“It looks like we’re going up to the jail,” our minder told us as the minivan we were riding in took a turn and headed out of town and up a steep hill. We had been summoned by Comrade Luo, the “big boss” of Jingdong County, and had been told we were meeting him for lunch. No one had said anything about a jail. I took a deep breath, looked out the window and the pretty countryside, and tried to remind myself that I didn’t have anything to worry about because I hadn’t done anything wrong. Except that was only mostly true.
My husband and I were traveling in Yunnan, China’s southwestern-most province, learning about local foods. We had come to a place so far from the usual tourist spots that it would take four hours of driving down narrow, winding country roads just to reach a highway. Jingdong Town was the county seat, the kind of place farmers came to stock up on motor oil and laundry soap, spend an hour in a tiny internet café, and maybe visit a brothel. But the town itself looked surprisingly modern. There were newly paved four-lane roads, two (mostly useless) traffic lights, and a brand new promenade lined with flowering trees and colorful neon lights that snaked along the banks of the local river.
This, we were told, was all because of Comrade Luo. Just a few years before he had been the local head of the forestry department, but he did such a good job that he was promoted to the city planning office and, after lighting the river with thousands of colorful LED lights, to Legal and Political Committee Chair of the local party. It was a Chinese version of a local-boy-makes-good story: a young cadre uses his smarts and cunning to turn a county into his own little fiefdom.
We had met Luo for the first time earlier that day in his office in a brand-new complex of government buildings. Up in a corner office on the top floor, Luo offered us tea, smoked tobacco through a two-foot tall bamboo water pipe, and asked us if we had been near a particular market the night before. Apparently someone had spotted “foreigners” in town and called him. This is how we learned that the entire town was watching us and sending reports straight to the boss.
Being watched was not, however, what had me nervous. The real problem was our paperwork. Up until a few months earlier, my husband and I had been living in China on work visas, but while we were there the visa requirements changed, and by the end the legality of our visas was, shall we say, questionable. For this trip we were traveling on tourist visas, but this was also potentially problematic, because we weren’t really tourists. Given that some of my research would end up in American magazines and newspapers, one could argue that I should have applied for a journalist visa. In most places, no one cared about these kinds of discrepancies. But Comrade Luo did not seem like someone who overlooked paperwork. If he had the entire town watching us, how hard would it have been to have one of his assistants pull up our paperwork?
I was thinking about this as the van crested the hill and pulled up next to the jail, but then the driver pointed to a little building on the other side of the street. There, in the middle of nowhere, was a restaurant. Luo was inside, sitting in a courtyard made up of wooden trellises with plastic vines and flowers stapled to them—fake nature being used to block out views of the real thing. When we arrived, he got up and proceeded to introduce us to everyone eating lunch at the other tables. Mystery solved: we were there so that he could show off his foreign visitors to all of the officials who worked at the jail. Far from being in trouble, we were trophies, proof that Committee Chair Luo had connections in important parts of the world.
When we sat down with Luo and a handful of his colleagues, they ordered a few bottles of lukewarm Harbin beer. I was offered tea (as I often am when I am the only woman at the table in China), but I decided to stick with the beer. Of all the cheap, flavorless beers made in China, Harbin is one of the most insipid, but I needed a little something to calm my nerves. Luo’s assistant poured the beer into cups the size of shot-glasses, the other local officials crowded around the table, and we all took turns toasting each other and Comrade Luo until the food arrived.