Chinese Stories in English
What do you do if you have an almost-new bicycle that you don’t want any more? Sell it, of course. But suppose you live in a communist country where buying and selling between private individuals is prohibited. What do you do then? I found out the answer to that question in 1983, when I enrolled in a summer program at a school in Beijing.
When I arrived at the school I was issued ration coupons which entitled me to buy, if I so desired: several kilos of uncooked rice, several square meters of cloth, a couple of gallons of cooking oil and a bicycle. The bike sounded like fun, even though I would only be there for two months. Besides, the selling prices for new bikes were quite cheap. I’ve forgotten exactly how much, but I think it was around $50 for the best available model. So I decided to get one.
I headed for the nearest store with one of my classmates, Bill, with our ration coupons in hand and a wad of Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). It was illegal for foreigners to possess real Chinese currency in those days, except small amounts received in change. When we exchanged dollars at the bank, we were given FECs instead of actual Chinese money, with face values equal to the real stuff. (The value on the black market…. well, that’s another story. (See this China Expat article.)
We each bought the best quality bike we could find and enjoyed a summer riding around Beijing. Then, shortly before the end of the semester, we asked one of our teachers what we should do with the bikes. He advised us that it would be illegal to sell them in a private transaction. We could sell them to incoming students because nobody cared what foreigners did amongst themselves, but we were leaving on Friday and the newcomers wouldn’t start arriving until Saturday. The only alternative would be to take them to a government-owned consignment store (委托商店), the nearest one of which was about five miles east of the school.
So Bill and I rode over to the store and waited in line for a half-hour or so. A clerk eventually examined the bikes and told us how much the store would pay. (It was about $30, as I recall, or 60% of the original cost.) We agreed to the price and the clerk went into the back room to get the money. She returned with bad news. The store didn’t have any FECs, and as a government outlet they of course couldn’t give us real money, so they would not be able to buy our bikes. She told us to go to the main consignment store on the west side of downtown Beijing, a good twenty miles or more from our school.
As we were walking out the door two young men gestured furtively to us. They whispered that they had overheard our conversation with the clerk and were interested in buying the bikes. We walked with them to a small park across the street, where they offered us the same price as the clerk had. We agreed. After looking around to see if anyone was watching, they crowded close to us and slipped us the money underhanded – real money, not FECs.
Bill and I gave them the bikes and headed off to catch a bus back to school. We got couple of hundred yards when I felt a tap on my shoulder…. Busted! It was a cop, and he’d seen the whole deal go down. He escorted us back to the park where the two kids were waiting with hang-dog expressions on their faces.
The cop proceeded to lecture the kids about the evils of capitalism, not the least of which was that the State would miss its cut of the deal if we by-passed the consignment store. Then he turned to me and asked what I thought I was doing, corrupting innocent Chinese youth with visions of personal profit. I pretended not to understand and he repeated the question in a louder voice. I acted dumb (which I can do without much difficulty). He gave up in disgust and went back to lecturing the kids.
Eventually the cop decided that the kids could keep the bikes and, surprisingly, we could keep the real money, provided that the leaders in the kids’ “danwei” agreed to the deal. (At that time most people in China belonged to a “danwei” or “work unit” which gave them jobs and living quarters, and in return controlled almost all aspects of their lives. See this article.)
So Bill and I headed back to the dorm with the money in our pockets, and the kids rode the bikes off to their danwei. But later that afternoon the kids showed up at the dorm – their leader wouldn’t approve the deal and they wanted their money back. Bill refused. He told the kids that he was an American, and in America, by God, a deal’s a deal! The kid who had bought his bike looked both happy and scared – happy at keeping the bike, but scared at the prospect of reporting back to his danwei.
I decided I wanted to play the game all the way through to the end, so I gave my buyer his money back. The next morning I got up bright and early and rode the bike to the downtown consignment store. On the way I imagined all the things I could do if this store also refused to take the bike – give it away, leave it on the street, throw it through the store window – I had lots of options. I needn’t have worried, though. The store bought the bike for ten Yuan more than the kid had given me. Ten Yuan was worth about $1.25 at the official exchange rate back then, maybe a little less than a week’s wages for the kid.
Of course, things are very different in China now. In 2005 I told this story to some Chinese college students. I started out by asking the same question I did above – what do you do with a bike you don’t want? They all agreed, “Sell it, of course, what a stupid question!” When I told the rest of the story a lot of them didn’t believe it. “How could the beloved Party have ever had such a silly policy?” Some of them went home and asked their parents and were surprised to learn that, yes, that’s the way it was back in the day.
At least that’s the way it was in Beijing. Liuzhou is a long way from the capitol and things may have been a bit looser here. Anyway, I just hope that the Chinese kids who don’t know their history won’t be condemned to repeat it.
For another example of “education and admonishment” by Chinese police officers, see our translation of the newspaper article “Scofflaw Peddlers”, item #7 on this page.
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