Shigong – on trusting Chinese infrastructure

‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.

I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’

Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.

By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.

‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.

This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.

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