by Henrietta Wang
Christmas is upon us once again, and all over Beijing, there's something in the air. The very atmosphere seems charged, somehow. Yes, it's static electricity. But it's not just restricted to causing minor yelps in the population and low-level stress when reaching for taxi doors. Static electricity is having wider ranging, longer term and deeper seated repercussions.
"I just felt it was time to move on," says Hu Ranran of her decision to split up with fiance Jia Kaiwen only months before their planned wedding date. "For well over a month now, we've been getting electric shocks off one another whenever we hold hands while out walking. Despite our relationship having no other problems whatsoever, I thought it was a sign, so that's it." Jia, working late at his office, was unavailable for comment.
It's not just Beijing's lovers who are feeling the hair-raising buzz of static. Estate agency boss Chen Yuan found that cost-saving measures backfired when he installed linoleum throughout his company's offices, only to find productivity slashed thanks to a workforce fearful of touching almost any item in the building. "One day I came upstairs to find a semicircle of about eight people all hovering around the door to the filing room. Everyone was unwilling to be the first to touch the door handle and thus receive the electric shock." Showing characteristic management acumen, Chen solved the problem by 'accidentally' nudging one of the secretaries into the door while she was distracted by a passing bee.
The manufacturing sector has also been hit. Liu Yubao, whose Beijing factory manufactures a sub-Gobots line of Transformers ripoffs (featuring such characters as fussy leader Optimus Prim, highly metal-adhesive Ultra Magnet and villain Starescream, who has the uncanny ability to gaze unblinking for hours at the paintings of Edvard Munch), ignored employee complaints about a highly charged factory floor for months. He was finally spurred into action when a senior packaging moulder was hurled several metres across the room by a shock from the vacuum former he had been about to use. Productivity is slowly climbing at the site, but employee morale is low, as Liu was forced to outfit all his workers with rubber waders, which the staff feel make them "look silly".
"This could not have come at a worse time," says Liu. Profits have been down since he was forced to scrap production of an entire line, local authorities having banned the sale of "Smegatron" to minors. Sales of the replacement robot toy, the beverage container "Mugatron", have been slow.
It may not all be doom and gloom, however. Beijing researchers are working on a scientific application for the city's static plague. Boffins at the People's Very Large Electricity College are developing a way to turn the entire city and its residents into, effectively, a gigantic capacitor for storing electrical charge. "We don't yet have any idea what we'd actually use a city-sized capacitor for," said a spokesman, "but after the Red Banner Mega-Rheostat project, it seemed the next logical step."