Capitalist cockroaches scuttle through China's open window

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The Independent Online
There comes a point when one must accept defeat in the struggle against the massed armies of Mother Nature, and that point came yesterday. After a three-year war of attrition, I called in the professionals.

Enter Hu Shuqing, cockroach exterminator by appointment. For seven years, Mr Hu has been in charge of roach riddance in the embassies and diplomatic compounds of Peking, (which may or may not have been a promotion from his previous job as gardener at the British embassy).

So yesterday morning, Mr Hu was summoned to the Independent's modest apartment. He came equipped with the trappings of an emergency service executive - mobile phone and pager. His subordinate swiftly took up a front line position in the kitchen - face-mask at the ready, a cannister of imported French and Dutch poison strapped to his back, and the spraygun at hand.

The hot and humid weather of recent weeks has encouraged a breeding frenzy among Peking's cockroaches, and expatriates are everywhere bemoaning the audacity of these uninvited house-guests. But, according to Mr Hu, we have only ourselves to blame. "In the 1940s and 1950s there were no cockroaches in China. The roaches are brought by the foreigners in ships and in containers. Chinese homes do not have roaches, although some of the restaurants do have," explained Mr Hu.

Thus there is an added hazard for Chinese people working for foreigners. Cockroaches have been found in the homes of people working for the Diplomatic Services Bureau, the Chinese government-run depart- ment which provides local staff for embassies, diplomats and foreign journalists, Mr Hu admitted. "Because the DSB employees work in the foreigners' flats and offices, the cockroaches can creep into their bags, pockets, hats and winter overcoats, and get taken home. It only takes two roaches to start breeding," he said.

Like so many sensitive diplomatic issues, the question of cockroaches provokes yet more cultural friction between China and the rest of the world. Westerners in China spend their time complaining that in no other country have they shared an apartment with so many pests. But over the past three years Chinese people, just like Mr Hu, have repeatedly told me that only foreigners have roaches in their homes. After China launched its open door policies in 1980, the leadership famously warned that "if you open a window, some flies are bound to come in". Not only flies, it seems.

With between one and five extermination call-outs per day, Mr Hu is now a self-styled expert on the habits of the Peking cockroach. "If there is no food then they will eat the wool in carpets and clothes. If no wool, then they eat paper or wood. The more things you own, the more roaches you will have," he said, seeming to suggest that cockroaches were a just punishment for bourgeois capitalist over-consumption. The British embassy in Peking had a bad roach problem, he added.

Cockroaches are no trifling adversary. American and Chinese scientists, Mr Hu said, had shown that a roach carried about 100 viruses and had no known natural predators. Small cockroaches could creep into children's ears and noses. "The more you try to take them out, the deeper they creep inside," he warned. "The only good thing about cockroaches is that they can resist cancer. If you inject cancer into a cockroach then all those viruses will destroy the cancer. But the scientists have not found a way to isolate this resistance."

Roaches are territorially ambitious. It is unwise to take a holiday, as many people like me are discovering as they return to Peking after a summer break. "The cockroaches in the neighbourhood will move in if you are absent. If there are people around they are more frightened." Their only bit of obliging behaviour was that they would die "in visible places", Mr Hu promised.

So how, I wondered, did the roach man view his likely career progression? The outlook was not that promising, lamented Mr Hu. He should have changed jobs two years ago, because the exposure to chemicals was not good for him. (That said, Mr Hu had remained safely in the corridor outside the apartment while his assistant with the spray-gun took on the enemy inside.)

The trouble was that China's booming economy provided more enticing job opportunities. "There is just no one to replace me," Mr Hu said. "They would all rather work in the embassies."