(Note: I got this from a friend in China who asked to remain anonymous. – Xujun)
CHINA — 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."
I argued, "Can't they be reasoned with? I haven't even moved in, how can it be my doing? Plus, if it were me who did it, why would I take the trouble telling them? It only makes sense for them to consider it the previous owner's responsibility!"
Manager Zhou laughed in surprise: "My God! Are you from an alien planet? China's electricity is a monopoly trade, they are the boss, who do they fear? What's there to reason with them? They don't care to figure out who's right or wrong; it is the most convenient to just grab you. You want to live in this house? Then you have no way to escape. Even going to the court it is 100% your fault. Believe it!"
I didn't believe, but I took his advice to make the call from a public phone a few housing estates away. I explained the situation to the Electricity Bureau. The woman who answered had a flat tone like machine: Please provide your name, phone number, and address.
With Manager Zhou wagging his head to signal me, I hurriedly said this was for a friend, who just wanted to know what she should do in this case.
The woman's tone was unchanged: 5000 yuan fine. After the fine is paid we will send someone to fix the wires.
I couldn't help but raise my voice: "But this wasn't my friend's fault! It was the previous owner, don't you understand? Wouldn't you be wronging a good person and letting a bad one go?"
The woman's same cold voice held to the end: We only hold the current owner accountable. This is the procedure.
I almost cried out: Fuck the procedure! Are you a robot?
I also wanted to say, Are you forcing an innocent girl to prostitute herself (逼良为娼)?
Manager Zhou looked at me sympathetically: "You really don't need to care, let it be. It's not just one or two households stealing electricity. To tell you the truth, the house I rent now has the same situation. In our building 60% of apartment owners do this."
I was speechless for a while. Then I said, "No way! Thieves are in the open, and a moral person must sneak around, this is turning things upside down! I don't care what others do, I must correct the meter. Please help me find a way."
Manager Zhou gave me a wry smile: "Never seen one as stubborn as you are. Go look in the famers market, there may be someone specialized in this sort of thing."
I suspected he was toying with me. I often went shopping in farmers market, how come I never saw such a person?
In a corner of the market, I asked a fish seller if there was an electricity master who could change wires. He pointed behind without lifting his head. A fat man wearing oil-stained clothes took the hint and came to me, asking directly: "Where do you live?" and then simply said: "500 yuan."
I glared at him: "Are you robbing me? At most 200."
He did not get upset, but smiled: "What a temper! 200 then. Deal."
The fat man made a call, lowering his voice to give the other end my address. He then told me "Go wait at home. Arrival within an hour."
In less than half an hour, a slight man wearing the work robe of Electricity Bureau arrived. Within a minute of opening the electricity meter, he was done. Seeing suspicion in my look, the man said: "Rest assured. Wires corrected and the seal replaced. I'm from the Electricity Bureau myself and have done this job often. There will be no problem."
I was curious: "You are often asked to change wires?"
He said frankly: "Illegal changes are naturally more than corrections. I do all. 500 yuan for an illegal change, not a penny less. For corrections I can give better prices."
I saw a big wad of seals in his bag and suddenly understood: When the electricity meter was changed in the first place, the seal must have been removed; why did I see one that was intact? The only answer is: the Electricity Bureau's staff must be the thief who steal what they are guarding (监守自盗). Who knows, perhaps the one who changed the wires last time was the same man today?
I sighed about the shadiness when I handed the man the money.
He said modestly: "We are just giving a hand to help everyone, otherwise what's to be done? Everyone needs to be fed, right?"
Nearly two years passed. On a hot day last month, the power went off at noon. I called the Electricity Bureau, and a worker arrived in 5 minutes. He said the fuse was burned and needed to be changed to a thicker one. Then he discovered something and said: "The meter has been messed around with."
The adage goes that "A thief's guilty consciences make him cowardly (做贼心虚)." I wasn't the thief but was cowardly all the same. I tried my utmost to deny.
The worker said: "Come and see – someone changed here. The ends are still here. We experts can tell with one glance. No need to deny. I'm going to call the Bureau and have them handle this."
He started to dial his cellphone. I was forced to ask pardon. I told him the whole story and hoped he would let me go.
I bet the man was just a big boy not even 23 years old. With plump cheeks and shining eyes, his face was full of innocent smile. He said: "I believe you. But the other guy did not do a thorough job. He must have been posing as an Electricity Bureau staff. Also possible he's a relative of a staff member, got the work robe, and used it to make money. You found me by calling the Bureau, so I can't be fake. I can redo the correction for you and ensure you can sleep in peace from now on."
Now seasoned, I asked: "How much?"
He said calmly: "At least 300 yuan."
I said: "At most 200. Please give me your name and cellphone number. I don't want to be endlessly extorted by you Electricity Bureau people."
He smiled brightly: "Don't get angry, we are only taking money to remove ill fortune (拿人钱财替人消灾)."
Two minutes later he declared everything was OK now. He left his cellphone number and told me to call him if there was any problem. "But there won't be any problem. Rest assured, there'll be problems no more." His smile was very warm.
Wow. Beautiful translation work.
Carl Levinson @TeaWithCarl
PS - XuJun - Please join Google+.
+Carl Levinson @ Google+
Carl, I tried, but it didn't let me. :-)
I loved this. Really good.
I laughed and cried and laughed again. Thank you so much for translating and posting this.
Great post. Really sums up the duality and muddiness of life in modern China.
Incidentally, Xujun, I just sent you an G+ invite.
Thanks Ryan. Joined.
I wonder just how generalizable this is to the interactions between Chinese people and other organs of the Chinese government.
Interesting, and maddening, Xujun. I see both signs of hope and signs of despair in this. It also is both cultural and universal.
Congratulations on a vivid translation.
Good question, S.K..
Gary, nice to see you here. How is your book doing?
sounds like Brazil
It's collective crime, and you are living in a country based on relationships, not individuals, so if everyone does it, it is OK. The rule of law, as practised in the West, seems nonsensical to many East Asians. Same stuff happens in Taiwan. Cheers!
superb post. this is exactly what happens from the ground up, in every situation, across every single profession. The troublemakers are the ones that end up in trouble for being honest. Glad to see someone else (another foreigner) saw this too.
Ha! We rented from a lady whose electricity meter had been messed with to where you never need to recharge the credits; it always read "3". She still pretended to us like everything was normal and she was taking care of the electricity payments herself, and would make us pay her directly for electricity, rather than giving us the card (which she claimed she couldn't find) so we could do it ourselves (like we had with other landlords).
I was *this* close to calling her on it, but none of our Chinese friends could think of a way to do that and have a good outcome, and after reading your friend's experience, I guess I'm glad I didn't... but part of me wishes I had.
I didn't realize messing with the meter was so common.
Interesting and engaging. I have mixed emotions when I read this.
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