And Finally

Red classics

Government official on bestseller list

Red classics

“The reader gets a sense of both the importance of the mission of politics and the ridiculousness of much of its mechanics.”

So goes the review by the Guardian newspaper of Alastair Campbell’s diaries. Tony Blair’s once-powerful press secretary hit the bestseller list with his insider view of the former British prime minister’s style of sofa government.

Insider tales of government, you might be a bit more surprised to hear, are hot sellers in China too. A string of such ‘novels’ are proving so popular in fact, that one official even managed to make it onto a writer’s rich list for 2010. The anonymous author, who goes by the pen name ‘Small Bridge Old Tree’, raked in an estimated $280,000 in royalties last year for his hit The Diary of Hou Weidong, Government Official.

The appeal is simple. The public is eager to gain insights into an often opaque system, and even to have an insider confirm their worst fears about those that govern them. “In these works, anyone with a sense of justice and courage will always gradually get tainted in official circles,” explains (and laments) the China Youth Daily.

Hou Weidong’s is not the only civil servant to kiss and tell. At the end of last year, Wang Wanfu, an official from Zhejiang’s powerful Commission for Discipline Inspection, joined the fray with another contribution: Official’s Hat. It is about the decline of a senior official.

“A lot of officialdom novels mainly describe the ecology of government organs, which is a bit superficial,” Wang told the Qilu Evening News. “My work not only shows readers the thrilling way that cases are handled, but also digs deep into the inside story behind the scenes and tries to reach people’s hearts.”

Perhaps the most successful ‘fictional’ memoir to be written yet is Reflections of a Grass-roots Official by Wang Jingrui, vice mayor of Yangquan city. Despite being first published in 2002, the book has already reached its seventh print edition. “I’m surprised it came out at all”, well-known writer and literary critic Yu Qiuyu wrote in the book’s preface. His surprise was not only about getting round censors, but also the fact that the busy bureaucrat “barely has time to write”.

Insiders have also written thinly veiled ‘roman à clef’ novels attacking various Chinese politicians in the past – but while those tend to be wildly popular, they are quickly banned from store shelves. The ‘semi-autobiographical’ works that have earned a longer shelf-life are careful not to reveal too much, or target anyone in particular.

Wang Jingrui thinks he’s found the right balance: “What I write is positive without being too critical,” he told the Qilu Evening News.

How long can this trend continue? “Only when officialdom [becomes more transparent] will this particular phenomenon of ‘officials’ novels’ be gradually eliminated,” argues the Nanhai Daily, “and then there will be few insider stories or hidden rules worth writing about.”

Not a view, clearly, that Alastair Campbell would agree with…

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