Blast from the past: Money, power, and posters

Originally posted April 15, 2013

I saw this interesting poster while jogging on Longhua Road in Shanghai:

It’s a piece of propaganda displayed by the local subdistrict government. The boy is saying “My dad has power!” (Wo ba you quan!), while the girl is saying “My dad has money!” (Wo ba you qian!). The single black character to the lower right of the image means “compare” (bi).

The figure on the far right (Money) is of course the symbol of the yuan, the Chinese currency. The figure on the left (Power) may need some explanation. It is an official stamp or seal, or, as its often called in Asia, a chop. Although largely unfamiliar to Westerners, the chop has a more than 3,000-year history in China, where it is the ultimate symbol of power.

These little wooden seals are a kind of signature, used to certify official and legal documents. Every company and government office has one. Chops confer immense power and are therefore carefully guarded by their owners. Anyone who manages to steal the official chop of, say, a company thereby acquires the legal powers of that company’s top executive.

For this reason, legal battles and even violent scuffles often break out over possession of the official chop of a company or government entity. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards and rebel factions seized control of local governments (including the Shanghai government, in 1967), factories, and schools by breaking into them and stealing their chops. Even today, it is not unknown for companies and government agencies to raid their rivals offices to grab the all-important chops.

Going back to the poster, it is a sort of warning to the rich and powerful not to raise their kids badly. The words “My dad has power!” evoke the infamous case of Li Qiming, who in 2010 struck two students while driving drunk at Hebei University; one of them died the next day. When security guards detained him, the 22-year-old driver shouted: “Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!” Li Gang, as it turned out, was the local deputy police chief. Li Qiming was ultimately sentenced to six years behind bars, but his presumption of impunity, despite the governments efforts to quash the story, fueled a widespread perception that the powerful and well-connected are above the law, and his sneering words – Wo ba shi Li Gang! – went viral online, triggering an outpouring of satirical art and poetry.

This is extremely bad publicity for the Chinese government, and it threatens the social fabric. In that context, this poster mocking the insolence of many of China’s guan er dai and fu er dai – the progeny of privileged government officials and wealthy elites – is a subtle piece of parenting advice designed to discourage such flagrant abuses of power.

View of the road with propaganda posters on the wall to the right

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