Don's Diary

November 22, 1996

Sunday. This is the last week of a four-week research trip to the city of Tianjin in north China to look at the city government's provision of community services. These have been promoted nationally in the past year or two as a way of dealing with the problems of an ageing population while minimising state expenditure. The final week promises to be busy with interviews in government departments and rounds of farewell dinners. This evening I invite a colleague to dinner to thank him. He brings a local government friend. The friend is candid and answers my questions with great patience.


Today's interviews have been arranged privately, through friends of friends, which means that I cannot complain when the meetings are last minute and the day is full of to-ing and fro-ing. The officials I speak to in the morning are cautious and inhibited, though I manage to prise out the essentials. Lunch is with the local official who has helped set up the meetings for me. He wins the tussle over who is to pay, which allows him to remind me several times of the hospitality of the Chinese people. I have to politely answer the usual questions about mad cow disease and Hong Kong's hand-over. There's also keen interest in Joe Public's attitude to Charles and Di. In the evening it is my turn to invite colleagues and research students from my host department to dinner.


This morning's visit to the far north of the city is hindered by an unofficial city-wide taxi strike and we go by bus and bike. Taxi drivers are not allowed their own independent trade union, but the strike has almost 100 per cent support. The number of taxis in Tianjin, which has a population of eight million, has grown to nearly 50,000, and to stop clogging the roads the government has ruled that only half can operate in the city on alternate days. The Tianjin drivers oppose this, encouraged by successful taxi strikes in other Chinese cities. The Tianjin government proves less compliant. No concessions are made and in the week following the strike there is a police hunt for the organisers. Banners appear in the streets urging taxi drivers to follow rules and be self-disciplined.


I manage to email home before setting off for the day's interviews. Email has only recently arrived in China, and for a small fee messages are sent and received from one address at the university library. The morning meeting with two young local officials goes well as they are not only extremely relaxed and candid but also well-informed on the nuts and bolts of welfare work in their part of the city. In the afternoon I make a trip to town to visit local bookshops and post research materials back to the United Kingdom. Along the way I buy a lottery ticket - for research purposes of course: lotteries, like other forms of gambling, are forbidden in China, but in recent years departments in charge of welfare provision have been allowed to run them to generate revenue. The ticket costs 20p, but I fail to win the car, mountain bike, or holiday on offer.

Another farewell dinner in the evening, this time courtesy of the professor from my host department in the university.


Supposed to be interviewing in a suburban district government office today, but when I get there the new office for dealing with foreigners informs me that no interview can go ahead without a letter of introduction. This office has been created to filter all activities (mainly economic and trade) with foreigners. It is late afternoon before we get the letter of introduction. I have been lucky not to have run into more difficulties of this kind. Although the political atmosphere is generally relaxed, officials in China still tend to err on the side of caution in dealing with foreigners.


My assistant and I set off back to Tianjin's suburbs, this time armed with our letter of introduction. This proves effective and today we are given red carpet treatment. The interview is followed by a whistle-stop tour of various agencies responsible for providing community services and then a late lunch, courtesy of one of those agencies. This proves a relaxed setting for following up issues raised in the interviews. It also means another round of questions about mad cow disease and why Britain won only one Olympic gold.


To Beijing for meetings with researchers to discuss a cooperative project before leaving for home. My host department's professor assigns one of his postgraduate students to accompany me to Beijing, typical of the care they have taken of throughout the visit.

In the evening we eat at one of Beijing's "memory restaurants" where the food and interior decor are meant to evoke the cultural revolution and in particular the hardship suffered by the thousands who were sent to the countryside. The walls are decorated with pictures of Mao and the menu has dishes like tree leaves and wild mushrooms. Even so, reform era China breaks through in the form of a heavily made-up and mini-skirted waitress promoting Beck's beer.

Jane Duckett

Temporary lecturer at the University of Manchester.

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