Title: Enigma of China; Author: Qiu Xiaolong; Publisher: Mullholland Books; Pages: 289; Price: Rs.499
China today witnesses many struggles – between tradition and modernity, between industrial development and environmental protection, between socialism “with Chinese characteristics” and full capitalism, but the toughest is between conscience and conformity, or doing what is right and what is ordered. Who better demonstrates this dilemma than a guardian of law and justice – especially when the two don’t coincide!
A poet by training and inclination, Chen Cao has instead been posted to the police, where he has risen to head Shanghai’s Special Cases Bureau. In his eighth outing, the chief inspector, on the cusp of a significant promotion, finds himself in one of his most challenging and potentially dangerous cases.
Public exposure of the city housing authority chief’s corrupt activities has led to his removal and “shuanggui” or a special party-monitored detention but he is soon found hanging in his room. The authorities want it declared a suicide, but both Chen, drawn in as “advisor” and the actual investigator suspect it is murder.
But other agencies are carrying on parallel probes and then the police officer on the case is killed in a freak hit-and-run accident. Chen now has to take crucial decisions – does he unthinkingly follow the official line, or rather follow his convictions with the consequent hazards of going against the establishment, which will not balk at any measures to silence dissent and non-conformity.
But even without the mystery and the predicament, the book retains relevance with its incisive image of Chinese society in tumultuous transition – and some surprising parallels it has with its large south-western neighbour!
A lecture, “one of those controversial yet permissible lectures”, which opens this book – and gives it its title – is illuminating. “The enigma of China. What’s that? Well, there’s a popular political catchphrase – socialism with Chinese characteristics – which is indeed an umbrella term for many enigmatic things. Things that are called socialist or communist in our Party’s newspapers but are in practice actually capitalistic, primitive or crony capitalistic, and utterly materialistic. And feudalistic, in that the children of high cadres – or princes – are themselves high cadres…”
Does the last sentence seem familiar?
The lecturer goes on list other “many different interpretations and definitions” of China’s characteristics, including a Beijing University professor, who tells his students not to come to him “if you don’t make four hundred million by the time you’re forty”, while himself specialising in real estate development, advocating high-priced housing investments for referral fees from developers. “For him, and for his students, the only value in the world of red dust is what shines in cash.”
“In a reality show, as participants are discussing how one makes a marriage choice, a young girl says ‘she would rather weep in a BMW than laugh on a bike’, or seek a ‘rich husband who can provide her with material luxuries – even if in a loveless marriage’.” And then: “In a recent drunk driving case, the accused actually shouted at the cops, ‘My father is Zhang Gang.’ Zhang Gang is a high-ranking Party official, in charge of the local police bureau. Sure enough, the cops were hesitant to arrest him, but a passerby recorded the scene with his cell phone and placed the clip on the Internet…” Sounds familiar too?
It is this singular world – of restricted Internet access but “crowd-sourced investigations” by netizens into abuse of power, of “eating girls” in elite restaurants, and more – that is portrayed by Qiu, a poet, literary translator, academician who went to the US in 1988 for research but had to stay on in wake of the crackdown after the Tiananmen Square protests though he frequently visits his homeland.
His Chen Cao series are not only intricate whodunnits or engaging police procedurals or a picture of a changing China, and its modern-day faultlines but the very soul of the country as revealed in its social mores and interactions, its cuisine and above all, in its poetry. Savour the journey!
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)