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So near, yet so feared: Better led than dead

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

While negotiating the hordes in Lo Wu Shopping Centre recently, I remembered something my late father used to say: "In a crisis, take command and everyone will follow. Tell people what to do and they'll do it; they are gagging to be led."

Fighting my way through a bunch of sharp-clawed women outside a nail salon felt like a crisis to me, so I decided to follow my father's advice and take control of the situation. I held up my hotel-room key card in the manner of a stern government official brandishing his identification and the crowd parted before me like the Red Sea before a thundering Moses - the manicurists scattered, their words dying on their lips.

On floor after floor, through corridor after corridor, I wielded the mighty key card as a weapon; never had I walked so easily in that building.

You will find people everywhere ready to sacrifice their freedom for a comfortable life, but from studying the history of China and its political system it is easy to see how Chinese people have a higher-than-average tendency to consent to being led - the country has lurched from one crisis to another, more or less constantly, since its inception. Fear of execution if you didn't obey must have played its part along the way.

Now, take the Chinese out of China and inevitably they still carry China with them - as I discovered on my tour of America earlier this year.

I was in Philadelphia shooting a scene for my Cantonese language instruction film, Whistle as you Blow (available on YouTube), and strolling around near the Liberty Bell dressed as my mainland Public Security Uncle character - replete with black 1970s moustache - I stopped to admire a large Falun Gong banner, around which five or six middle-aged people were meditating on the lawn. Nearby, two mainland women stood apart, looking on, as though separated from the herd.

Whenever I wear this outfit, I automatically turn into a low-level, clipboard-wielding, jumped-up Rule Nazi.

"This is not a standing area; standing is over there," I barked in Putonghua at the two women, who immediately snapped to attention.

"Oh, we're not allowed to stand here? We didn't know," they replied, instead of punching me as they jolly well ought to have done.

It's not just Chinese who bow before authority, of course. I toured my native Norway in the same costume and people obeyed my every word there, too, visibly shaking in fear. Just gagging to be led, in fact.

 

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