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David Wertime

“Help Me Pay This Bill”: A Short But Incisive Send-Up of Chinese Corruption

“Even the food on the table was enough to wipe out three months of my income.” (InterContinental Hong Kong/Flickr)

This article also appears on ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

It’s a social media classic, a send-up of the corruption and profligacy that so often enrage Web users in China. A very short story variously titled “I Did Not Eat For Free” and “Help Me Pay This Bill” has been making the rounds for months on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, not to mention Tianya, a Chinese Internet forum since 2006. On Weibo, the short story has been shared over 100,000 times. As user @王雪野 writes, “With just 800 characters, the author has revealed our society vividly and incisively.” Tea Leaf Nation translates, with the original Chinese version at bottom. The story is sometimes attributed to a woman named Huang Yanmei.

I Did Not Eat For Free

Today is the weekend; my high school classmates are having a reunion at the Tian An hotel.

Since we graduated, many of my classmates have gone on to do big things, but I’ve been kind of a nobody, a draftsman at a factory, supporting the family with my husband and scraping by on our meager income. Originally I didn’t plan to go, but my classmates were all so hospitable, I could only say yes.

My husband is helping our son with his schoolwork, and our son is about to enter junior high. In order to him get into a good school, my husband has taken no small pains during this time, running around everywhere. After checking in on my son, I left the house.

Tian An hotel is a fancy hotel. When I walked into the suite, I saw all of my classmates crowded around. Before I could even sit down, business cards started flying my way. Everyone was either a CEO or on their way to being one. Even my friend A Hui, whose grades were the worst in class, was chief of a police station.

As the waitress put plate after plate of dazzling food on the table, I felt so small and pathetic; even the food on the table was enough to wipe out three months of my income. A Hui seemed to be the host of the feast, constantly calling for everyone to eat, toasting everyone, ordering more food, saying “just eat, I’ll take care of it.” Everyone seemed to be having a good time, passing glasses around and gossiping about everything under the sun.

After everyone was stuffed, it was getting late and time for the party to end. So who was going to pay the bill? It looked like no one wanted to pay. Then A Hui took out his cell phone, dialed a bunch of numbers, and said: “Xiao Li, did you catch anyone on your anti-vice raids tonight? Good! Good! Send one to Tian An hotel to pay my bill.”

After he spoke, he proudly placed his cell phone in his pocket, and everyone had a laugh. Before fifteen minutes had passed, a middle aged person entered the room, looked at the bill, wrinkled his brow, and counted the cash on him, which wasn’t enough.

[The middle-aged man] then took out his own cell phone, dialed a string of numbers, and said, “Liao Gong? I’m Dean Ma! I heard you wanted to transfer your son to our school. I’ll give you the OK today…but, I invited friends to have dinner tonight, can you come by and help pay the bill? We’re at suite 203 in the Tian An hotel…”

Twenty minutes later, someone knocked at the suite door, then the door opened. When I saw my husband standing there with his pair of thick prescription glasses, I fainted.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.