The Point of Authority

Today I was dealt a “Point of Authority.” That’s when a Chinese officer of some sort points at you with that look of “You. Yes, you. I know what you’re trying to do, and you can’t do it–‘cos I’m watchin’ you.” All I was doing was walking into the Foreign Students’ Dorm compound without showing my key-card. But he caught me. Oh yes he did.

I have seen the Point of Authority in action before. My favourite is the Point administered by Traffic Support Officers to taxis trying to make a right turn on a red light. The car pulls up to the intersection, ready to careen around the corner, regardless of how many people are in the way crossing the street. But the Traffic Support Officer is ready with his or her whistle and white-gloved hand. Car vs. person is a common battle in China where the victor is usually the car, but car vs. TSO is another story. When the TSO utilises his/her Point of Authority, the car knows that they’d better stop. Or else.

In China, people get away with a lot, I think. There are just too many people to control. There are laws and stuff, but in China there’s this mentality of “well, if he can get away with it, I should be able to get away with it too,” because in the press of people, you probably can. You’d need hundreds of cops on the streets to catch every person who ran a red light, to catch every spitter. But those who are blessed with a position of small authority, like bao’an (保安 guards), and TSOs, take their job very seriously. It is their duty to keep the peace, and by God (by Buddha? by Confucius? by Mao? by grandmother’s chicken soup?) they’ll do it. Because it’s their job.

Yet China is full of contradictions. There’s also a mentality of “if it isn’t my job, it isn’t my problem.” The guards at the gate of the student dorms are there to keep people who “aren’t allowed” from entering. It is not their job to chase off the peddlers who set up shop illegally in front of the gate. “Authority” and “jurisdiction” in China are interpreted differently than in other places I have lived.

What’s funny about it is its inconsistency. For every intersection with a TSO preventing right turns on red lights, there are twenty intersections without them where cars speed around corners regardless of what colour light is flashing. For every person stopped by a Point of Authority, a handful of people breeze right by without showing their keycards. I mean, the Point of Authority works on me, I was brought up an obedient Catholic girl. But it doesn’t work on everyone. What’s up with that, guys?

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