President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign has spelled ruin for tens of thousands of China’s government officials. To date, over 200,000 civil servants have been investigated for misdemeanors ranging from bribery and embezzlement to abuses of power and illicit sexual affairs. Jail time, fines, and expulsion from the Party have awaited the country’s “tigers, flies, and foxes” — as corrupt high-ranking officials, low-ranking cadres, and accused parties who flee the country are respectively characterized.
But for one man, Xi’s crusade against corruption has provided a welcome source of literary inspiration.
Ding Jie, 47, is the secretary of a discipline inspection committee in a government-owned company in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. He’s also a part-time author and has spent the last two years trawling through case files and visiting officials behind bars for his book “Zhui Wen” — literally meaning “question closely” — a nonfiction work published at the end of March.
Documenting the story of how eight officials were seduced by power, “Zhui Wen” has proven a hit, selling over 300,000 copies in the few weeks it has been on shelves. Its success comes at a time when the theme of anti-graft is gaining momentum on prime-time television following years of being relegated to off hours, purportedly out of fear that programs on the subject gave too much air time to the dark side of Chinese politics. The TV show “In the Name of the People” has attracted legions of admirers — and some critics — since it first aired in March. It has even become required viewing for Party members in some cities and universities.
Ding Jie shares his experiences with college students in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Oct. 10, 2014. Courtesy of Ding Jie
Ding believes that the success of slickly produced TV dramas like “In the Name of the People” and more down-to-earth literature like his own is a testament to art’s ability to engage normal people in the politics of China. “Works of art are vivid and popular, able to ignite the passion of the people,” he told Sixth Tone, his words echoing those of leaders like Mao Zedong and, more recently, Xi, for whom art serves a social and political purpose.
Ding spoke to Sixth Tone about the surging popularity of anti-corruption as a theme in popular works, the challenge of getting incarcerated officials to open up, and the readers who are trying to tie the pseudonyms in his book to real-life figures. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: “In the Name of the People” has taken China by storm. Meanwhile, your book is a best-seller. What is behind the rising interest in works that tackle anti-corruption?
Ding Jie: I think it’s a universal hope shared by everyone that our country will be able to wipe out corruption. Corruption not only violates the interests of the country, but also of individuals. No one wants to see a corrupt society.
China today has been infiltrated by corruption. This is not only about bureaucrats in government departments, but also those from all walks of life. I worry that the vice of graft will enter the bloodstream of the entire nation.
Artistic works are down-to-earth and better-accepted by the masses. Case files are too esoteric, and news coverage is rigid and simplified. Works of art are vivid and popular, able to ignite the passion of the people. Given that the crackdown on graft has been underway for years, it’s only natural that artistic expression has emerged to fit the times.
Sixth Tone: What did you set out to do with the book?
Ding Jie: Writing about such problematic officials, what I needed to do was examine their hearts. I had to examine their state of mind when they were at the top of their game, their state of mind when they began their decline, and their original intentions. The three stages link together to form a line of inquiry. Along that line, I examined the changes they underwent and the rules that underlie those changes.
Buried in the boundless negative energy from a large number of fallen officials’ cases, trying to explore the gray area that exists in their minds — one can’t persist with such work without powerful will.
But society has an extremely strong desire to know more about this gray area, an area that lacks objectivity, truth, and effective exposure. My identity as both a writer and secretary working in Party discipline inspection meant that I should do this.
A policeman holds a pair of handcuffs in Shanghai, Nov. 28, 2014. Yang Yi/Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: How did you narrow down the 633 cases you studied to the eight you presented in the book?
Ding Jie: A book is limited in its volume. The examples must be representative, they must be truthful, and they certainly cannot carry any bias. But most importantly, they must carry the documentary nature and literary essence of nonfiction writing. Each character represents a whole type of fallen official either in the way they violate disciplinary regulations or in terms of the arc of their lives and their state of mind.
Sixth Tone: Were the officials willing to talk about how they ended up where they are now?
Ding Jie: I predicted that writing this book would be difficult due to the particularity and complexity of the topic. But once I began, I found that the difficulty exceeded my expectations.
With the full support of my supervisors in the disciplinary inspection committee, I was able to meet nearly anyone I wanted. But it was particularly difficult to make them open up. Undeniably, these people had rich experiences, profound thoughts, high intelligence, arrogant attitudes, and large egos.
I almost quit after two or three people. I found the interviews extremely difficult. What they said to me was useless, just nonsensical waffle.
But most interviewees showed remorse. They wished for a chance to confess, to make up for their mistakes, and to live their lives once again. They all had something unmistakable in common: In each of them, there was a corner of chaos, a corner of chaos that played a huge role in each of their downfalls.
Sixth Tone: Why did you decide to tell the stories from their perspectives, rather than from the perspective of disciplinary inspectors like yourself?
Ding Jie: To serve as a warning to people, I think it’s more effective for the book to let the violators speak for themselves. I plan to write from the other side in my next work.
Society lacks an objective and truthful understanding of the two sides of the issue: corruption and anti-corruption. It isn’t enough to have definitive official notices, news reports, novels, and TV dramas. Nonfiction writing is a great medium for reflecting the reality of society.
Sixth Tone: The nature of your book is documentary — based on real people — yet you protect the characters’ identities with pseudonyms, which has aggravated curious readers.
Ding Jie: I protected the legal right to privacy of the characters in the book, particularly those who accepted my interviews. But our lovely readers have always liked to do their own research into the text — people have even attempted to work out the birthplace of the Monkey King character from [the classic work] “Journey to the West.” It comes as no surprise to me that readers of “Zhui Wen” have been launching their own investigations.
Editor: Owen Churchill
(Header image: A graffiti image of a tiger is seen behind a construction barrier in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, Feb. 4, 2016. Tigers are a symbol of corrupt high-ranking officials in China. Su Younong/VCG)