The Rules of the Game
China's booming bureaucracy lit is part exposé -- and part how-to guide.
For more on why Chinese readers are so entranced by tales of low-level bureacratic intrigue, click here.
Zhao Deliang is Jiangnan’s party secretary. Scholarly in appearance and modestly mannered, he is a master at playing by the opaque rules of Chinese politics. But now the system is working against him. He’s an outsider in Jiangnan, flown in from Beijing to ensure that the province toes the Communist Party line. Zhao lacks the local connections to tell him whom he can trust, and he sorely needs them: A series of ambitious governors have successfully disgraced several of his predecessors. And so the stage is set for Zhao to fight his battle. If he succeeds, nobody on the outside will notice. Fail, and he’ll be shipped off to a backwater.
For all its resemblance to the recent political intrigue in China, Zhao’s story, like the province of Jiangnan, is fiction — a plotline from author Huang Xiaoyang’s series Second in Command, the hottest of China’s red-hot “officialdom novels,” so named because they bring readers into the rarified world of Chinese bureaucratic politics, drawing back the curtain on a civil service with thousands of years of history. The first of Huang’s three planned volumes was published in May 2011 and sold 100,000 copies in its initial month on the market. By October, a month after the second book was published, the two volumes together had sold 630,000 copies in print. Their actual readership is likely many times higher — the books, like many bestsellers in China, are widely available online, legally and otherwise.
But if Second in Command illustrates the explosive success of the officialdom novel, it also exemplifies the genre’s precarious status in China. Truth, it turns out, has started imitating fiction in ways that have made the Chinese government most uncomfortable. Corruption scandals in China are nothing new, of course. But the explosive downfall of Bo Xilai — the flamboyant party secretary of my home city of Chongqing, ousted in March as an investigation was launched into whether his wife had murdered a British businessman and amid much speculation that his growing power threatened Beijing’s authority — is unprecedented in post-Mao China. Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who sometimes performed his department’s own autopsies and whose one-night refuge at a U.S. consulate in February eventually helped bring down Bo, seems more like a character in a Hollywood film than a Chinese official. So while Bo’s personality may differ from the fictional Zhao’s, the political struggles described in Second in Command were prescient enough that they quickly became a sensitive subject.
The novel’s third volume, parts of which have been widely serialized online, was scheduled to be published last November. But it never was. In May, a source close to the publisher told me “authorities” had instructed the company not to print the book and not to publicize its cancellation. Two months before that, the source had said the publisher was concerned “the public might associate the book with Chongqing’s officialdom.” But that, of course, was exactly the novel’s appeal.
CHINA’S OFFICIALDOM NOVELS date back many decades. They first boomed in popularity in the late Qing dynasty with books like Officialdom Unmasked (also translated as The Bureaucrat: A Revelation). Originally serialized in 1903 in a small newspaper founded by author Li Boyuan, himself a failed civil servant, the novel portrays the skulduggery — from buying and selling official posts to slaughtering civilians to get credit for suppressing bandits — of several dozen officials in the Qing Empire court. Many characters were modeled after real-life figures, giving these books a sharp critical edge and earning them the nickname “condemnation novels.”
China’s nascent tradition of social criticism flourished throughout the first half of the 20th century, reaching another high point in the late 1930s and 1940s amid the rank corruption of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, headquartered in Chongqing during World War II. After Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, however, social criticism became increasingly intolerable to the authorities, and when the 1957 anti-rightist movement shut down all dissenting voices in the country, officialdom novels virtually died out.
Socially critical fiction reappeared in the late 1970s after Mao’s death, but the revival of the officialdom novel came much later. The current boom started in 1999, when Wang Yuewen, a midlevel civil servant for the Hunan provincial government, published Ink Painting, a novel about city administrator Zhu Huaijing. The protagonist’s best friend, an eccentric and gifted artist, entrusts him with an ink painting, which the city’s mayor covets. Forced to choose between his friend and his desire for career advancement, Zhu gifts the painting to the mayor, binding their careers together. Ink Painting‘s realistic depiction of modern government corruption resonated with readers, and it went on to sell 100,000 copies in two months, while pirated copies, sold off the mats of sidewalk hawkers, went the pre-Internet equivalent of viral. Wang was laid off from his government job a year later, officially because of downsizing. In a 2009 essay published in the Beijing News, Wang claimed the book had gotten him fired. Powerful people, he said, “thought I broke the rules of the game.”
The newer officialdom novels offer not so much criticism as tips on how to get into the game — a testament to China’s growing culture of careerism. Picture the film Wall Street featuring a happy ending (the system is good!) with karaoke-singing women and baijiu liquor replacing strippers and cocaine, and earnestly corrupt, low-ranking officials instead of corporate raiders, and you’re mostly there. As China’s middle class has expanded over the past decade, novelists have shifted their focus from critiquing the government to explaining what is actually happening inside it. Today’s bestselling officialdom novels are not necessarily aimed at exposing social problems or government corruption (though its depiction is unavoidable). Instead, they instruct readers on how best to climb the government ladder.
An entire litany of terms has sprung up to describe China’s new reality. One popular expression is qian guize, or “hidden rules,” now commonly used to mean dirty deals required for career advancement. The term was popularized by journalist Wu Si in his 2001 book, Hidden Rules: The Real Game in Chinese History, a collection of tales showing how unspoken conventions, rather than formal laws and high-sounding moral principles, actually govern China.
