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When the DVD’s disappear you know something big is coming

I don’t always read the local papers, and for the most part my Chinese co-workers don’t either. So when something big comes to Nanjing, we don’t usually hear about it until it has passed, but we can always tell that something is approaching.

For example, about three weeks ago we noticed a shift in our favorite DVD shops. The most visible one, located on a busy street across from the foreign student housing of a large university, was not only shut, but completely empty. Just days before it had displayed at least 1,000 pirated DVD’s, CD’s and computer games. Two other nearby shops were closed as well. When we returned home, the two shops nearby that sell more than just DVD’s had been shut down too.

At first we didn’t think much of it. DVD shops get raided from time to time, and we figured the pirated goods would be back soon. China likes making a show of crushing these illicit goods, but doesn’t seem to actually care about the practice. Over 5 years in China and I’ve never seen a DVD shop be completely shut down.

A few days later I went back to check if the smallest shop had replenished their stock of DVD’s. The woman loudly stated, “We don’t sell those now.” I looked around the shop for a few minutes and sure enough, all of their DVD’s were gone. I started to leave. The woman behind the counter whispered to me “等一会儿” (deng yihuir, wait a moment). I let a man slide past me out of the store, and the cashier proceeded to pull out a stack of thirty to forty new DVD’s. The ones I was looking for weren’t there, so I asked her when they would have their full selection again ad she replied ominously, “Soon.”

Not long after that incident the other DVD shops started reopening, with new measures to protect against raids, but the biggest one remained shuttered. Something seemed a little different this time around.

Then last week on my way to work I saw more than 50 police directing traffic in just under 2 miles. At the intersection closest to the government buildings, there were nearly 20 police. When I got to work my favorite breakfast cart was missing too. Something big was clearly going on.

In the office my co-worker noticed that I didn’t have my usual 煎饼 (jianbing- tasty breakfast crepe) with me, and mentioned that the vendor she buys her breakfast from every morning was missing too. There were also several comments made about the lack of vacant hotel rooms in the city that week. Practically every room was full, but we had no idea why.

The following day we finally realized that it was all connected. What had caused all of these disruptions to our daily lives? An article from People’s Daily explained:

“NANJING, Nov. 10 (Xinhua) — Luo Zhijun was elected secretary of east China’s Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Thursday.

Luo was elected to the post at the first plenary session of the 12th CPC Jiangsu Provincial Committee held in Nanjing, the provincial capital.” – link was added to clarify the title

Apparently there had been an election. Of my co-workers, not a single one had been aware that a new provincial leader had been chosen. My co-workers didn’t seem to be upset by their lack of input in the decision making process, but one had some strong words for them about her missing breakfast.

A week later, things have largely returned to normal. Traffic is once again hectic and uncontrolled, my breakfast cart has returned with crepes and pickled vegetables, the racks of the DVD stores are being restocked with illicit goods, and the Party has picked another leader without any input from the people.


26 Comments

  1. sinostand says:

    I endured the same senseless withholding of my jianbing and DVDs for a month a few years ago when Nanjing was vying for the illustrious “Civilized City” award. It’s just like kids playing street hockey who have to pick up the goal when a car comes. They knew it would happen eventually so they briefly move out of the way and then go right back about their business.

  2. Doc says:

    You don’t want to read my COMMENTS!

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s a Party boss. I assume they do not need to and as a principle should not solicit input from non-Party members.

  4. This story just exemplifies another day in the life of a government committed to Totalitarianism, where the people have absolutely no power, rights or duty to engage in government affairs. As long as the government officials keep the citizens unaware as to their activities and keep them preoccupied with the ability to buy their favorite pirated DVDs on every street corner and purchase delicious food stuffs at every turn, they have accomplished their duty. Most everything you see in China that is performed by the Party is smoke and mirrors and played out like a movie script. Life is truly a stage.

  5. M says:

    I’d be actually curious what is the reason that once in a few weeks (in 4 months it happened about 3 times) I will not find my favourite food stands (roujiamo and jianbing FTW) at their place in the morning on my way to work in Haidian, but next day morning they are back again, I don’t think this has anything to do with politics here in Beijing and I suspect that police must just prove some activity occasionally

    • Tom says:

      The same thing happens here in Nanjing, they get chased off for a day for a variety of reasons. Often it is city inspections or some kind of international deal (like G20). If you ask the vendors they will gladly tell you which part of the gov’t cost them a day’s sales.

  6. Phil says:

    Why was the breakfast cart gone? Did they not want to see her on the street? Is it supposed to be illegal to sell what she sells or sell it on the street?

    • Tom says:

      It’s not “civilized” in the Chinese sense of the word…just meaning that it doesn’t look good. Even though every city has hundreds of them, they tuck them away for inspections.

  7. Phil says:

    Would it be possible for the U.S. to boycott DVD exports to China? I know they would eventually still get there, but would it argue for copyright laws in anyway?

