The Rules of the Game

China's booming 
bureaucracy lit 
is part exposé -- 
and part how-to guide.

For more on why Chinese readers are so entranced by tales of low-level bureacratic intrigue, click here.

Zhao Deliang is Jiangnan's party secretary. Scholarly in appearance and modestly mannered, he is a master at playing by the opaque rules of Chinese politics. But now the system is working against him. He's an outsider in Jiangnan, flown in from Beijing to ensure that the province toes the Communist Party line. Zhao lacks the local connections to tell him whom he can trust, and he sorely needs them: A series of ambitious governors have successfully disgraced several of his predecessors. And so the stage is set for Zhao to fight his battle. If he succeeds, nobody on the outside will notice. Fail, and he'll be shipped off to a backwater.

For all its resemblance to the recent political intrigue in China, Zhao's story, like the province of Jiangnan, is fiction -- a plotline from author Huang Xiaoyang's series Second in Command, the hottest of China's red-hot "officialdom novels," so named because they bring readers into the rarified world of Chinese bureaucratic politics, drawing back the curtain on a civil service with thousands of years of history. The first of Huang's three planned volumes was published in May 2011 and sold 100,000 copies in its initial month on the market. By October, a month after the second book was published, the two volumes together had sold 630,000 copies in print. Their actual readership is likely many times higher -- the books, like many bestsellers in China, are widely available online, legally and otherwise.

But if Second in Command illustrates the explosive success of the officialdom novel, it also exemplifies the genre's precarious status in China. Truth, it turns out, has started imitating fiction in ways that have made the Chinese government most uncomfortable. Corruption scandals in China are nothing new, of course. But the explosive downfall of Bo Xilai -- the flamboyant party secretary of my home city of Chongqing, ousted in March as an investigation was launched into whether his wife had murdered a British businessman and amid much speculation that his growing power threatened Beijing's authority -- is unprecedented in post-Mao China. Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who sometimes performed his department's own autopsies and whose one-night refuge at a U.S. consulate in February eventually helped bring down Bo, seems more like a character in a Hollywood film than a Chinese official. So while Bo's personality may differ from the fictional Zhao's, the political struggles described in Second in Command were prescient enough that they quickly became a sensitive subject.

The novel's third volume, parts of which have been widely serialized online, was scheduled to be published last November. But it never was. In May, a source close to the publisher told me "authorities" had instructed the company not to print the book and not to publicize its cancellation. Two months before that, the source had said the publisher was concerned "the public might associate the book with Chongqing's officialdom." But that, of course, was exactly the novel's appeal.

CHINA'S OFFICIALDOM NOVELS date back many decades. They first boomed in popularity in the late Qing dynasty with books like Officialdom Unmasked (also translated as The Bureaucrat: A Revelation). Originally serialized in 1903 in a small newspaper founded by author Li Boyuan, himself a failed civil servant, the novel portrays the skulduggery -- from buying and selling official posts to slaughtering civilians to get credit for suppressing bandits -- of several dozen officials in the Qing Empire court. Many characters were modeled after real-life figures, giving these books a sharp critical edge and earning them the nickname "condemnation novels."

China's nascent tradition of social criticism flourished throughout the first half of the 20th century, reaching another high point in the late 1930s and 1940s amid the rank corruption of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, headquartered in Chongqing during World War  II. After Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China in 1949, however, social criticism became increasingly intolerable to the authorities, and when the 1957 anti-rightist movement shut down all dissenting voices in the country, officialdom novels virtually died out.

Socially critical fiction reappeared in the late 1970s after Mao's death, but the revival of the officialdom novel came much later. The current boom started in 1999, when Wang Yuewen, a midlevel civil servant for the Hunan provincial government, published Ink Painting, a novel about city administrator Zhu Huaijing. The protagonist's best friend, an eccentric and gifted artist, entrusts him with an ink painting, which the city's mayor covets. Forced to choose between his friend and his desire for career advancement, Zhu gifts the painting to the mayor, binding their careers together. Ink Painting's realistic depiction of modern government corruption resonated with readers, and it went on to sell 100,000 copies in two months, while pirated copies, sold off the mats of sidewalk hawkers, went the pre-Internet equivalent of viral. Wang was laid off from his government job a year later, officially because of downsizing. In a 2009 essay published in the Beijing News, Wang claimed the book had gotten him fired. Powerful people, he said, "thought I broke the rules of the game."

