Apartment Heating: Democracy at Work

In some countries you pay your electricity every month to an electric company, based on what amount you have used for the preceding month. When you set up the account they will come by and check your meter and begin the count. In the Komaba International House in Japan, near Tokyo University’s Komaba campus, where I lived for a few months as a student, you “charged” your room with electricity and the amount still remaining on your account was displayed conveniently on a little meter near the entrance to one’s room.


Everyday you could see how much “juice” you had left and could make a guess as to whether you had enough to make it through another day. This was a reasonable system, once you got used to it, although the dormitory had its other issues.

Here in my apartment in China, they opted for another method. You charge your room with electricity, as one does at the Komaba dormitory in Japan, but the only place you can read the meter is hidden deep in the bowels of the pipe room of one’s floor where it is accessible only to a custodian with a flashlight and a hefty collection of keys.

So when I came down with a horrible fever and cold this week, and was drifting in and out of consciousness, I was not happy to discover that, in the middle of the night, my electricity shut off, and therefore my electric heater, because my charge had run out. Stumbling around in the darkness, knocking over a cup of cold tea leaf filled tea, I managed to make my way down to security and they got the poor janitor up to charge my room with another 10RMB (the maximum amount the janitor is allowed to accept from me outside of regular hours), which, it turned out, provided only another 8 hours of continuous heating for my room with my electric heater.

So, as you can imagine, I have been eagerly awaiting that beautiful moment when “the heating” turns on for my building (and my city? I’m not sure, but this is usually a pretty centralized operation in China) and I can stop wasting electricity on my (less efficient) electric heater. The nice steamy water pipe heating I have been waiting for made for a cozy and comfortable winter when I lived in China last time in 1999-2000, as long as one didn’t touch the pipes at their entry point. I’m not exactly sure by what mysterious process it gets decided by the powers that be that it is cold enough to have heating, but, believe, me, it is.

Thus consider my dismay when I get on the elevator in my apartment complex today to see a sign that says,

“53 households said they want heating this winter, while 34 households said they did not want heating this winter. In accordance with the law, since less than 70% of the households in the building want heating this winter, we will not be turning on the heat.”

It looks like, in addition to not getting any of the mail sent to me here in China over the last month despite several confirmations of my address, somebody else might have used my ballot for this crucial election…

3 thoughts on “Apartment Heating: Democracy at Work”

  1. In 小区s I’ve lived in, you just had the option of opting out of it. The heat was usually truly almost useless but it kept the inside temperature above freezing for the coldest two months. (I was just down the traintracks from you, in Xuzhou).

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