- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
Truth is reportedly stranger than fiction. Reality, on the other hand, "leaps ahead of the satirist, like a cheetah," Christopher Buckley wrote to me in an email, when I asked if a character in his latest book is based on a real-life Chinese leader who just recently fell from grace. (He attributed the quote to the pro-communist Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, with what may or may not have been irony.)
The satirist Buckley, who penned Thank You for Smoking and is the son of conservative hero William F. Buckley Jr., published in 2012 They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?: A Novel, about a defense lobbyist contracted to foment turbulence with China to justify an expensive weapons system. The pleasantly absurd tale involves poisoning the Dalai Lama, the Chinese president holding meetings in his bathroom to avoid being spied on by his security services, and a D.C. think tank with the not-too-unbelievable name of the Institute for Continuing Conflict.
But character Lo Guowei, the "scary, sexually aggressive minister of state security" seems all too real. A subplot concerns Lo’s power struggle with the Chinese party secretary Fa Mengyao, a gray apparatchik modeled after Hu Jintao, China’s top leader from 2002 to 2012. Lo loses: Fa successfully frames him for trying to poison the Dalai Lama without consulting the rest of the top leadership. At the end of the book, agents from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party organization tasked with policing party members, detain Lo. "You will look back on this day and curse your mothers’ wombs," Lo says, as he is taken into custody.
There aren’t too many fictionalized accounts of power struggles among China’s top leadership — in part because the real ones are so opaque. On July 29, as part of a sweeping anti-corruption drive instituted by President Xi Jinping, Beijing announced an investigation into Zhou Yongkang, the domestic security czar from 2007 to 2012 who oversaw the police force, the courts, and other organs of state security. Such a public proclamation means he almost certainly will be found guilty; Xi’s move against Zhou is probably the biggest shake-up in elite politics in China in decades.
Did Zhou have Lo in mind? While Zhou is a level above the fictional Lo on the party hierarchy, "There are a few parallels between the two gents," Buckley wrote FP in an email. That said, "Lo is my own confection, disappointing as that may be."
It is unknown exactly how Zhou fell — probably some combination of corruption, his reported support for disgraced former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, and a power struggle between Xi, and Zhou and the more conservative faction that he represents. It is also unknown what role Hu, the former party secretary, played in Zhou’s ouster, if any. It is safe to assume a plot to poison the Dalai Lama — still healthy at 79 — had nothing to do with Zhou’s fall.
But who knows? Maybe the real reasons are far more intriguing. As Buckley said: "You can’t beat reality."