“Politics is an ugly business,” says an official in Chinese author Wang Xiaofang’s (王曉方) 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 is 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.
However, then scandal erupted, and Wang’s boss — Ma Xiangdong (馬向東), the deputy mayor of the city 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 realized that to be able to be yourself is real success,” he said.
Since then Wang, who is 49, has published 13 novels about corruption and politics in China, selling millions of copies in the process.
The Civil Servant’s Notebookis his first novel to be translated into English and its release last month was particularly timely as the world watches China deal with its biggest political scandal in decades, ahead of a pivotal leadership transition next month.
The book’s portrayal of rumor, scandal and subterfuge as candidates scramble to replace a fallen mayor resonates strongly with the fall of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), 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 realizes 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,” Wang said. “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 realizes 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 (秦始皇) 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.”