Enter Huang, whose Second in Command has the odd subtitle, “Being an Official Is a Job of Techniques.” Huang writes on his blog that his intention was “to write about logic, order, and rules” for the Chinese civil service. In other words, he wants everyone to know the rules of the game.
Indeed, Second in Command is a kind of handbook for getting ahead — a novelized The Art of War for aspiring bureaucrats. It offers tips for how to talk to one’s boss in different situations. For example, when working for a government official, have three different addresses on hand: Call him by his title when he’s next to a higher-ranking official to show formality, refer to him as “boss” (laoban) in private to show closeness, and when he’s surrounded by his peers, call them each “chief officer” (shouzhang) to accord them all equal prestige. Another classic tip: Subordinates should try to ensure that their boss’s car stops two steps away from anyone waiting to meet him so that he doesn’t appear either overeager or distant.
It’s no wonder, then, that according to a 2009 survey in the Chinese magazine Decision Making, which says its readers are “those who make decisions at every level of government, and those who serve the decision-makers,” 59 percent of those who read officialdom novels did so to “understand the current situation in official circles,” while only 48 percent did so to read about “exposing corruption.” Second in Command and similar books, like Hou Weidong’s Officialdom Notes, an eight-part series about an ambitious young man’s ascent through party ranks, have been hailed by Chinese media and readers as “must-reads,” “survival manuals,” and “textbooks” for government employees.
Even for government officials, these novels offer some of the clearest explanations of China’s notoriously closed-off political system. For readers without government connections, the books satisfy a craving for a peep behind the bamboo curtain of high politics. “People want to climb up officialdom ladders but can’t,” explains Chongqing critic and historian He Shu. “People dare to be angry at, but don’t dare to speak against, government officials. They all need to find an outlet.”
“WHAT IS THE MOST mysterious organization in the world?” a widely circulated Chinese joke goes. The answer is the “relevant department.” It is a truism in China that when a citizen comes forward with a complaint, officials simply say the “relevant department” is handling it — never disclosing which department that is. The term made a memorable appearance in a March speech by Premier Wen Jiabao that foretold Bo’s demise the next day. “I can tell everyone that the central government has attached great importance [to the case] and immediately instructed the relevant departments to carry out a special investigation,” Wen said.
Keeping officialdom politics secret has been the intent of Chinese rulers from ancient emperors to Mao to the current leadership. With the advent of these new scandals, however, it’s becoming harder for the relevant departments to keep the lid on. As China’s burgeoning social media landscape exposes the world of government bureaucrats, public calls for transparency have grown louder. In a way, that’s what the novels offer: Many authors of these books are former officials themselves or else have close contacts with officials, enabling them to provide realistic and meticulous details about Chinese political culture — so lifelike, in fact, that they nearly mirror real events.
Consider the following scenario from Second in Command, published months before the Bo scandal. Party boss Zhao knows only two locals when he arrives in Jiangnan, both former classmates — one from university and one from the Communist Party School, a training institute for government officials. They introduce Zhao to some of the province’s key power brokers, and after he runs a “sweep the black” campaign (eerily similar to Bo’s real-life “smash the black” campaign against alleged mobsters in Chongqing), his hold seems secure. But shortly before the provincial party congress, held every four years to decide provincial power transitions, the governor’s allies secretly arrest Zhao’s university friend, a rich businessman, on unspecified charges and torture him to try to obtain corruption evidence against Zhao. Like the Bo scandal, this intense power struggle occurs just months before a major political transition and features incidents of extrajudicial brutality, much like Chongqing under police chief Wang.
Was Second in Command meant as a critique of the kind of political corruption exemplified by Bo and Wang? When I contacted Chongqing Publishing House in March, the novel’s editor declined a request for an interview because, as she put it, officialdom novels are “sensitive” at the moment. “I hope you don’t write about the book,” she said. Another editor at the same publishing house, Chen Xiaowen, who was not involved in publishing Second in Command, emailed me to say, “Though officialdom novels reflect aspects of the current situation, such as corruption and ‘hidden rules,’ they’re for consumption, not criticism.” As for Huang, who had ignored my messages in an online chat in February, he replied a month later — after Bo’s ouster — saying that answering my questions would be “inconvenient.”
But Huang’s novel speaks for itself. In the book, Zhao knows that the governor illegally imprisoned his friend to obtain corruption evidence against him. Zhao, who is largely clean (he does not need money because his wife is a wealthy businesswoman, like Bo’s wife), does not openly investigate the case or try to harm his opponent. That would indict too many officials, disturbing both the province’s political order and Zhao’s career. Instead, he works within the system, suggesting that his subordinates elect his imprisoned friend as a party congress representative, trying to force the friend’s release, and promoting several of his opponent’s co-conspirators despite their misdeeds. Huang portrays Zhao’s moves as political masterstrokes because they resolve the crisis without interrupting “harmony,” at least on the surface. In the idealized world of Huang’s novel, China’s “hidden rules” are replaced by explicit rules, making the advancement game equalized and merit-based; if you want to succeed, you play your role properly rather than trying to subvert the system.
This advice, of course, comes too late for Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun, who behaved less rationally than the characters in the novel. Indeed, Huang at first refused to believe Wang could do such a stupid thing as fleeing into a U.S. consulate, writing in February on his microblog that the story “doesn’t follow officialdom logic” and was therefore “a poorly made rumor.” In April, when the news became widely known, Huang shifted to arguing that Bo and Wang had brought the scandal upon themselves. “To be invincible,” he wrote, “one must follow the rules.”