Essay: Art and graft

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Entering Chen Fang’s narrow, darkened apartment in Beijing, the walls stacked to the ceiling with books, is a disquieting, slightly eerie experience.

The ailing author sits immobile in his armchair in the living room, his back to the entrance, too sick to turn and greet his visitors, who can’t see his face until they walk through the room to sit by his side.

Chen still struggles to write a few hours a day, but whatever he produces, his legacy is assured by his pioneering “anti-corruption novels”, written in the 1990s, a body of fictionalised works whose plots trace real cases of graft in the communist state.

After the release of The Wrath of Heaven in 1995, a roman a clef about bribery at the top of the Beijing city government, Chen was beaten up by gangs and temporarily banned from publishing. “In China, there is a high risk in writing about corruption,” he says.

Chen talks laboriously following a recent stroke and can only spare half an hour before he must rest. He chain-smokes, using his one working arm to bring a cigarette slowly to his mouth, pausing in between puffs to gasp for breath.

The sensation caused by The Wrath of Heaven inspired a flurry of novels about corruption, spawning a popular genre that promotes itself as a form of fiction spiked with fact. The books prey on public cynicism about Communist party officials and titillate readers with details about the degenerate ways of top cadres and their families and mistresses - stories that the official press would publish only rarely.

”You can seldom see artistically delicate works among novels of this kind, but readers like them,” says Yang Yang, a professor at East China Normal University. “Ordinary people may hear about some corruption cases but don’t know what actually happened and how bad the corruption can be.”

Some of the novels are mere pulp fiction, chronicles of the criminal lifestyles of the rich and famous that masquerade as political exposes. But others, starting with The Wrath of Heaven, are sophisticated acts of subversion against the ruling party and brutal critiques of the Chinese system.

Chen’s target in the 1990s was the then Beijing mayor, Chen Xitong, and his clique, including his deputy and his son. The events of the book mirror his life - the deputy mayor shot himself through the head when he discovered he was under investigation. About a year before the book came out, the mayor was removed from his job, at the time the most senior official ever to be ousted in a corruption probe. But few details of his case had been published before The Wrath of Heaven appeared.

Chen says he was driven to write the book because of the mayor’s role in the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. But the author was not without top-level support himself. Jiang Zemin, China’s then president and a bitter enemy of the mayor, praised the book publicly, before the authorities decided enough dirty linen had been aired and banned it from sale.

Jiang’s brief intervention in favour of The Wrath of Heaven was telling. Although Chen denies it, many in Beijing believe his book was partially orchestrated by the mayor’s political enemies - Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai Gang” - to bring him down.

Just as potent as the personalities in The Wrath of Heaven was the book’s vivid description of the anti-corruption campaigns and the frustrations that their investigators laboured under. “I am not writing about the individual. I am writing about the system,” says Chen.

One character sardonically describes the investigation process thus: “An anti-corruption campaign is when a tiger makes a report, the fox claps his hands, laughing, the fly hums along happily and only the mice run scared in the streets.”

The investigators in Chen’s tale internalise the constraints that the system puts on them; they have to probe enough to keep the system afloat, but not so much as to bring the whole edifice down.

”The anti-corruption campaign makes a lot of thunder these days and quite a bit of rain,” remarks one official in the book. “But rainstorms always come to an end. Once we are past the dangerous part of the storm, there will still be a lot of thunder, but less rain. And then after a while you won’t hear any thunder at all.”

These half-fact, half-fiction novels exist in a similar sort of space. They are permitted periodically by the authorities, which publicly say they want to stamp out official graft, as long as the books chime with the needs of Beijing’s own anti-corruption campaigns. Most importantly, they should not impugn the very top leaders.

Still, the books have added a new dynamic to a system trying to adapt to greater pressures from the populace. Authors say they get the information for their books from investigators, often from the Central Disciplinary Commission, the body charged with policing party members.

”I receive lots of letters and phone calls from those people and some even come to my house directly,” said Zhang Ping, whose best known anti-corruption book is called The Choice. Still, Zhang doesn’t claim his books to be true. He prefers to call them a “shadow of life”.

He is also careful not to target the very top leaders. “I mainly write about county and township-level officials,” he says. Zhang works in Shanxi province, the rough, coal-rich revolutionary base of the Communist party and a place in which he says the clash between the rich, new China and the poorer, older and rural countryside is especially sharp. “The conflict between the traditional culture of feudalism and the modern market culture is serious here, so it is quite different from other provinces, and thus more interesting,” he says.

