In 1995, the Reichstag building in Berlin was wrapped in white sheets by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude as an art project.
Recently, a building in the city of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, seemed to be wrapped in red sheets. The intention was not to be artistic, though, as the vertical banners all bore congratulatory messages from an array of government agencies, including the tax bureau, the court and the procurator's office - all for the celebration of a foot-washing business.
When photos of the banner-covered building surfaced online, they drew a barrage of condemnation: How could local authorities join hands with unsavory elements in such a blatant display of solidarity? Are they supposed to be the cat and the mouse?
Without digging deeper, and in the absence of incriminating evidence, this is reading too much into the photos. The banners are, in essence, alternatives for the more common baskets of flowers that friends, peers and even rivals send on such occasions.
Part of the controversy lies in the nature of the business of foot washing, or rather, foot massaging. Like similar services, such as saunas, hair salons and massage parlors, it is often lumped with the world's oldest trade, or, serves as a front for that business, which is illegal in China.
Assuming innocence before proving otherwise, we should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that this particular venue, which has just opened its doors, is guilty by association. Foot massaging, which may sound quaint to some, sprouted in China in the late 1990s and employed a huge army of young and barely skilled migrants. Many cities see the industry as delivery from poverty and even a gateway into prosperity. The trickle-down effect is palpable as the business is labor intensive, but resource light.
If anything, foot massaging is less likely to morph into contact of the intimate kind than regular massaging because it involves only the body parts below the knees and is performed in the presence of other patrons, sometimes in big halls.
It so happens that I had a foot-massaging adventure in Zhangjiajie, which is where the latest brouhaha took place. After two days of trekking in the nearby scenic mountains, a group of us were guided - or goaded - to a place for a "free foot massage".
As soon as we made ourselves comfortable in a room arranged like a meeting hall, two dozen young men and women emerged, each holding a basin of water. They wore big smiles, and without hesitation, rolled up our pants and started rubbing.
Just as some of us were dozing off, a sharp-looking middle-aged man in a fancy suit jumped onto a small podium. He started to enumerate the countless benefits of some herbal medicine, or rather, diet supplement. God, he was eloquent! But nobody budged. We all wanted the freebie without the overpriced placebo.
Finally, someone said: "I'll buy one. I don't think we'll be let go without shelling out a single kuai."
Shouldn't local authorities, especially law enforcement, ensure such businesses avoid creeping into shady territory? Of course. They should not become the umbrella to shelter local businesses from anything unethical or illegal. That is the bottom line. But on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with maintaining a buddy-buddy relationship with those they tax and protect, and most of all, serve.
Am I so naive as to be blind to the obvious white-way, black-way (read: cop and mafia) conspiracy?
For me, a string of banners does not constitute even circumstantial evidence.
(China Daily 04/12/2008 page4)