What does it take to corrupt a cadre?
Reports about corruption are just not news on the mainland any more. Articles about disgraced officials appear so frequently in newspapers that the plot can be written by formula.
The trouble is, these plots are stories of good and evil, where officialdom is whiter than white and the black cancer of corruption is an individual's ailment. In other words, they serve as morality tales, or even a manual of behaviour for new cadres.
The story is simple enough: a new cadre is promoted and introduced to friends whom he should have tried to avoid, who lead him to others who might need special favours. They are willing to pay for them, be they bank loans, land or construction contracts, government jobs or import licences. The official rarely questions his actions, imagining himself still a faithful Communist Party member.
Once he is corrupt, however, he never turns back. One deal leads to another, and networks develop around central characters like a father and son, former school friends and mistresses.
The cadre sometimes becomes too greedy, finds himself addicted to gambling, or makes a mistake - and catches the authorities' attention.
The plot usually climaxes in one of two ways: The cadre tries to flee abroad (perhaps with one of his mistresses) or waits for graft-busters to knock on his door. The latter option is not popular. But such a scenario is constructed for one message alone: corruption cannot happen if the cadre is a good Communist Party member. He would have said no to his evil friends, no to his tempters, no to his mistress. He is corrupt and he has betrayed the party.
So can this black-and-white view be real, or is it just Communist Party propaganda?
One novel unafraid to confront corruption has become an instant sensation on the mainland since it was published a year ago. Chinese Painting (Guo Hua ) by Wang Yaowen, a former cadre from Hunan province, has been hailed as a vivid, accurate portrayal of the corrupt official.
In Wang's world - a fictional city called Jingduo where cadres curry favour from their bosses - corruption doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Bribes, in the form of cash, luxury cars, women and even wins over mahjong tables, are offered and accepted by cadres at every level of government without a moment's hesitation.
When one finance bureau official covets a promotion, he carefully plans for his immediate boss, an arts collector, to receive a Chinese painting as a gift from a famous painter. All deals are done discreetly and artfully.
Mistresses can be sympathetic characters, too. They are despised only because they have extra-marital relationships with cadres who can not divorce their wives because they must protect their political reputation.
The key is that corruption is just part of the social contract. Through bribes, kickbacks or even banquets, party secretaries, mayors and other cadres identify who are their rivals and who are their acolytes.
In Jingduo, favours - a simple bouquet or a multimillion-yuan land contract - are accepted by all as the unspoken costs of any business deals. Here, no-one will object to being the friend of powerful leaders. The only question is whether the relationship is worth the investment.
A collection of allies, cronies and even scapegoats therefore exists around these leaders. They not only provide a convenient conduit through which the leaders can collect bribes without getting their hands dirty but also a shield to protect them if their crimes are exposed.
It doesn't mean the author condones corruption. But instead of toeing an official line, Wang Yaowen presents a world where good and evil, black and white, simply live side by side - and their mid-point is grey. He frankly admits what officials strive to deny - that corruption thrives in China today.
Fiction and reality is often divided by a thin line. But Chinese Painting seems to have painted a picture of a corrupt China that is convincing.