“Politics is an ugly business,” says an official in Chinese author Wang Xiaofang’s novel, The Civil Servant’s Notebook. “You always need to keep a knife in reserve, even for your own boss.”
Delving into the darkness of Chinese bureaucracy, Wang depicts a world of intrigue where those at the top lose sight of their principles in the race for political power.
It’s a world that Wang is familiar with, having begun his own career in the civil service and risen through the ranks of officialdom to become private secretary to the deputy mayor of one of China’s biggest cities.
But then scandal erupted, and Wang’s boss – Ma Xiangdong, the deputy mayor of Shenyang – was sentenced to death in 2001 for gambling away more than US$3.6 million of embezzled funds in Macau casinos.
Other officials were embroiled in the scandal. Wang was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, quit his job and put pen to paper.
“That was an experience that rattled my entire life,” Wang said in an interview last week following a reading at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
“After that, I didn’t want to repeat the same life. I didn’t want to become a spiritual eunuch. I realised that to be able to be yourself is a real success,” he said.
Since then Wang, who is 49, has published thirteen novels about corruption and politics in China, selling millions of copies in the process.
The Civil Servant’s Notebook is his first novel to be translated into English and its September release was particularly timely as the world watches China deal with its biggest political scandal in decades, ahead of a pivotal leadership transition in November.
The book’s portrayal of rumour, scandal and subterfuge as candidates scramble to replace a fallen mayor resonates strongly with the fall of Bo Xilai, a former star politician who China says will now “face justice” for a litany of crimes.
With its allegations of graft and other lurid details, the Bo Xilai scandal – which has already seen Bo’s wife convicted of murder – has caused divisions within the secretive party ahead of the creation of a new power elite, analysts say.
Wang compares it to a moment in The Civil Servant’s Notebook, when a character realises just before his execution that he has been made what the author calls “a sacrificial lamb” for a system that is racing to replace him.
“Bo Xilai has fallen, but there are more who take will his place,” said Wang. “If one man stumbles, a thousand will be in place behind him.”
Wang tends to take a sympathetic view of officials who become ensnared by the evils of the system in which they work. “The system is what created the officials in the first place,” he said.
“If there were a good system in place, these very same people would not go down the road of corruption.”
One of the contenders in the novel mulls a report on a fallen mayor who “confused the gate of hell with the gate of heaven”, and realises that “there’s only one door I’ve been compelled to push open each day, and that’s the door to my office.
“Every day when I open this door I am at my most smug and complacent.”
Wang said the consequences of the rule of first emperor Qin Shi Huang more than 2,000 years ago – in which he moved violently to restrict freedom of thought – were still being felt.
In the book, he uses an official who has spent his life drinking his own urine as a symbol of “this several thousand years of evil.
“For Chinese people, the obsession with power is in the bones. The only way for China to improve its political system is to choose a democratic and statutory process – that is how the world is developing.”
Wang points out that of his 13 books, 11 have been critical of the officialdom system. He is prone to lofty statements about his work and his literary method but rejects the “absurdist” tag that some have given it (even the stationary talks in The Civil Servant’s Notebook).
“When this book was first published in China in 2009, the media suggested that I had distorted and uglified the image of civil servants, that I had used the absurdist method of writing. But what I’ve written here is derived completely from true life stories,” he said.
Others have suggested that Wang’s books serve as guides for advancement among official ranks, labelling him king of the “officialdom” genre. The Chinese version of The Civil Servant’s Notebook carries quotes of approval from Premier Wen Jiabao.
“That’s one way I can protect myself,” Wang said with a laugh, stressing that they are not friends. “But officialdom fiction makes no contribution to art or literature,” he said.
“I am deeply suspicious of writers who cannot talk about the evil that is surrounding them. The biggest problem with Chinese literature right now is that it’s all the same – everyone is just copying each other. I have created a new style and that is my contribution.”
Wang’s visit to Hong Kong came ahead of Chinese writer Mo Yan’s Nobel literature prize victory on Thursday, a result that provoked some academics and dissidents to accuse the author – known for exploring the brutality of China’s tumultuous 20th century – of being a stooge for officialdom.
Wang says he has four more books in the pipeline, but that the political environment is “too sensitive” for them at present.
One of them, he says, is called Oil Painting, which he describes as being about victims of an injustice who go to Beijing to complain but then disappear.
“Perhaps it was God’s intention that someone with the ability to write was immersed in this world of power and corruption,” said Wang.
“To steal secrets from this hidden world and reveal it through the form of literature.”