The newer officialdom novels offer not so much criticism as tips on how to get into the game -- a testament to China's growing culture of careerism. Picture the film Wall Street featuring a happy ending (the system is good!) with karaoke-singing women and baijiu liquor replacing strippers and cocaine, and earnestly corrupt, low-ranking officials instead of corporate raiders, and you're mostly there. As China's middle class has expanded over the past decade, novelists have shifted their focus from critiquing the government to explaining what is actually happening inside it. Today's bestselling officialdom novels are not necessarily aimed at exposing social problems or government corruption (though its depiction is unavoidable). Instead, they instruct readers on how best to climb the government ladder.

An entire litany of terms has sprung up to describe China's new reality. One popular expression is qian guize, or "hidden rules," now commonly used to mean dirty deals required for career advancement. The term was popularized by journalist Wu Si in his 2001 book, Hidden Rules: The Real Game in Chinese History, a collection of tales showing how unspoken conventions, rather than formal laws and high-sounding moral principles, actually govern China.

Enter Huang, whose Second in Command has the odd subtitle, "Being an Official Is a Job of Techniques." Huang writes on his blog that his intention was "to write about logic, order, and rules" for the Chinese civil service. In other words, he wants everyone to know the rules of the game.

Indeed, Second in Command is a kind of handbook for getting ahead -- a novelized The Art of War for aspiring bureaucrats. It offers tips for how to talk to one's boss in different situations. For example, when working for a government official, have three different addresses on hand: Call him by his title when he's next to a higher-ranking official to show formality, refer to him as "boss" (laoban) in private to show closeness, and when he's surrounded by his peers, call them each "chief officer" (shouzhang) to accord them all equal prestige. Another classic tip: Subordinates should try to ensure that their boss's car stops two steps away from anyone waiting to meet him so that he doesn't appear either overeager or distant.

It's no wonder, then, that according to a 2009 survey in the Chinese magazine Decision Making, which says its readers are "those who make decisions at every level of government, and those who serve the decision-makers," 59 percent of those who read officialdom novels did so to "understand the current situation in official circles," while only 48 percent did so to read about "exposing corruption." Second in Command and similar books, like Hou Weidong's Officialdom Notes, an eight-part series about an ambitious young man's ascent through party ranks, have been hailed by Chinese media and readers as "must-reads," "survival manuals," and "textbooks" for government employees.

Even for government officials, these novels offer some of the clearest explanations of China's notoriously closed-off political system. For readers without government connections, the books satisfy a craving for a peep behind the bamboo curtain of high politics. "People want to climb up officialdom ladders but can't," explains Chongqing critic and historian He Shu. "People dare to be angry at, but don't dare to speak against, government officials. They all need to find an outlet."


"WHAT IS THE MOST mysterious organization in the world?" a widely circulated Chinese joke goes. The answer is the "relevant department." It is a truism in China that when a citizen comes forward with a complaint, officials simply say the "relevant department" is handling it -- never disclosing which department that is. The term made a memorable appearance in a March speech by Premier Wen Jiabao that foretold Bo's demise the next day. "I can tell everyone that the central government has attached great importance [to the case] and immediately instructed the relevant departments to carry out a special investigation," Wen said.

Keeping officialdom politics secret has been the intent of Chinese rulers from ancient emperors to Mao to the current leadership. With the advent of these new scandals, however, it's becoming harder for the relevant departments to keep the lid on. As China's burgeoning social media landscape exposes the world of government bureaucrats, public calls for transparency have grown louder. In a way, that's what the novels offer: Many authors of these books are former officials themselves or else have close contacts with officials, enabling them to provide realistic and meticulous details about Chinese political culture -- so lifelike, in fact, that they nearly mirror real events.

Consider the following scenario from Second in Command, published months before the Bo scandal. Party boss Zhao knows only two locals when he arrives in Jiangnan, both former classmates -- one from university and one from the Communist Party School, a training institute for government officials. They introduce Zhao to some of the province's key power brokers, and after he runs a "sweep the black" campaign (eerily similar to Bo's real-life "smash the black" campaign against alleged mobsters in Chongqing), his hold seems secure. But shortly before the provincial party congress, held every four years to decide provincial power transitions, the governor's allies secretly arrest Zhao's university friend, a rich businessman, on unspecified charges and torture him to try to obtain corruption evidence against Zhao. Like the Bo scandal, this intense power struggle occurs just months before a major political transition and features incidents of extrajudicial brutality, much like Chongqing under police chief Wang.