Zhang has his own definition of anti-corruption novels. In the Qing dynasty, he says, the popular “officialdom novels” were about official-to-official relationships. His are about “cadre-folk” relationships. “Corruption makes people lose faith in reform and that threatens the security of the whole nation,” he says. “These books stir civil hatred against corruption, and that is good for the development of the society.”

Sometimes, however, the officials bite back. Zhou Meisen had written books about official graft with titles such as Absolute Power, National Public Prosecutor and Highest Interest. But it wasn’t until he wrote A Just Path on Earth in 1997 that he ran into trouble. Zhou, 49, has a unique insight into officialdom, as he used to work in the top ranks of Xuzhou city, in prosperous Jiangsu province, learning, as he says, “the operation of the national machine”. When he left government and started writing about his experiences, his former colleagues were less than happy.

A Just Path on Earth was about garden-variety corruption in a mid-sized city, but cut too close to the bone for some. About 40 local officials in Jiangsu sued Zhou for defamation and only dropped the case when the author consented to go over the details of the issue in court.

Zhou says local officials are out for themselves and ignore any edict from Beijing unless there is something in it for them. “If there is an order from a higher level department to a lower-level one, and if the latter thinks the order will be beneficial for it, it will take action,” he says. “But if it thinks not, it will spread the order, but never implement it.”

Zhou was punished briefly after the defamation suit in 1998. His novels were banned, reporting about him suppressed and a television series based on one of his books was ditched. But he has since been “rehabilitated” and earns a handsome living from his books, which sell about 250,000 copies each.

One author who can match Zhou in sales and profile is Lu Tianming, who began writing anti-corruption novels a decade ago. He is so well known these days that when he gets in touch with provincial propaganda departments to tell them he is visiting to do research, they shut up shop. “It is impossible for me to get materials through official departments any more,” he says.

Lu’s reputation was amplified after the arrest late last year of Tian Fengshan, the land and resources minister, over his involvement in the practice of “selling government positions” in a previous job in Heilongjiang province. Lu had written two years earlier about Tian’s corruption in Heilongjiang, which borders Russia in China’s frigid north-east, in a book called The Snow Leaves No Trace, but had not dared to name him.

”When I finished writing the book, he was still a minister. By the time the TV series came out, he was sacked,” says Lu. “People said to me - you are not just writing what is happening but about what will happen.”

Lu says writing the anti-corruption tales is like “dancing on a knife”. But he has prospered in his profession, and now lives in a comfortable new apartment in a modern complex in Beijing’s northern suburbs.

A self-confessed “crazy” Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Lu can easily measure China’s progress since those years. “If you write something and they don’t like it, you don’t get punished severely any more,” he says. “You don’t get treated as a ‘rightist’ and marched off to a laogai [labour camp].”

But Lu also knows what lines not to cross, says his publisher, Chang Jing. His 2002 book, Provincial Party Secretary, dealt with top-level officials but had an “active” tone, according to Chang, which made it possible to publish and market. “The provincial party secretary was fighting corruption and had a healthy image,” the publisher explains. The book sold 260,000 copies.

Ten years after the publication of The Wrath of Heaven, the steady stream of anti-corruption novels has made such books almost commonplace, a part of the landscape of publishing, just as detective fiction and police dramas are in the west.

Privately, Chinese officials defend a measure of corruption as necessary to grease the wheels of the system. But in reality, they know that if the issue were really tackled, one-party rule would unravel - something they equate with national calamity.

In a memorable speech in The Wrath of Heaven, a corrupt official in the Beijing mayor’s office demands that Chinese officials not be benchmarked against bureaucrats overseas. “How can Chinese officials compare with Hong Kong officials? Can they compare with Taiwan officials? Or with the officials of the developed countries?” he says. “The salaries of public officials in foreign countries are dozens or even more than a hundred times higher than the salaries of Chinese officials.

”Moreover, a long anti-corruption campaign would expose the dark side of the Communist party. If many of these things were to be exposed, the masses would lose their faith in the Chinese Communist party. Who could accept the historic responsibility for doing this?”

Richard McGregor is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief.

THE WRATH OF HEAVEN

by Chen Fang

China Film Press Rmb68, 1,427 pages

A JUST PATH ON EARTH

Zhou Meisen

The People’s Literature Publishing House Rmb25.80, 454 pages

THE SNOW LEAVES NO TRACE

Lu Tianming

Jilin People’s Publishing House Rmb22, 462 pages

(In Chinese: not yet translated into English)

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