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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Chinese Functionaries

Why are Chinese readers so entranced by tales of low-level bureaucratic intrigue?

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Click here for an exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming English translation of The Civil Servant's Notebook.

The Chinese are intensely curious about how their government works -- they just don't have the same level of access to politics that Americans do. As a result, officialdom novels, tales of low-ranking government administrators navigating China's murky political system, have become increasingly popular in the country over the last decade, as interest in civic affairs has grown. Often written by former local officials, the novels don't entirely peel back the curtain on the opaque world of elite politics -- recently shaken by the ouster of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai -- but they do provide a tantalizing glimpse of the corruption and intrigue at the heart of the Chinese bureaucracy. Here are five of the most popular and intriguing officialdom novels published in China over the past five years.

Director of the Beijing Reception Office

Click here for an exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming English translation of The Civil Servant’s Notebook.

The Chinese are intensely curious about how their government works — they just don’t have the same level of access to politics that Americans do. As a result, officialdom novels, tales of low-ranking government administrators navigating China’s murky political system, have become increasingly popular in the country over the last decade, as interest in civic affairs has grown. Often written by former local officials, the novels don’t entirely peel back the curtain on the opaque world of elite politics — recently shaken by the ouster of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai — but they do provide a tantalizing glimpse of the corruption and intrigue at the heart of the Chinese bureaucracy. Here are five of the most popular and intriguing officialdom novels published in China over the past five years.

Director of the Beijing Reception Office

Published in 2007, Director tells the story of a mildly corrupt official trying to manage the relationship between Beijing and his home city, the fictional Dongzhou. Widely considered the don of the officialdom novel genre, author Wang Xiaofang drew from his experiences in the late 1990s, when he worked as a secretary for a Shenyang deputy mayor who was later executed for corruption. (Wang wasn’t implicated, but his political career soon ended.) While he was fictionalizing many of his experiences in his books, journalists dug into Wang’s real life. In an interview with the Guardian, Wang scorned reports that a gang leader had given him an envelope containing more than $30,000 in cash for his boss. “They are just writing stuff from the Internet, not what I said,” he vowed — before clarifying, “It was $20,000.” 

The Female Party Secretary’s Male Secretary
Although more than 20 percent of Chinese Communist Party members were women as of 2010, high-ranking female officials are rare, and only one sits on the 25-member Politburo, China’s highest governing body. In this novel, the vice mayor of the fictional city of Pingzhou is found dead in her office under mysterious circumstances, throwing the city’s bureaucratic cadres and ordinary citizens into confusion. As a result, Pingzhou’s female party secretary, Ding Luzhen, must balance a search for the truth with both political expediencies and her own feelings. One of the leading suspects in the murder case is the city’s chief inspector, who — perhaps unsurprisingly — happens to have been Ding’s first love. The book’s author, Yan Bo, studied at a Communist Party institute in the city of Tianjin and claims to have published more than 3 million words, including The Female Secretary of the Deputy Governor, subtitled “A Woman Overturns the Men’s Officialdom Universe.”

Hou Weidong’s Officialdom Notes
This eight-part series, which has sold more than 3 million copies since its publication in 2010, follows officialdom everyman Hou Weidong over a decade as he ascends the local bureaucracy with equal parts charm, corruption, and hard work. Like many in the genre, the series reads as part fiction, part real-world training manual. Its covers feature a red stamp that says, “Must-Read for Government Officials,” and the fourth book in the series claims to teach readers how “to make the boss’s boss admire you.” Writing under the pen name “Little Bridge Old Tree,” the author mysteriously referred to himself as “a director of some bureau in some city in some province” until Chinese media outed him as the deputy director of a sanitation bureau in Chongqing. The author, Zhang Bing, recently told the New Yorker that he plans to end the series with Hou becoming a major city’s party secretary. “I don’t really understand the world above that,” Zhang explained, “so if I keep writing it won’t be authentic.”

Running in Official Circles
The promotional materials for this 2011 book by Xu Kaizhen — the former manager of a state-owned factory and now the author of more than half a dozen officialdom novels, including Deputy to the National People’s Congress and Provincial Party Committee Group — promises to explain “the clear and the hidden rules for promotion.” In the novel, Yu Youan runs the culture bureau in the fictional city of Nanzhou when a political crisis blows up: The party secretary and director of government appointments are investigated for buying and selling official posts, while other officials seize the opportunity to jockey for promotions. Hesitant at first, Yu begins to learn about the seamy underbelly of Nanzhou political life. At a Peking University talk earlier this year, Xu defended the revealing nature of his work, arguing that officialdom novelists have a special duty to depict the truths of society.

Confessions of a Corrupt Official
Published in January, just before Bo Xilai’s downfall, Chu Jing’s Confessions follows a fictional former vice mayor investigated for crimes he committed while in office. “I suddenly realized that my style of being an outstanding man — a crane standing in a flock of chickens … even possessing the power over people’s life and death — has now changed to a feeling of doubt,” the protagonist says. Books like this and Chu’s Investigating Cadre offer both a cathartic release and a way, however slight, for Chinese citizens to participate vicariously in their country’s opaque world of politics — or at least a channel for them to complain about it publicly. On Dangdang, one of China’s largest online book retailers, one netizen commenting about the book wondered whether corrupt officials could ever repent, adding that if they “had a conscience,” they wouldn’t be careerists “chasing after money and women.”

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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