rumor has it…about “guanliao”

Here’s a story for a Monday morning: My husband and I recently bought a condo in Dali, where we plan to retire. This past Chinese New Year, we opened the condo, calling the gas company to send someone over to connect our gas line. A team of three people showed up. The best dressed of the group carried a clipboard and explained to us what was happening. One of the electricians set to connecting the line. The third was there to oversee the young man making the connection and insure that he didn’t make any mistakes. The entire process–explaining, connecting, and checking the connection–took about ten minutes. Once they had finished their work, they moved on to the next condo.

I found it ridiculous to send three people to complete the job. However, when I told a 20-something friend this story she half-jokingly responded, “Wow, Dali is really efficient!” She then told me that most government and central enterprises had an even higher ratio of bureaucrats and supervisors to actual workers. At her company, she explained, actual work didn’t start until Wednesday because on Monday mornings top level executives met to decide on the week’s work, Monday afternoons, vice-executives informed managers of their responsibilities, on Tuesday mornings, managers further refined jobs for office heads, and then on Tuesday afternoon, office heads assigned tasks to actual workers. I laughed (as I was supposed to) and then clarified, “You’re exaggerating, right?” And she said, “Not really. There are at least four or five levels of management above my level, where the work actually happens. Even in Shenzhen, it has all become too guanliao.”

In colloquial Chinese, the structure of many managers to one actual worker is glossed as guanliao 官僚. Guanliao is a noun meaning “bureaucrat,” but more often than not the word is used as an adjective to describe inefficient and/or corrupt government bureaus as well as large companies. On my friend’s account, guanliao structures are gendered and age specific. As a general rule, in offices, executives and management are older men, while folks who actual work are younger women, while in resource companies (electricity, gas, telecommunications), executives and management are older men, while folks who do actual work are younger men.

Indeed, as I have recounted my experience to younger, unmarried men and women in Shenzhen, they have been quick to confirm the impression of an unwieldly ratio of executives and management to people who do actual work. In conversation, executives and management are lumped into the more general category of lingdao 领导, while the folks who do actual work are described as such: ganhuo’er de ren 干活儿的人. In contrast, as folks age and marry, the structure’s gender becomes more apparent as male colleagues are promoted to office head and management positions, while women tend to remain at lower levels. Men tend to explain this situation as evidence that they are better qualified than their female colleagues; women tend to be resigned to the everyday reality of chauvinism; zhongnan qingnv 重男轻女, my friends explain doesn’t just happen in families or the countryside.

These stories resonate with stories I have heard about how women are getting better scores on the entrance exams for government work than are men. The result is two-fold: on the one hand, many entry level positions are filled with women, which is so expected as to be unremarked upon, while on the other hand, when it is time to promote someone to office head, there are complaints that there aren’t enough qualified men to choose from. The other problem, a friend reminded me, is that Shenzhen is still a relatively young city. Many executives and managers are in their late thirties and early forties, which means there’s a glut of leaders who won’t be retiring for a least a decade, making it even more difficult for entry level employees to advance and earn enough to start a family (let alone purchase a house in Shenzhen).

Are there any exceptions, I wondered. Actually, yes. It turns out there’s a kind of political correctness (and zhengzhi zhengque 政治正确 is the word used) whereby governments and large businesses appoint a woman or two to visible leadership positions to demonstrate a progressive ethos. Anything else? Those who can get away with not working in an office (shangban 上班) do whatever they can to avoid it.

Sound familiar?

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