Everything from when and who would raise their hands and what questions they would ask, to what they’d write on the blackboard and what “conclusions” and “insights” they would draw, were completely rehearsed. The most ridiculous part was that for each question that my teacher asked, there were designated “fake hand raisers” to make sure that students looked curious and eager to participate, but they were never called to answer because, of course, they didn’t have the line.

And we nailed it in front of groups of important people. Perfectly. And my teacher won some award or something. But what the fuck did we learn?

The most ironic thing about this whole farce was that everybody watching it knew that this was rehearsed. They had to. There’s no way a thirteen-year-old could answer some philosophical question with the poetic elegance of 鲁迅 (lǔ xùn), coherently without pauses or fillers. I suppose that they could now report happily to the central overseers about how great the teachers in their provinces could teach.

Even more ironic: for a class to participate in one of these was a privilege. Less prestigious schools or classes not designated as top-performers didn’t get to do this. After all, why embarrassing yourself in front of your boss with “inferior” results right? Oh I don’t even want to get into the amount of infighting among ourselves. Who got to stand up and say the line, whose group got to make the final presentation. Everything indicated how much the teacher liked you and how much power you held. Politics, at 13, that’s what I learned.

Bitter anecdote aside, it feels to me that centralization pushes the work of information filtering and processing downward in a hierarchy. And when that hierarchy’s scope increases and centralization calcifies, the lower you’re in the hierarchy, the less substance your work actually is.

Anyway, time to go to work. There’s an important presentation tomorrow.

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