Was Second in Command meant as a critique of the kind of political corruption exemplified by Bo and Wang? When I contacted Chongqing Publishing House in March, the novel's editor declined a request for an interview because, as she put it, officialdom novels are "sensitive" at the moment. "I hope you don't write about the book," she said. Another editor at the same publishing house, Chen Xiaowen, who was not involved in publishing Second in Command, emailed me to say, "Though officialdom novels reflect aspects of the current situation, such as corruption and 'hidden rules,' they're for consumption, not criticism." As for Huang, who had ignored my messages in an online chat in February, he replied a month later -- after Bo's ouster -- saying that answering my questions would be "inconvenient."

But Huang's novel speaks for itself. In the book, Zhao knows that the governor illegally imprisoned his friend to obtain corruption evidence against him. Zhao, who is largely clean (he does not need money because his wife is a wealthy businesswoman, like Bo's wife), does not openly investigate the case or try to harm his opponent. That would indict too many officials, disturbing both the province's political order and Zhao's career. Instead, he works within the system, suggesting that his subordinates elect his imprisoned friend as a party congress representative, trying to force the friend's release, and promoting several of his opponent's co-conspirators despite their misdeeds. Huang portrays Zhao's moves as political masterstrokes because they resolve the crisis without interrupting "harmony," at least on the surface. In the idealized world of Huang's novel, China's "hidden rules" are replaced by explicit rules, making the advancement game equalized and merit-based; if you want to succeed, you play your role properly rather than trying to subvert the system.

This advice, of course, comes too late for Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun, who behaved less rationally than the characters in the novel. Indeed, Huang at first refused to believe Wang could do such a stupid thing as fleeing into a U.S. consulate, writing in February on his microblog that the story "doesn't follow officialdom logic" and was therefore "a poorly made rumor." In April, when the news became widely known, Huang shifted to arguing that Bo and Wang had brought the scandal upon themselves. "To be invincible," he wrote, "one must follow the rules."


Obama's Secret Hypocrisy

Why is the president cracking down on whistleblowers while his administration is leaking like a sieve?

"I know how strange all this must sound. We have been taught, particularly in the past generation of spy scares and Cold War, to think of secrets as secrets -- varying in their ‘sensitivity' but uniformly essential to the private conduct of diplomatic and military affairs and somehow detrimental to the national interest if prematurely disclosed. By the standards of official Washington -- Government and press alike -- this is an antiquated, quaint and romantic view." — Former New York Times Washington correspondent Max Frankel, 1971

Since the New York Times published two important stories containing classified information two weeks ago -- one being U.S. President Barack Obama's "kill list" and another regarding a series of U.S. cyberattacks against Iran -- Congress has been replete with bipartisan outrage. Embarrassingly, this outcry has not been directed toward debate of the potentially unprecedented constitutional implications brought about by the stories, but about who leaked the classified information to reporters.

Congress's call for increased government secrecy by way of prosecution, which has led to Attorney General Eric Holder assigning two Justice Department attorneys to investigate the alleged leaks, threatens the very foundation of reporting on U.S. national security and foreign policy. Leaks have been the lifeblood of investigative journalism -- and Washington politics -- for decades. If they become criminalized on a large scale, it could do irreparable damage to both freedom of the press and the public's right to know what the government is doing abroad in its name.

A Long History of Leaks

This was the lesson learned 41 years ago this month, when Richard Nixon's administration tried to censor the New York Times for publishing classified information in the Pentagon Papers case. As James Goodale, the paper's general counsel at the time, recounted to me this week, even the Times's outside lawyers did not understand how much leaks affected foreign-policy reporting at the start of the case. The first batch of Times lawyers quit the night before the first court hearing, and the newly hired replacements were still leery of the Times's contention that leaking was commonplace. Veteran Washington correspondent Max Frankel, who reported on the Pentagon Papers, was so incensed after trying in vain to convince them that he went home and wrote down his argument in essay form.

