“It is safe to say that the Chinese invented modern bureaucracy,” the historian Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order. An impressive achievement?
For anyone wondering what it might be like to be a cog in the wheel of China’s giant government apparatus – where job descriptions include such gems as ‘Director-Level Section Member of the Provincial Disciplinary Committee’s Sixth Office’ – Wang Xiaofang’s satirical novel, The Civil Servant’s Notebook, offers a cynical and somewhat absurdist insight.
Obedience and disloyalty, trust and betrayal all rear their heads in Wang’s dizzying account of the merry-go-round of office politics. The characters scheme endlessly for power and promotion, with some stomach-turning examples of personal ambition.
In one of the worst, Yang Hengda, a thoughtful, low-level apparatchik whose reflections open the book, agrees to emulate the ‘special’ cure of his benefactor, the Old Leader, in order to gain the old man’s support. To do that Yang drinks his own urine for five years, even though he knows that the claims made for the cure are bogus. Who can doubt that? After all, the Old Leader is in hospital with uric acid poisoning.
“In addition to transcribing the Old Leader’s thoughts on the cure, I was also under strict instructions to record my own ponderings, two thousand characters per day, minimum,” Yang records.
It works for his employment prospects as promotion follows from ordinary researcher in the Retired Cadres Office of the city of Dongzhou to Head of Number Two Department, Combined Affairs, Dongzhou Municipal Government.
The author knows the life that he’s writing about. A former civil servant, Wang rose to the post of private secretary to the deputy mayor of Shenyang, Ma Xiangdong, who was later executed for corruption.
Wang, who left his position a few years before Ma’s sentencing, had already begun writing about some of his experiences. He has now published 13 novels in Chinese, several of which have entered the bestseller charts. But The Civil Servant’s Notebook, published by Penguin, is the first to appear in English.
The cast of characters is eye-opening.
Yang’s colleague, Ou Beibei, is a Number Two Department Junior Department-Level Researcher. She cares only for promotion and believes her surest bet is to seduce the mayor.
Another colleague, Number Two Department, Department-Level Researcher Huang Xiaoming, engineers a coup against a rival. Of his rival, Huang says dismissively: “He believed an ally was the same as a brother. That’s another thing he didn’t understand.”
Only power counts, it seems.
Like a member of a Greek chorus, another character, called Fountain Pen, complains that ambition has stripped the nation’s civil servants of humanity, calling them “ambitious people who have forgotten the people”.
“All human dignity arises from thought. Thought begins with a pen and thus I am your dignity. But you seem to have forgotten me altogether,” Fountain Pen laments, in a reference to French philosopher Blaise Pascal.
Or as it says more plainly on the book’s back cover: “The Civil Servant’s Notebook offers a glimpse into the distorted psyches of those who roam the guarded hall of Chinese political power. ‘Serve the People’ is just about the last thing on their minds…”
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