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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.