I was accompanying a friend, to apply for a permit from a government agency in a certain city, and we had the misfortune to encounter the worst kind of pointless power play engaged in by petty bureaucrats. Clerk A had provided a list of required documents before­hand, but on the day, Clerk B demanded additional papers that weren’t on the list.

These papers were available only from another government agency across town. By the time they had been obtained, the first agency had closed for the day. Red tape aside, it was the supercilious attitude of those clerks that set my teeth on edge. They weren’t just rude, they treated people with open hostility, despite many elaborate signs on the agency’s walls exhorting them to be helpful, polite and so on.

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For a few hours each day, these clerks exercise what little power they have on the long line of supplicants who come before them with bowed heads and deferential smiles.

In imperial China, a class of state employees called li, sub-official functionaries, performed clerical and menial tasks in all government bodies at all levels. Like bureaucrats everywhere today, they were the link between politically appointed offi­cials, or guan, and the people, which gave them a hold over the masses and influence in steering government policies. It was inevitable that many were corrupted by the power they wielded. Their descendants are alive and well today.

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Dynasties may fall and regimes may change, but puffed-up petty bureaucrats will always be with us, right there alongside death and taxes.