untrustworthy environs

The current Handshake 302 exhibit, Baishizhou Superhero has just finished its opening weekend. We’ve had good press, and people interested in the topic have sent out weixin‘s and weibo‘s to their circles. In fact, the exhibit is fun, and once people come into the space, they clearly enjoy taking pictures of themselves and friends as one of the heroes (curatorial statement, here). And there’s the rub: getting people into the space.

In fact, mobilizing our neighbors to visit the space has been an ongoing project. Yesterday, during the exhibit’s open hours I observed to a visiting friend that for many of Handshake’s neighbors crossing the threshold from observing in the hallway to participating in the exhibition is a huge step taken only after several hallway engagements. In reply, he gave a class and generational analysis that avoided the easy (and prevalent) stereotypes of “Chinese culture” or “national ethos (国情)”, focusing instead on the social cost of trust.

He opened an analysis with a joke about an old woman who was sitting next to the road. A young man is talking on the phone and she overhears him say, “Dad, purchase me 500,000 yuan insurance.” Without waiting for anymore information, the old woman picks up her stool and moves away from the roadside. The (literal) punchline? Accident insurance apparently covers up to 500,000 rmb in compensation and is more than enough to settle cases in which urbanites hit and cripple rural workers, while an old lady wouldn’t get enough to cover her legal expenses and hospital recovery.

Background to the joke: Chinese tort law addresses the question of compensation for injuries sustained in a car accident in terms of a simple equation: average annual salary of place times twenty years. For those older than sixty, one year is removed for each year older than sixty but younger than 75 (so the compensation rate for a 63-year-old would be times 17). Compensation for all people over the age of 75 is times 5. For children not yet one year old, the compensation is also times 5. . There is a published list of average salaries by place (Shenzhen list). In other words, the average salary for a city worker in Shenzhen is 40,741 and for a rural worker is 10,542. So the mean compensation for car accidents falls between 800,000 and 200,000. There is a more detailed list that includes salaried workers, but clearly, for the majority of China’s rural population, they won’t get more than 500, 000 before legal fees.

My friend’s point was simple: the poor can’t afford unexpected encounters and so their first response is one of self-preservation. The old lady didn’t know if the guy on the phone had a car, she didn’t know if he was talking to his father, she didn’t know if he was amusing himself. All she could know was that if he did have a car, 500,000 and wanted to run her over, he probably could. I countered that this was an open door and most had seen me over the past few months. “But,” my friend added, “it’s a closed, private space. Why take a risk for a photograph?”

My friend added that younger peoplewere more open to conversational exchanges with strangers. He said the most reticent were generation 70, but generation 80 and 90 were increasingly open to proactively talking with strangers. And in fact, the few people who have come to the space through weibo and weixin have been in their early 20s, or members of generation 90. He suggested that we should move the photo stand-in to one of the public squares because (1) people really would enjoy it and (2) they’d feel safe to enjoy it in an open place where there were many, many people.

Good — if sobering — advise. It also reminds me that we have had our best turn out when we organized a fair like environment in the Baishizhou public plaza. Consequently, our next goal is to move Superhero to the Baishizhou Culture Square.

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