At the Bottom of the Heap
The chairman of the Bench had wanted to send Chu Hua to prison, so she had been let out of the dock to speak to the duty solicitor in case he could persuade the magistrates to a less vengeful sentence. Now she sat squirming downwards and backwards into her chair, her dull eyes flickering in fear, clutching her threadbare jacket against the chill of the interview room. She did not look like a criminal who threatened to undermine what all right-thinking people – like magistrates – uphold as the basis of civilised society. It was not that she had cloned credit cards, nor dealt in controlled drugs. She had not sexually abused any children, nor deceived impoverished young women in Eastern Europe into coming here only to find that the well paid jobs they had been promised were really as enslaved prostitutes. She had not murdered anyone, nor robbed a bank at the point of a gun. “So why did you” asked the solicitor, “try to sell those counterfeit DVDs?”
It was sad story, eked out with the help of the interpreter. Chu Hua was born in a remote village in North China; the interpreter knew of the area, that it was deeply impoverished, obviously not borne up by the flood of supposed prosperity of supposed “socialist” China. Chu Hua’s parents tried to provide for their family from what little they produced in their vegetable garden. They could not afford to send the children to school so Chu Hua was scantily educated and illiterate, with no prospects of improving in that village. In 2001 she came to England as an asylum seeker, on the grounds that she was a member of the Fa Lung Kung cult. Her application was refused and now she has to report each month to the Home Office Immigration Service, and she is not allowed to take employment or apply for benefit. Sometimes she gets cash-in-hand work as a cleaner but this lasts for only a week or so because she is scared of being reported for benefit fraud. She is reduced to relying on friends and other contacts for food and somewhere to live, sleeping on floors in a roomful of other people. But bad as this is she thinks it is better than her former life in China.
On the face of it, the Fa Lung Kung seems to do little more than practise slow, hypnotic, Tai-Chi like meditation exercises – like those hardy early morning groups in many an English park. The problem in China was that it developed into a hugely popular movement with a membership large enough, and ardent enough, for the government to outlaw it as a destabilising influence. At some point it wandered beyond meditation, claiming that its followers can see through a “third eye” which protects them and can cure them of diseases. Such preoccupations, on a large scale, can be addictive enough to affect workers’ disciplined acceptance of their role as wage slaves. A ruling class will not be happy to allow too much brainwashing which does not promote their own power and influence over society. At times Fa Lung Kung has been tolerated in China (although it was banned under Mao Zedong’s regime as unhealthy and superstitious) but in recent years there has been a fierce crackdown in which the cult’s followers lost their jobs or were sent to prison where they were beaten or even killed. As might be expected, the movement spawned a considerable media industry and not a few con artists to exploit anyone vulnerable to claims about mystical powers of mental adjustment to social stress. Even so the mere fact of membership of the cult was accepted in the United States as justification for asylum; as Chu Hua soon found out, that did not apply in this country.
So she spends most of her days wandering along the local High Street and it was there, in an indoor market, that a man who must have noticed her vulnerability suggested that she could earn a little money by helping him sell some DVDs. It was not long before the police saw her – and recognised her as someone who had been arrested twice before for the same offence. Her two previous appearances in Court had resulted in her being ordered to do Community Service, which she had completed happily as it was better than the High Street and kept her occupied, scrubbing off graffiti or cleaning school playgrounds. She must have wondered why she was not allowed to do the same kind of work for a wage. But now this was her third such offence in a short period and the Court was running out of patience with her.
The recent explosion in the production and sale of pirated DVDs has alarmed the industry, which sees it as a threat to its profits. The biggest operator in this field is HMV, which also trades in CDs and owns the Waterstones booksellers. During the last complete year, HMV recorded a pre-tax profit of ú136.2 million – up by 9.9 percent on the previous year. Not all of this, of course, came from the sale of DVDs; Waterstones is notorious for its ruthless cost cutting war against independent booksellers and makes huge profits from best-sellers like the Harry Potter books. But DVDs are extremely important to HMV’s profits; while the group’s underlying sales were down by 4 percent during the last year the sale of DVDs went up, and with it HMV’s share of the market for them, of which the group claims to have “the lion’s share”. So they are bound to take any threat to their pre-eminent position seriously – and that does not mean they worry about a few school-age computer wizards downloading and writing their own, illegal, copies of DVDs to share with their mates.
The copyright laws, with their harsh penalties, are there to aid HMV in their war against the pirates. One local authority recently decided that pirated DVDs and CDs represented so urgent a threat to their community that they formed an alliance with the local police to hunt down the pirates and close down their factories. On one gloriously successful day for the partnership the local plods and council penpushers seized ú30,000 worth of illegal DVDs and CDs from one business, then a few days later went to the place again and took possession of another ú20,000 worth. During the past year they have “visited” more than 90 premises, seized over 150,000 items, closed down one DVD factory and launched several prosecutions. These achievements are publicised by the council with such pride that some of their citizens may overlook the fact that they do not have an exactly successful record when it comes to their other responsibilities. Not long ago this council was assessed, in terms of the services it supplies to vulnerable people such as the homeless, the elderly or children in need, as one of the worst in London, to the extent that they were under threat of being taken over by a Whitehall hit squad.
But of course that council was utterly correct in its priorities because the realisation of a profit through the orderly, legally controlled process of production for sale must take precedence over any human need. It is the priority of capitalism and when all is said and done it is what people like councillors and MPs are elected for – at least as things are for the present. If we had a society with a different priority wealth would be turned out to meet human needs, so that all people would have unfettered access to it, which would be enough to give any self-respecting councillor a seizure. It would be the end of the social arrangements which made it imperative for Chu Hua to come all that way across the world although when she got here it was made plain to her that she was not welcome. And now she is a threat to a mighty corporation like HMV.
In any event Chu Hua’s fears overcame her; she took her chance to leave the Court and did not come back. Huffing and puffing, the chairman was openly pleased to have his opinion of her so quickly vindicated and readily agreed to the prosecutor’s request for a warrant for her arrest. If she comes up in Court again she will have yet another charge – Failing to Surrender – against her. She is out there somewhere, scraping along somehow, vulnerable to a host of predators. We can only hope she survives.