Conflict resolution in China

Posted: October 12, 2011 in Chinese Culture
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The Shanghaiist recently reported this story about a group of three teenagers who got in a tussle with two security guards at a Kunming KTV. The guards proceeded to call in 35 of their guard buddies who went to town on the kids with clubs and rods, killing one of them. The piece pointed out a tendency in China to not fight “mano-a-mano,” but rather involve everyone each party can recruit to come to their defense.

It reminded me of something that happened when I lived Nanjing a few years ago. Down the street there was a sports university that trains aspiring athletes. Two students (who were either boxers or some kind of martial arts experts, I can’t recall exactly) enjoyed picking fights, or at least intimidating people into taking their verbal abuse for no particular reason (you know the type, they exist in any country). So one evening they went to a very low-end bar patronized by migrant workers. They approached a table of two and proceeded to inform the migrants how uncivilized they were. Slaps started being thrown amidst the verbal insults. Eventually several other migrants at the bar jumped in to fend off the bullies, so they retreated…back to the dorm to recruit more people.

5 or 6 of their chums accompanied them back to the bar where the tables turned against the migrants.  But the migrant workers managed to call up more conscripts.  The migrants had the numbers but still lacked the muscle, so one decided to even the playing field. He stuck a knife in the side of one of the original instigating jocks.

As the kid laid on the ground bleeding out, he yelled at his buddies to run back to campus and get even more reinforcements. He bled to death while his friends tried to talk him into giving up. After that the university passed a strict rule that students can’t drink or smoke…as if that was ever the problem.

This story was recounted to me second-hand, so it’s possible liberties were taken with some facts along the grapevine. But several independently told me the same thing and the the story-line seems very plausible considering how fights often go down in China. It’s not about who the toughest kid in school is, but who has more friends; or rather who can round up more friends on short notice. And the term “friends” here is used loosely. This often involves friends of friends and their extended families.

But the conflict need not always turn physical. When one side’s show of force is obviously greater, then comes the next logical step in any Chinese dispute: an exchange of money.

This might seem obvious in fights that involve cash or property damage, but even schoolyard brawls and spats that grow from  insults might end in “compensation.” One posse encircles the other and the weaker side pays up to avoid a beating…or a greater beating than they’ve already received.  A friend told me once of a fight at his high school that began between two guys over a girl. Supporting crews amassed and, when one overwhelmed the other, the losing side of about six people dished out nearly 3000 yuan to settle the conflict. My friend couldn’t remember where the girl fell in the transaction.

So yet another of many good reasons for foreigners not to drunkenly get in stupid fights with Chinese locals. One way or another, things will end badly for you.

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