The Physiognomy of Chinese Officials

By Yaxue Cao

A few days ago, I watched a video clip of the 6th plenary session of the Chinese communist party’s 17th Central Committee. I didn’t pay attention to what they were talking about. Instead I was interested by the stony faces of China’s highest-ranking officials when the camera rolled over them one after another: except for Hu Jintao who was giving a speech, each had the same frozen, expressionless face with no discernible muscle movement whatsoever, while it is hard to catch the focus of their eyes. A Weibo commentator said all of them suffered from “facial paralysis.”

I probably shouldn’t be promoting physiognomy here, but in China, officials do tend to have highly uniformed facial display. In front of superiors, they pile up ingratiating smiles while uttering eager, sycophantic words. In front of people below them, especially members of the “masses” (群众, qun zhong), they are often domineering and harsh, even when nothing in particular warrants high-strung exasperation. In a situation where they are not sure who you are, they look cautious, unexpressive and distant; if deemed necessary, they will find out about you as soon as they can so as not to offend someone who might have power over them. They will only relax with their family and their trusted henchmen. Sometimes you see them display their best smile in front of foreign strangers because these are people they never have to worry about.

In short, the face of a Chinese official is a high-precision, high-sensitivity meter for power relations.

In China, if you are a young man starting a civil servant career, smart and ambitious, the first thing to do is to map out the hidden and not-so-hidden power relationships around you and cultivate ties with the powerful, especially with the one on the top. To earn his trust, you have to be willing to carry out whatever he asks you to do, which may include non-work related orders from taking his child to school, getting a cup of tea for him, to doing something unsavory for him that he doesn’t want to do himself. In other words, you have to be completely at his service.  It is never enough to just do your job and think about nothing else. As a matter of fact, it is not necessarily a good thing to be an outstanding performer at work, because your co-workers, feeling overshadowed, might began to undermine you, while your boss might perceive you as a potential threat.

You can’t afford to let your boss feel you care only about your working relation with him and, other than that, you are your own person. Chinese officials are highly-trained animals to sniff out this type and they don’t like it.

On Being a Staff Member and an Assistant—the Art of Serving Senior Officers, authored by two faculty members of National University of Defense Technology (the Chinese name is解放军西安政治学院- PLA Political College Xi’an) and published by Northwest University Press in 1994, is making the rounds online now. Chapters include “the art of maintaining senior officers’ dignity,” “the art of studying senior officers’ mood,” “the art of passing on lies by senior officers,” and more.

Recently, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at Peking University (北京大学) defended his dissertation, an investigation into the bureaucratic scene in a county in central China. While the paper has yet to be published, according to a report by the China Youth Daily, he collected evidence of officials making fraudulent claims about their age and education in order to meet the requirement for promotion; he exposed questionable projects built over the last couple of decades for boosting official’s job performance; he collected resumes of a large number of officials, from the lowest level and up, to find the secrets for their promotion.

Also recently, in a Party committee meeting, a deputy director of the Bureau of Justice in Hengyang, Human, was beaten by the Director for refusing his order to accept a personnel arrangement. Others at the meeting helped the Director. The deputy director said later, “The biggest problem in the current bureaucracy is that the first chair has too much power. Some officials have no talent whatsoever, and even retards can fill their positions. What matters is whether you have powerful protection from above, whether you have money, whether you are willing to be unconscionable, and whether you are versed in the art of being thick [thick-skinned] and black [black-hearted](厚黑学, hou hei xue).

Unfortunately, this is not news to the Chinese and is the rule of the day on every level of China’s complicated bureaucratic system, except when it gets to the level of provincial heads or comparable level in the central government, it takes decisively more. For example, being the son or daughter or son-in-law of a party senior really helps!

A favorite essayist of mine recently wrote, in a blog post, about the gambling nature of China’s officialdom. “Being an official is like rolling the dice,” he wrote. “There are no rules, and it all depends on who and what you place your bet on. If your bet wins, you succeed instantly and get promoted to higher and higher positions. If you bet on the wrong side, you are kicked out immediately.  Those who don’t bet are in effect quitting the game.”

“Because of the short cycles of winning and losing,” the essayist continues, “officials by necessity have to engage in Great Leap Forward. Otherwise, how do they distinguish themselves? How are winning and losing decided?”

Elsewhere, someone observed that Chinese officials lack vision. My answer to this is: How could they possibly have vision when their all-consuming concern is to be safe in their positions and crawl up as much as possible, not to mention a great number of them are corrupt beyond the pale. To be safe, they must say and do what the party requires them to say and do; they must never question and never step out of bounds. To crawl up, they must, more than anything else, understanding the needs and will of their superiors and act upon them.

No wonder they appear wooden and are highly predictable. As for me, a certain murkiness on their face has never failed to give me thoughts: It is like a pickled face, so to speak, without any radiance of intelligence, principle or simple kindness.

