These are some thoughts I took down while attending a design charette. Jiangsu is one of the wealthiest provinces in China, but as in most areas of China, there is great variability in…just about everything. Standards of living, degree of globalization, urbanization, levels of sophistication. As you travel from Nanjing to the countryside, you can feel an exponential drop-off in the degree of development, the pace of life, the number of cars and road maintenance, with corresponding surges in the craziness of the drivers, the number of rice fields, the difficulty of understanding the local dialect-inflected speech.
We are gathered here, this week, with the mayor of the village whose land will be redeveloped, the minister of tourism, the minister of the waterways and agriculture, various other officials, and a cultural authority who we are to consult. The cultural authority plays the part with a long wiry beard, straw hat, and billowing, linen clothing.
On Saturday, as soon as we land, the minister of tourism takes us on a bike ride around a 100-hectare nature preserve, with pine trees planted at almost scientifically exact intervals that create an almost fractal effect as you ride through them. It is hot, but the pine trees create shade, and are embedded in some sort of green, neon muck that looks like ectoplasm. Cranes roost and preen, and the air is crisp and quiet.
1. On Sunday we begin. We are almost all wearing polo shirts with khakis and jeans, although the Westerners are dressed more formally than their counterparts at the other side of the table. They are diligent and polite, and I note that weekends are not observed here, and note with respect that even these government officials are working seven days a week. The designers lead the session, taking us through the steps that need to be taken, the importance of preserving the cultural authenticity while enlivening its most salient aspects.
Over the next few days, I notice that as is characteristic when too many people are in one room, that there has now been a dissipation, and abdication, of responsibility. Minor secretaries and other associated people whose identities I do not know, file in and out of the room, attending but not participating in the meetings. They sit in the back row of seats arrayed behind the main table, and along the walls. During the charette there is much speaking into ears among the officials, in voices that are still loud enough for everyone to hear.
The officials enter and exit at will, announcing that they have some important business and will be back later. When the designers begin asking questions, many of the officials exit with panicked looks on their faces, excusing themselves during convenient points during interpretation and translation.
There are those who still participate, however. The cultural authority has a long gray, wiry beard, looking like one of those Chinese wise men of old, and with the loudest voice and most obnoxious ringtone, which summons him out of the room about three times a day. The minister of tourism has a higher voice and thin hair, and is wearing a lavender shirt with two buttons unbuttoned at the top. He is proud of his English, and practices it at every occasion, stubbornly refusing to switch to English even when no one, including the interpreter, understands his Mandarin. During the proceedings in English, he exclaims, repeating words that he has just recognized, loudly, and tries his hand at being the interpreter to the confusion of all those involved. He is quite active, peering at our computer screens while the meeting is in session, and is the most significant devourer of the m&m’s placed on the table. When he answers his phone, he always begins speaking in a loud voice first, and only after several seconds does he leave the room. The assistant minister is a tawny, thin man with jet black hair. He sits closest to the whiteboard, and gets up every fifteen minutes to answer his phone. An assistant sitting next to him does the same.
2. It is a different story when a person of some authority enters the room. Although I do not know the identities of these people, I know exactly when they enter, because as if in anticipation, all these minor level officials scurrying about to set up the appropriate number of chairs, and everyone arranges themselves in an invisible, deliberate way, so that the seats closest to the figure of authority have been duly arranged in a way of decreasing authority. No one sits, until the person of authority sits.
Now, for the first time, none of the officials leave the room. They shut off their phones when they ring. And finally, to the delight of the designers, they actually answer the questions when called upon. They excitedly call out their thoughts, like eager schoolboys announcing an answer to a question they know the answer to. All of a sudden, they are eager to volunteer. I realize, as I look up from taking notes on my computer that there are no less than 30 officials sitting in the room.
3. It is important to note that these officials are in charge of spending the tens of millions of dollars that will bring in a sizable development to their village. These same officials, who for three days straight, did almost nothing but tap their feet impatiently, leave the room to talk about more important matters, while return only on the last day to demonstrate to the Province-level official that they have been fully engaged and involved.
Every day for lunch, there is a banquet around a large round table serving no less than fifteen courses of local delicacies. The last night’s banquet takes place in an indoor bamboo pavilion that looks like a treehouse. There is baijiu and wine and beer and merriment, and enough food to feed twice as many participants. I like them all. They are full of boyish energy, and the freewheeling energy that comes with the belief that it will be someone else, whether it is the Western designers or consultants, whether it is the higher-level officials, will come in and make all the right decisions for them.