    • JD says:

      Tell the Warner Bros. bosses and all other big media companies bosses to boycott. I don’t think all they stuff will “eventually” be there. It will be there immediately via the Internet. The majority of the people use P2P to get the pirated copies of TV or movies right after they are released by international groups. I really don’t think any legal DVD/Bluray are being sold in China in large quantities.

      And most of the TV shows don’t release in China. I don’t know about movies, since I haven’t lived there for 3 yrs. But I don’t remember seeing a lot of Hollywood movie DVDs either.

      Oddly, reading the part about pirated DVD reminds me of my fav TV show, The Wire. Just like rounding up the corner boys and raiding stashes are not going to win any drug war, raiding those pirated DVD shops are not going to win any copyright war either. Of course this is much less benign than drug war, but they have so much in common!

      • Tom says:

        For the most part, Western companies are only allowed to officially release a set number of movies each year in China, and all are subject to review. I think this is a large part of why the illicit methods for finding movies have sprung up, both online and off.

  8. Joel says:

    Ha, what you described is pretty much exactly what we experienced in Tianjin during the Olympics (TJ hosted soccer). But I found that I could weasel my way into the back room where they’d temporarily stashed everything if I tried hard enough. Another marker for us in TJ that something big was happening was when metal detectors would suddenly appear at the main subway stations. We didn’t always have to actually walk through them, and when we did they often weren’t actually on, and if they were on and beeped the guards wouldn’t bother to stop the person, but hey, a photo is a photo! Actually that;s how i got the “explosive dog” photo: http://chinahopelive.net/2010/09/12/beware-explosive-dog-in-tianjin-china

  9. Lorin Yochim says:

    I think Tom has his reading of things mostly right, but there is more than meets the eye here. I would suggest that what prevents us from seeing more is our dim view of every day Chinese folk. This dim view is most obvious in the comments sections of blogs, but it is implicit in many of our complaints about our daily dealings as laowai. In this case, our dim view causes us to miss part of the explanation for the reappearance of DVDs and jianbing stands: the extraordinary resilience of those vendors in the face of a constantly changing regulatory and policing environment! While government officials in China (not to mention everywhere where something called “government” operates) do have an awful lot of power, this power is always mediated by those who push back in ways both subtle and not.

    On the other hand, and I know this seems contradictory (social life is, in fact, very contradictory!), a Chinese government committed to bringing about a particular policy program is a frightening thing to behold. I have lived through a much more “successful” cleanup of the kind that Tom describes here as temporary. In that city, a long term (and very expensive) commitment to a thoroughgoing renovation of the city has led to the disappearance of small vendors (in favour of giant Chain supermarkets) from many neighbourhoods. This is in keeping with the post-Deng favouring of large-scale enterprises. In some ways, those street vendors we know and love represent the decaying carcass of the getihu movement of the 1980s that was responsible for most of the “lifting out of poverty” accomplishments we hear so much about. Indeed, that the government of the day quite intentionally unleashed that movement is sometimes forgotten when we look at things today. How the current push to a newly “civilized” society and city will play out in the long term, who knows. Certainly there are still plenty of DVDs still to be had, not to mention other junk of all kinds being sold by people trying to keep food on the table and/or get rich. Whatever the case, the immediate consequences can be devastating, and I don’t mean to us jianbing-loving laowai.

  10. James says:

    Yes, this was my experience also. The corner three-wheeled cart food vendors vanish, and the DVD stores move all their stock home, or in one case, next door to the back of the clothing shop, in a storage room next to the toilet.

    I was a known and valued customer, and so after a check of the street for plainclothes police, I was told to head next door to buy them.

  11. JD says:

    jianbing is 煎饼 in Chinese, not 并. 并 means “and” or “together”, so 饼 is what you want. They have the same sound but different tone.

  12. FOARP says:

    Come to think of it, the same thing happened in NJ back when Fidel Castro and Lian Zhan (Lien Chan) visited. You always knew when the police were going to be doing their rounds in streets near where in lived in NUFE, because that would be the day when the shops would all mysteriously be closed.

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  14. jc says:

    Ditto on the dodgy massage places…one day, there will be three or four shops proudly offering their services in a long row on any given street. the next, all shuttered. DVD sellers, Massage places, Jianbing carts. these folks always know the score. they don’t pay protection money for nothing!

  15. Anonymous says:

    ” Most everything you see in China that is performed by the Party is smoke and mirrors“
    “Most everything”
    “Most”

    It’s ALMOST and you Americans need to realiSe that. Don’t even get me started on “I could care less.”

  16. […] I know that I have discussed the comings and going of the jianbing man before, but I think we can learn something new from this brief exchange – for many in China, the […]

  17. […] 在中国生活了5年多的 Tom 在南京观察到一个 有趣的细节,每当卖盗版碟的小贩不见了,一定是有什么重要的事情要发生。政治就是以这种方式无时无刻不影响小民。有时难免不堪其扰,但相比三十年前革命导师一个口号、几十万人稀里糊涂送命,我们还是幸运。 […]

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