A Guangzhou Story

This is a story that happened to my friend’s ex-roomate in high school, Ms. X[1], who has settled in the Capital of southern China, Guangzhou, lately.

Guangzhou Subway

On a platform of Subway station in Guangzhou

When Ms. X was commuting on the Subway the other day, she, like most of her fellow passengers, totally immersed herself in flipping her index over her smartphone. Unfortunately, she was too focused on the loop feeding the screen that she missed the gap between the train and the platform when she was alighting. In spite of regaining her balance quick enough, Ms. X found her mobile slipping from her hand and falling into the gap! No sooner did she come back to her senses to abandon a stupid idea flashing across her mind of retrieving the mobile by herself than she started looking for help. A moment later, a Subway staff showed up and assured Ms. X that they would help her look for her lost property but not until the train stopped service later that night. That’s why Ms. X took her leave, albeit reluctantly, and waited for the reply from the Subway staff.

Having waited throughout the night, Ms. X received no reply from anyone of the Subway (This is Mainland China after all. What else do you expect?). She decided to enquire after the progress of the search, if any, on the following day. In the beginning, Ms. X was told that an overnight search had been carried out but yielded no findings. While refusing to believe that the search would have turned out futile as the Subway staff said (you may know why Ms. X mistrust the Subway staff as you keep reading on), Ms. X insisted on watching the CCTV footage, which should have captured the incident and the overnight search, as recorded by cameras on the platform or she would report the case to the police. The management of the Subway, believing that there was nothing to hide or that its staff’s integrity was intact, disclosed the video recording to Ms. X as she requested (Wait a minute! What about the privacy of other passengers? Isn’t there any law or policy governs the public access to sensitive information, such as images collected from security surveillance? What if Ms. X was a hoaxer herself? Shouldn’t the Subway management have gone through the video footage themselves before disclosing it?).


Ms. X did lose her mobile as how she described and so was the search done accordingly…but not without success! The CCTV gave away a figure of a maintenance worker who happened to work in the proximity of the searching party and picked up an object beside the track and stealthily slipped that object into his pocket while his co-workers were fervently searching the area. Stunned by the image, the Subway management promised Ms. X that a “serious, solemn, meticulous, and impartial investigation” would be pursued and that her lost property would duly be returned once her mobile was recovered as well as the case against the worker’s misconduct was established. She was, however, asked not to go to the police in the meantime as the internal investigation was under way. Compensation for her loss was also offered for her “cooperation” of not making a headline out of the incident. Ms. X agreed reluctantly again.

The guilty worker, God knows where he heard about the investigation, decided to go all the way through without conceding his defeat. He was believed for planning to sell Ms. X’s mobile in a “black market” where stolen good could be traded. He even believed that he could outsmart everyone by trying to wipe out the record stored in the mobile that might identify Ms. X’s ownership. But, even though it was George W. Bush, the former President of the United States, who was hard in words, “They think they can hide, but they’re wrong!”, while he was trying to hunt down the culprits who were responsible for 9/11, it was our “Great Nation” that really lived up to his words. Unlike many pretentious patriots, Ms. X used no iPhone but a product of an emerging Chinese brand sponsored by national investment. Not only did the configuration, design, and capacity of Ms. X’s Chinese-produced smartphone rival those of an iPhone, its security settings and intelligence-gathering calibre should be equally powerful as many other western inventions, if not superior.


First of all, Ms. X had hooked up her smartphone with her account registered on the site of the mobile manufacturer. Even when she lost the phone, she could log in her account with her laptop at home and track the whereabouts of her mobile. That’s why she was so certain that her phone had been picked up by someone during the search at night. Not until she told the Subway staff about the built-in tracking device of her smartphone did the management of the Subway take her suspicion seriously. Not surprisingly, the tracking device showed Ms. X’s mobile ending up in a location that corresponded with the address of the maintenance worker who was seen picking up the object beside the rail on the CCTV.

The next obstacle posed by the mobile, which was indeed a “national pride”, against the worker was the screen lock. Given that the maintenance worker failed to unlock the screen, he couldn’t have deleted the stored data within. What’s worse was that after three failed trials in unlocking the screen, the camera of the mobile phone would capture the image of whoever has been trying to unlock the phone. No wonder the image of the greedy worker was locked on both counts: the all-pervasive CCTVs and the Chinese made smartphone!

A story like this while being told to children usually conveys a simple message that our greed will eventually bring us our own demise. But as we grow up, we become as complicated as our society itself, not to mention the society of a rapidly developing Chinese city, like Guangzhou. Although the moral of the story remains more or less the same, it is distressing to see the discrepancy between the penetrating surveillance being run under the auspices of the regime and the ignorance of ordinary working class, such as the maintenance worker in this story. While one may argue that a state is entitled to exercise her influence and control with cutting-edge technologies to maintain the social stability, I still find that only by feeding the people without educating them the value of why the state should be conferred the power of exercising constant surveillance over her people hard to accept. Although the maintenance worker should bear the consequence and liability for his greed and theft and deserve retribution, I still find him miserable in a sense that he was somehow betrayed by his own country which has never trusted her own people. Perhaps if he knew in advance what the smartphone he was coveting was capable of, he wouldn’t have submitted to his greed so easily in the first place. Perhaps what has been lost was not merely a mobile, but the integrity of and the basic trust between people, state-run corporations, and even the entire nation.

Or perhaps, just as the sayings common in Mainland China go, “it’s simply miserable to remain illiterate and poorly educated!” (「沒文化,真可怕!」)



[1] The story is based on a real incident. Because the Big Brother is probably watching, identities of the sources have been altered and covered. The author is, however, aware of the possible bias that may be embedded in the story since only one side of the narratives have been adopted. No access to official records made available by Guangzhou Subway was attempted, hence, no cross reference. Readers’ discretion is recommended.


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