Novelist digs deep to expose pyramid scam
Popular writer Murong Xuecun, 36, who made a name for himself with three gritty bestsellers on contemporary urban life in China - Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, Dancing Through Red Dust and Paradise to the Left and Shenzhen to the Right, recently published a non-fiction book on his undercover investigation of a pyramid-sales organisation. Murong was awarded a Special Action Award at the prestigious People's Literature Awards last year for his bravery and dedication to literature.
What made you write a non-fiction book after three successful novels?
It started when I was talking a friend of mine out of a pyramid-sales scheme in Shangrao, Jiangxi, at the end of 2009. He then told me a lot of things that sounded unbelievably absurd and evil, so I decided to go there and experience it myself. I joined a group in Shangrao and managed to escape after staying there for 23 days. I then reported the case to police and had 157 members detained. The book is based on my first-hand experience of those days.
Can you describe life in those 23 days?
The first seven days of training I was told many absurd things, such as pyramid-sales was an industry supported by the government and you could earn a lot of money, like investing 3,800 yuan (HK$4,480) and getting five million in two years. The group's seniors told them lies, saying things like China's gross domestic product growth had been declining and that the government had invested 700 million yuan in the pyramid-sales industry as part of macro-economic control measures. After that, we had a motivation course and shared our experiences. We were then trained how to develop subordinates and the skills needed to recruit people for the pyramid-sales group. We lived on 35 fen a day. We were assigned daily duties such as cooking, buying food and cleaning. I was assigned to buy food twice and we bought the cheapest vegetables. The group has a hierarchical system and the manager-level group members could eat better food with fish or meat. Our freedom was limited and there were only two times that I could act on my own to buy cigarettes downstairs. They lasted less than five minutes.
What were the pyramid-sales group members like?
I lived with the group and met many people there, from a young man to an old man of more than 60 years. They were all farmers and had never been to the city. They joined the group without much knowledge of what exactly it was and they shared the same kind of background: they had not travelled far or seen the world; they were not well-educated and they exhibited a great lack of common sense. After the 23-day course I was supposed to recruit new members - something I would, of course, not do. They collected our reading materials every day and handed them out again the next day. I hid mine when a new member came and then I kind of had to leave. I went to the police and reported on them and 157 members were detained.
Were you worried that you might be brainwashed and become a pyramid-sales group member?
I'm not worried about my personal safety nor their retaliation. I don't think they could easily find me. I had confidence that I would not be brainwashed, either. But I was concerned about one thing: what if I was detained as a pyramid-sales group member during a police crackdown? I contacted several friends in the media and we agreed they would testify that I was doing undercover research for them.
Why is your book titled The Missing Ingredient?
Reflecting on my experience of those 23 days, I realised you could see a replica of Chinese society in the pyramid-sales group. That's why I called this book The Missing Ingredient, referring to the Chinese people's need for common sense. These people were recruited to the pyramid-sales group because they lacked common sense - by common sense I mean things everyone should be aware of or know better. For example, people were told it's a noble thing to endure hardship, but if you have common sense you know you should not endure meaningless hardship just because people say it's noble. Arming people with common sense is the way to fight back against autocracy. An autocratic government likes to keep its people uninformed or misinformed for easy governance.
Was the book's publication a smooth process?
The process was difficult because of censorship. Many words I originally used were crossed out or had to be changed. I want to say literature should not work for politics - on the contrary, politics should try to make literature possible. If we cannot abolish censorship, I hope it can at least become more lax.