I know China is trying really hard to reinvent itself and that the people there no longer want to be seen as stiff, reserved stoics, but I feel like they're not getting much help from their neighbors. No matter how many tiger farms they start, it's clear they operate within a culture that lacks, say, the beads-and-brothels seediness of Thailand, the marauding hordes of military man-sharks that have blighted the Korean peninsula for decades, or the sense that Japan is just a country full of bagelheads going nuts inside a gigantic dystopian branch of Dixons.
What I'm trying to say here, is that it seems like, by and large, the Chinese are a people who handle their shit quietly, making money and babies and slowly taking over the world in the manner of a band like Biffy Clyro. You might never meet anyone who "gets" them, but they sure are massive.
Which is why this video of a high-ranking Chinese official having a tantrum at Changshui International Airport is so beguiling. In essence, it's just a video of a man having a nightmarish experience at the boarding desk. (He'd had a long breakfast and missed his first flight, then had not heard the call for the second flight, apparently.) But watched through the lens of a state-owned CCTV camera, what at first seems like an episode of Fawlty Towers on mute, starts to turn into something different, something that all the sites reporting on the story seem to have missed.
It starts to turn into something kind of beautiful.
Firstly, our man—the one on the left, in the grayish-blue suit—stands upright with his hands bound respectfully behind his back. It's not the typical body language of someone on the verge of mental collapse, but the twitchy movements and his rolled up paper hint at the storm of existential calamity brewing beneath the surface.
The bureaucrats around him don't seem too concerned at this stage, but then I imagine they don't have to deal with government officials coming along and smashing their desks up every week, so you can understand their complacency.
After lulling the security staff into a false sense of security, he decides to show them what a man of his standing can get away with and begins to test just how tough these communist airport doors are. The answer, as he soon finds out, is: tough enough to withstand a few pushes from an averagely sized man. Who'd have thought?
He keeps pushing but nothing budges. A curious security guard comes closer to see what's up.
Realizing that the door isn't to blame, the Raoul Moat of Terminal 2 paces menacingly toward the two things that really made him miss his flight: computers and the hapless people who use them. He throws the keyboard to the floor, slams down the long-discontinued desktop monitor and points toward the terrified employee, as if to say "Where are you now without your precious Windows Vista?"
You can't help but admire the man's physicality, the unusual movements and perfect timing that he seems to execute with every swipe and grab. Watching him, you begin to recall the great physical comedians of the past—Keaton, Arbuckle, and Chaplin all come to mind when you watch this furious man at work. Combine that with the jerky, lagging camera work, and it's almost like you're watching the rare print of an early Chinese silent comedy. It's a video that exists somewhere between virality, comedy, and art.
He continues his hyperaggressive take on neo-Luddism until a small band of uniformed security staff turn up. This being China, where they have a lot of respect for their officials, they just stand around and watch him go all Falling Down, instead of punching him or running him over in a tank.
On seeing the gaggle of helpless security boys in On The Buses-style uniforms watching a man act out a scene that's playing somewhere between WWE wrestling and a Union Square street performance, a larger crowd gathers around the commotion to rubberneck at the sight of one of their superiors having a breakdown. Yet nobody seems to do anything.
If this were Britain, and it were, say, Sir Digby Jones, it'd be on YouTube before he'd even picked up the sign. We'd probably pepper spray Prince Charles if he did this, yet our man manages to get away with it in front of an ever increasing, evermore enraptured audience.
It becomes clear that this event has gone from being a protest to a farce—the growing crowd transplanting it from Paris '68 to Punch and Judy at Blackpool Pier, with the performer in this chaotic stage show starting to play to his cordoned-off onlookers by pacing around and goading the crowd. A strange role reversal is at work here: the proletariat are watching the establishment man demean himself in public, and it's all being watched by some distant arm of the law in a dark basement room in a government building somewhere on the outskirts of Beijing.
His wife at his side, the doors blocking his path ahead, the amassed onlookers in the way of any sidehoof to freedom, the establishment man has become trapped, metaphorically, emotionally, politically, and physically. All he can do now is pace around the ruined playpen he's created for himself. He's too powerful to be taken out and beaten by the guards, yet too angry to leave. He's caught in a strange situational purgatory, free from oppression, yet unable to leave his duties.
He is a lion with blunted teeth, growling at the giggling tourists from behind the reinforced glass of status.
China being a country of strong (but let's say restrictive) family values, his wife and children were standing by watching proudly as Daddy knocked seven shades of shit out of the 2002 PC World front-of-store display. Eventually, our guy calms down and starts flashing his ticket around, only for his high-strung-looking wife to pick up the last remaining unbroken item on the table and destroy it in a final act of privileged petulance.
As is fitting for this slice of vérité, much like in life, the story plays out with no real conclusion—just a state of diminishing chaos. The camera loses interest, and our main players are last seen confusedly pointing around the airport like the lost tourists they really are, reduced to the status of mortals by the embarrassment they have suffered at the hands of bureaucracy.
They seem to regain awareness of the existence of dignity toward the end, asking each other questions in a way that suggests nothing ever happened, and why the hell are all these people here? But the crowd sticks around to watch the death throes of this very modern nightmare.
I don't know what happened to the guy. I'm sure I could find out if I wanted to, but to be honest, I'm quite happy with this perfect, strangely beautiful snapshot of a man stripped of his powers and left to rage at his tether's end.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
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