Anti-corruption campaigns have captured the public imagination since the Xi administration came into office in 2012. The fall of many “big tigers,” as high-ranking corrupt officials in China are called, has driven the interest of the common people toward corruption and the measures taken to combat it.
A new wave of controversy swept across the country last month, centering around two pieces of literature. The first was Zhou Meisen’s “In the Name of the People,” a work of fiction whose wildly popular TV adaptation has brought the intricacies of corruption to mainstream audiences. The second is a work of nonfiction, Ding Jie’s “Zhui Wen,” which literally means “to question closely.”
The works are unique, as they expose and dissect the complex nature of corruption and deliberately avoid black-and-white depictions of graft. They assume the viewpoint of the corrupt officials themselves, a type of narrative that has always been extremely scarce.
For a long time, many Chinese have stereotyped the idea of corruption in various ways. Academics have depicted it from a neutral standpoint that explores corruption in connection with other structural factors like culture, economic growth, and the political system. Official propaganda, meanwhile, has largely emphasized the evils of corruption by linking it to moral collapse, a negative influence on society, and damage to both China’s economy and governmental legitimacy.
The general population, however, has historically held more diverse perspectives on corruption. Some people have perceived it with a mixture of amusement and curiosity. They lap up the more lurid details of corruption cases, especially those involving high officials — the bribes they accept, the mistresses they keep — in order to claim the moral high ground. Other people feel like victims of corruption and truly despise it. They spare no effort to emphasize the harm it causes, demanding strong and immediate anti-corruption measures and even challenging the overall efficiency of the government’s anti-graft campaign.
But “In the Name of the People” and “Zhui Wen” reveal another side of corruption that differs fundamentally from the respective interpretations of academics, propaganda officials, and the general public. Because “In the Name of the People” has already been analyzed extensively, I will focus on three case studies from “Zhui Wen,” all of which try to show a more nuanced image of corruption.
The first story talks about keeping a mistress, often an essential element in describing corrupt Chinese officials. The main character of the story is the vice mayor of an unnamed city. His major offense does not involve huge sums of corrupt money but rather the crime of bigamy, and he is sentenced to two years in jail. Contrary to our fantasies, the relationship between him and his mistress is based on actual lovesickness, not benefits, a fact that’s hinted at many times throughout the book.
Eventually, readers discover that the mistress in question is not simply in it for money or influence. She not only gives birth to their love child, but also sacrifices no small amount of personal dignity in order to save money for her family, going so far as to reuse her child’s diapers. Later, we find out that the child is mentally disabled; yet this does not deter the mother from taking care of the baby, even though the father cannot marry her or provide for the two of them.
The second story features collusion between government officials and private businessmen, a common corruption issue in China’s transitional market economy. Unusually, the businessmen bribe the officials. This time, however, instead of merely buying off support for their project, the industrialists in question use the official to influence the appointments and dismissals of crucial personnel throughout the city — all to cultivate a favorable environment for their business. Despite ostensibly being the weaker party, therefore, the businessmen are still able to hijack the inner workings of local government.
The last story explores the weaknesses of anti-corruption measures through the eyes of corrupt officials themselves. Interviews with the former boss of a state-owned company reveal that he also acted as a department-level cadre, thereby creating profound conflicts of interest between his business and governmental work. Sensationally, the man claims that the local discipline inspection commission either could not or would not supervise him. There is an internal party discipline officer in the company to keep an eye on the vice of senior executives, and in fighting such supervision, the corrupt official ordered his underlings to file counter accusations against the officer, forcing him to spend more of his time trying to clear his own name.
Unmasking oversimplified images of corruption is not about glamorizing the issue or satisfying our appetite for a salacious story. Rather, it is about revealing the difficulties of dealing with such a complex issue. This, in turn, will facilitate more in-depth discussion and research on corruption, as well as shape government policy aimed at eradicating it.
Literature like “Zhui Wen” should be required reading for all officials who genuinely care about ripping out corruption at its roots. The book’s nuanced reporting challenges the popular perception of graft as a binary moral choice between good and bad. Yet it also lays bare the multi-limbed, constantly evolving nature of the beast, depicting corruption as an infestation thriving in the corners left uncovered by China’s legal and administrative systems. If there is one lesson to learn from “Zhui Wen,” it is that China must focus less on locking up those who are guilty of graft and more on locking down fundamental checks and balances on official power.
Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Visitors look at a wall display consisting of photographs of suspected corrupt officials at an anti-graft themed exhibition in Hefei, Anhui province, June 17, 2017. Chen Bin/VCG)