Sunday January 27, 2013
Dethroning the ‘emperor’
Review by ABBY WONG
Here’s an entertaining must-read peek into China and its political system as well as a gander into the world of corruption and the minds of those who are corrupt.
The Civil Servant’s Notebook
Author: Wang Xiaofang
Publisher: Penguin Books, 310 pages
THE Civil Servant’s Notebook is the first of Wang Xiaofang’s novels translated into English. I hope for more in the near future because if the first is phenomenal, the rest must then be equally extraordinary.
A former civil servant whose last post was as a private secretary to a mayor, Wang has 13 novels about Chinese corruption and politics in his knapsack just waiting to be launched on the English-language speaking world.
From images of him, now featured in major newspapers and magazines across the globe due to his rising literary fame, one can discern his past prosperity, which is not uncommon among civil servants of Chinese officialdom.
His belly slightly bulging and hair well-combed and oiled, Wang, however, has worried eyes that gaze out from beneath slightly knitted brows that hint at the secrets he had to keep for years. By quitting, he let go of them, and because of them, he writes.
In China, being a county mayor is close to being in heaven, and a mayor is akin to a tiger whose tail none may tug. But while the mayor sits on his throne, he fears those sitting behind him. And those sitting behind him hanker after his position or any other position that brings them closer to him. And those who were born believing the throne should be theirs usually burn even more hotly to acquire it, and in the end, burn in the flames of officialdom. Lordy lord, the invention of thrones and the race for political power has thrown heaven and earth into darkness, as Wang says.
In this novel, that darkness shrouds the city of Dongzhou when a vice-mayor named Peng Guoling descends haplessly into a vortex of gambling and corruption. He is executed, not knowing his downfall is a result of his own political power play and that he is a victim ensnared by the evils of his own heart.
“Evil is hidden in the hearts of all, a second self,” writes Wang, imagining good and evil as children of freedom.
The spiralling demise of Peng Guoling reads like a film, each scene is packed with suspense and befuddlement. But it is the whole process of uncovering the real villain behind his demise that makes the book engaging. As the plot is unravelled by a host of different narrators sharing their own private thoughts, we are given an expertly-rendered insight into the minds of corrupt officials.
Each narrator discloses his own predicament as a civil servant and each shows the different motives that drive him to steal, scheme, bribe and harass.
“Why does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Because absolute power results in absolute freedom! When freedom is given full rein, it holds nothing sacred, it accepts no boundaries,” muses one of the characters.
While their motives might be understandable, Wang does not permit us to pardon their behaviour. Peng is sentenced to death for corruption, embezzlement and bribery, and his close allies are not spared, not even his wife who tries in vain to defy disciplinary actions.
Chiming in among the narrators is the influential retired Old Leader, who believes that urine possesses a miraculous medicinal quality that can heal all ills. One of the Old Leader’s subordinates used to consume his own urine at the behest of his influential boss. This episode epitomises how much officials are willing to sacrifice in their pursuit of the throne, and the degree to which a person sitting on the throne will abuse his power.
The urine symbolises toxins of officialdom – if everyone is doing it then it must be unrighteous to do otherwise. So if it is politically correct to be hungry for power and bribery, then anything not en règle is not righteous.
Wang’s daring borders on the reckless in this innocuously titled book. Such candidness pays off but not without a price: Wang has received death threats from people in Shenyang where he last served as a private secretary to the province’s deputy mayor, Ma Xiangdong, who was sentenced to death in 2001 for gambling away more than US$3.6mil (RM10.9mil at today’s rates) of embezzled funds in Macau casinos. Wang is also unheeding of criticism from state-run media and government-influenced book critics.
Time and time again, Chinese politics have shown that the chasm between reality and ideology is big and wide. Wang witnessed this divide with his own eyes, and slowly-emerging political scandals such as the recent headline-making Bo Xilai affair, has been proving him right.
Yet again, though most corrupt officials tend to thrive in a corrupt environment, corruption will eventually cause their downfall as much as it will ruin the government and the country. Still, few resist the temptation to play because once you are on the throne, chalice and wine follow.
As much a peek into China and its political system as it is a gander into the world of corruption and the minds of those who corrupt, The Civil Servant’s Notebook is an entertaining and awe-inspiring must read. Political reforms need much support to go beyond slogans, and Wang hopes to lend an additional voice.