In their minds, what is their relationship to the people they “serve”? Listen to these:

“Lao-bai-xings (老百姓, ordinary people) are so bothersome, all because they don’t have anything better to do!” (from the head of a Forestry Bureau in Shaanxi province)

“I don’t need to serve anybody!” (from the head of a Court Executive Board in Zhejiang province)

“Leaders are entitled to ride horses and sedan chairs [meaning enjoying privileges]. Who are you, you shameless thing!” (from the head of an Environment Protection Bureau in Jilin province)

“You anonymous nobody, who told you you could call me on my phone?” (from the head of an Environmental Protection Bureau in Fujian province)

The majority of Chinese officials are probably not as stupid as these. But from my own experience, I can tell you that the rest of them don’t think any differently even if they have perfected the art of public relations. Above law and with absolute power, how can they not look down on you and trample over you with utmost distain?

I mentioned in a recent post that I was assigned a job at the State Council when I graduated from college. The second or third day into my first job, the boss summoned me to his office to have a talk.

“Do you understand you are incredibly lucky to be assigned to this job?” he commenced. It was impossible not to sense the distain in his statement: Who do you think you are to deserve working here? “It is an honor bestowed on you,” he continued sternly, “and you should feel grateful.”

I felt neither honored nor grateful. I knew perfectly what was expected of me to say, and at the least, I should be smiling agreeably and saying a few nice things. But instead, I said nothing in return, letting my thoughts reel: “He is so stupid….I never knew northeastern accent sounded so stupid….so repulsive is the stale cigarette smell….”

Displeasure coagulated over his face. However he expected me to respond, being rock silent was not it! Our talk lasted only a few minutes, and I left knowing full well that I had just screwed up badly.

10 responses to “The Physiognomy of Chinese Officials”

  1. Volta says:

    I remember an iconic shot of deng xiaoping, zhao ziyang and hu yaobang (? – The guy whose death sparked the tiananmen protests) at a major meeting and they all had that same comical blank facial expression. But, their ethics and outlooks were certainly not uniform. I think theyre partly attempting to be humble and solemn, and partly succeeding.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I remember that Prince Charles “screwed up badly” at the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC when he commented audibly that the Chinese officials were “a bunch of ghastly old waxworks”. So the false faces got to him too and he is well used to sycophants!.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Instead of 1,400+ words, my post should have had just 3:

      “Ghastly old waxworks”.

      Talk about succintness…

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Good old Charles. Like father, like son, shall we say? Perhaps not. At least in Charles’ case, he only wrote it in a diary! Meryl and I have different versions of the event, perhaps because I don’t actually remember this! Just looked it up on wikipedia, so of course it must be true. :p

  3. Lao Why? says:

    Working with an SOE, i can confirm a similar career strategy…do as little as possible to get by, don’t take risks, maximize your personal relationships, never sign anything if you can avoid it and always, always make sure you have plausible deniability along with a scapegoat available to throw under the bus in case things go wrong.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Officials in SOEs are actually the better bunch by comparison. They have a more or less defined play field, products to make and financial reports to produce (not that they never lie about their numbers). If they export, they have to meet certain standards as suppliers, and that helps to check them to some extent.

      The worst officials are found in the governments of all levels and in the muddy entanglement of the Party, the administration, the procuratorate, the court and and the police, etc.

  4. Lao Why? says:

    SOE execs are tied up in Party politics as well. Many are put in their positions by the Party and know little about the business. They survive by creating alliances and by shifting the blame to others. One might say this is true of western bosses but until you have experienced both, you will not know the chasm of difference.

  5. Lorin Yochim says:

    I’d have to agree with both Lao Why? and Yaxue. The ignominious “science” of physiognomy aside, clearly the line between corrupt official and corrupt SOE manager is a fine one. As is the line between SOEs and fully privates former SOEs. For an interesting read on this subject, some might want to have a look at Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (Yasheng Huang). My own time in China has been spent observing the conversion of a tightly regulated SOE into a tightly regulated private entity (here I struggle to find an appropriate descriptor for this new “thing”), a conversion accompanied by precisely 0% turnover in the leadership of the company (other than retirements, of course). This isn’t a comment on the competence of that leadership which may be quite able and honest or not, but clearly there are questions to be asked about the transfer of public assets to private individuals. This is especially the case given the production over this period of a sense of crisis amongst the employees. Put simply, employees have been forced to work more and harder in less secure jobs for for less money. I have no problem with efficiency; who could be against so wonderful a thing? Still, surely the benefits ought to apply to all.

    A question arises in all of this, though, implicitly in Yaxue’s earlier posts. If both SOEs, private companies, and gov’t officials can be both good or bad in terms of honesty and/or competence, which would we rather have? In an entirely privatized and democratized China, would corruption and incompetence cease to exist?

  6. gregorylent says:

    generation gap, …. and something else to learn here … a deep spiritual truth … the self is separate from activity … the wooden faces does not mean that the inside self is wooden, it only means there is an ability to be uninfluenced by circumstances .. playing the game, and knowing that it is a game, it is not the self …

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