"What Frankel wrote became one of the most important documents in history of press freedom," Goodale said. "Not only did it sway our outside lawyers to defend the case in court, but we turned it into sworn statement which helped sway the district court judge to rule in our favor."

Without leaks, "there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington," Frankel wrote. "[T]he reporter and the official trespass regularly, customarily, easily, and unselfconsciously (even unconsciously) through what they both know to be official ‘secrets'....almost everything in government is kept secret for a time and, in the foreign policy field, classified as ‘secret' and ‘sensitive' beyond any rule of law or reason. Every minor official can testify to this fact." Attached were dozens of examples and clipped stories of classified information appearing in the paper consistently for years. Frankel's full affidavit can and should be read in full here.

Administrations have always done exactly what Obama's has: condemn leaks in public while leaking for its own benefit. Dwight Eisenhower "deplore[d]" leaks when asked, but would call New York Times reporter Scottie Reston into the White House to feed him off-the-record material. John F. Kennedy once stated in a press conference that any leak of national security information was "unfortunate" and denied knowing any specifics, yet Frankel writes of being allowed to quote from transcripts of conversations with the Soviet Union's foreign minister to demonstrate, like Obama, Kennedy's "‘toughness' toward the Communists." And Bush -- who said, "if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of" -- presided over an administration that leaked classified information to justify the Iraq war and outed a covert agent in response to criticism.

Franklin Roosevelt was probably the greatest leaker of all, calling reporters into the Oval Office for off-the-record press conferences, after which they could only attribute his quotes to a "senior administration official." Even the founding fathers were guilty: Thomas Paine once leaked a state secret about the United States covertly receiving aid from France before the two countries became allies. And the list goes on.

Every administration leaks classified information because it's virtually impossible not to. As Frankel explained, "For practically everything that our Government does, plans, thinks, hears and contemplates in the realms of foreign policy is stamped and treated as secret." Forty years later, his words ring truer: The U.S. government classified 77 million documents in 2010, a more than twelvefold increase since 1991. Of the more than 4.2 million people who hold some sort of classification clearance, 1.4 million of them are "top secret" -- the highest classification.

It is for that reason that one can't step a foot into the shallow end of any leak controversy without stumbling upon rank hypocrisy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has led the charge calling for more leak investigations this time around, was once accused of leaking classified information when she revealed the location of a Pakistan drone base during a Senate hearing. Sen. Richard Shelby, sponsor of an anti-leaks bill that passed the Senate during Bill Clinton's administration, was found to have leaked classified information to journalists about the NSA a few years later.

Attacks on Freedom of Press

Other leak investigations have engulfed journalists, but the current probe may dwarf others. Given one of the many stories being investigated alone counted three dozen current and former officials as its sources, prosecutors will soon get their hands on mountains of email containing correspondence with reporters. Journalists from the New York Times, AP, Newsweek and perhaps others can expect the Justice Department will now have their emails with these officials. How many journalists will be spied on by the government they're supposed to cover? How many future foreign-policy stories will be disrupted because of this? Will journalists again face the conundrum: give up their sources to a grand jury or face jail? Only time will tell, but the answers will likely not be good.

Thankfully, media outrage toward the potential prosecutions has grown in recent days, as well it should; but it is long overdue. The Obama administration has already brought six Espionage Act cases against low-level leakers -- more than all previous administrations combined. And the grand jury empanelled in Alexandria, Virginia, investigating WikiLeaks for publishing classified information threatens to take this controversy one step further -- criminalizing the reporting aspect of leaks and making a mockery of the First Amendment. It shouldn't take investigations into the powerful for us to stand up for press freedom.

America's finest journalism is often produced with the aid of classified information; the New York Times's report on warrantless wiretapping and the Washington Post's exposé on CIA secret prisons, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize, are just two of countless examples. If the Justice Department were charged with investigating every leak, not only would the public not know what its government was doing, but government would cease to function. Indeed, if leak prosecutions had been commonplace for the last four decades, nearly every senior White House official would be in jail -- just for talking to Bob Woodward.

To put it simply, quoting Frankel, leaks are "the coin of our business and of the officials with whom we regularly deal." If Congress has a problem with that, then more transparency is the answer -- not more secrets.

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