BEIJING — Registrations for the civil-service exams reached a record high this year of about 1.4m, 20 times what they were a decade ago. The perquisites of life in the civil service make it look like a “golden rice bowl” to many. But in fact Chinese officialdom is something more like a poisoned chalice—or so says one of the country’s bestselling authors. His fiction exposes the self-serving corruption, greed and ferocious politicking that passes for life among China’s politicians and bureaucrats.
Wang Xiaofang is no stranger to Chinese politics. In the late 1990s, he served as private secretary to Ma Xiangdong, then the deputy mayor of Shenyang, a metropolis in the north-east. In a scandal which rocked the country, Mr Ma was caught having accumulated 31.5m yuan ($5m) through bribes and embezzlement of the government’s money, much of which he gambled away in Macau. In time he was executed.
The scandal snared over 100 members of government. Mr Wang was cleared of misconduct after a three-year investigation. “When [Mr Ma] received the execution notice, I was so shocked that I sat down and wrote 10,000 words without stopping,” Mr Wang said in an interview last month in Beijing. At the age of 40, he retired from public life to take up writing full-time. Today Mr Wang has 13 books to his name and has just seen his first novel translated into English and published by Penguin: “The Civil Servant’s Notebook”.
Mr Wang is the most famous of a clutch of writers who work under the banner “officialdom fiction”, a genre unique to China. Its mise-en-scène is in the opaque inner workings of the Communist Party.
Officialdom fiction works in part as muckraking, for the rest of us, and in part as a guide for aspiring officials, who are advised on what not to do if you want to keep your head (hint: do not accept bribes). It owes its popularity to a readership that is both fascinated and repelled by the elite who rule them. Mr Wang’s novels have sold millions.
His depiction of the official world is far from flattering. Civil servants spend their days brooding in factions, facilitating their own promotions, and scratching together personal wealth for themselves and their families. One fictional bureaucrat is so desperate to get ahead that he drinks a daily cup of urine at the behest of his all-powerful boss—who believes that piss possesses miraculous medicinal qualities. The episode reflects just how far China’s political system perverts those who serve it, says Mr Wang. “Urine refers to cultural rubbish [in government] such as official status,” he explains, prodding the air passionately with one finger.
Mr Wang is unusually daring in his writing about contemporary Chinese life. And he is not exempt from the censors; no publisher will touch his latest work, “Oil Painting”, which is about government petitioners in Beijing who “disappear” into state-run jails. To soften his message, Mr Wang, like many Chinese writes, makes liberal use of absurdism. In “The Civil Servant’s Notebook” office furniture takes part in political debates. Yet even so characters inspired by real life abound. Notably, a vice-mayor named Peng Guoliang, a tragic figure of ancient-Greek proportions, descends haplessly into a vortex of graft and gambling. He pays for his missteps with his life. After his downfall, Mr Peng’s private secretary becomes a fiction writer—and names his first novel “The Civil Servant’s Notebook”.
Such candid, not to mention autobiographical, writing does not come without difficulties. Mr Wang has received threats in Shenyang. Critics in the state-run local media complain that his portrayals of official life are unrealistic and overly dark. Mr Wang waves them off. Chinese politics, including the Bo Xilai scandal, have time and again proved that his portrayals of greed and corruption are more like prescient than exaggerated. Mr Wang sees Bo Xilai as a gambler in a place where the most corrupt officials tend to flourish. Few can resist the temptation to play. Never mind that it is a game—as he writes—of “life or death”.
China’s outgoing president, Hu Jintao, declared during last month’s Party Congress that corruption, unless controlled, would cause the downfall of the Communist Party and the state. This is not a new message; the Party has been repeating it for years. “Political reform has never got beyond slogans,” Mr Wang says. He thinks the only thing that could tame corruption would be a complete overhaul of the current system. Until that day comes, he is advising the millions of young Chinese who are eager to enter officialdom to think again.