“Who Is the Guilty Party?”

Xujun Eberlein at InsideOutChina has translated a story from a friend, which reveals the omnipresence of bribery in everyday life here. The entire thing is definitely worth a read- here’s the beginning:

Two years ago, I bought a tiny flat from a stranger. While making some minor changes to the old interior, the electrician I hired found problematic wires, and that the electricity meter outside did not work. The electrician, who had more than 20 years of experience, concluded that the previous owner had messed about with the meter in order to steal electricity. He pointed to a jumble of wires and tried to explain – why this wire did not connect to the meter and that wire did not connect to ground – only to make me further confused. Finally I got the gist of what he was saying: the previous owner installed a very small switch inside the apartment, and reconnected the meter to the switch, which fully controlled the meter’s readings. As the result, if he had used 100 kwh of electricity, the meter would only read 10 kwh.

This was the first time I heard of such a thing, so I was at a loss as to what to do. I asked the electrician, “Could you please rewire the meter to its original design for me?” He teased me, “Why should I? Isn’t it better for you to save electricity cost?” I waved my hand and said, “Drop it, I’m a coward, I won’t be able to sleep if I steal. The money saved this way wouldn’t even be enough to buy me sleeping pills.”

The electrician fiddled with the meter, but in the end couldn’t do much to help, because there was a red seal in it that said, “Do not remove seal, Electricity Bureau only; otherwise bear full consequences.” He said he couldn’t take the responsibility.

I called the previous owner, who neatly denied everything. His voice was full of surprise: “Really? Really? I had no idea! How could it be?”

With no choice, I went to the housing estate’s property management, hoping they would help me solve the problem. The director was a young man who looked like he was just out of college. He patiently heard me out and calmly said, “Things like that are not our responsibility. We wouldn’t dare to touch that seal either. Why don’t you call the Electricity Bureau, perhaps they will send someone for you? But…” he hesitated a few seconds and then said, “For this kind of thing, you know, the Electricity Bureau is very hard to deal with…” He stopped again, his expression looked restrained.

Coming out of the property management office with a foggy head, I ran into Manager Zhou of the real estate agency. After listening to my story, he warned me against acting rashly. “I have heard things like this before,” he said, “the Electricity Bureau only holds the current owner accountable. Change electricity wires without authorization? Fine 5000 yuan. You don’t pay? They cut your electricity immediately.”

Do take a few minutes and read the rest.

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2 Comments

Filed under bribery, China, corruption

2 responses to ““Who Is the Guilty Party?”

  1. Incredible article. It’s a beautiful institution-within-institution-within-institution situation, and I love (from afar!) the fact that there’s no certainty of a bottom even at the very end. Just a chain of interactions, each of which “solves” the problem with varying degrees of morality and uncertainty.

    It’s also perfectly mirrors the character of K, the protagonist in The Trial, in that there’s always a way out, a proper but illegal way to solve the problem… but he can’t bring himself to do it, and just digs himself deeper and deeper into the bureaucracy and thus deeper and deeper into trouble, because why would he be there at all if it wasn’t his fault?

    • I haven’t read The Trial, but I was just thinking about how legal problems over here get really kafka-y sometimes. Like you said though, its certainly best viewed from afar.

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