Last October, China’s state-run broadcaster released an eight-part documentary that tackled official corruption. The show, called Always On the Road, put some of the most notorious and disgraced officials in front of the camera as they expressed remorse for abusing their power.
Take Bai Enpei, a former Communist Party Secretary in Yunnan province. He was given a life sentence for taking bribes of nearly $38 million. “I became possessed and lost my head. I lost my ideals and had no higher aspirations, and I violated a bottom line of humanity,” Bai confessed.
Some enjoyed the luxurious life before being purged by graft busters. For instance, Zhou Benshun, who was the Party boss of Hebei province, lived in a 16-room, 8,600-square-foot house he had commandeered inside a military compound. His staff included two personal chefs and a nanny whose main responsibility was to take care of his pets.
Half a year on, another anti-corruption series has made headlines. The 55-episode drama In the Name of the People has dominated ratings since its debut in late March (also accumulating more than a billion views across online video platforms). The series, which features actors such as Lu Yi, Zhang Fengyi, Wu Gang as well as Zhao Ziqi, tackles a tricky subject for a drama in China: namely, senior level government corruption (anti-corruption TV dramas have been banned since 2004, see WiC323).
The series is based on a book of the same name. It follows the story of anti-graft department director Hou Liangping as he leads an investigation into a corruption case in fictional Handong province (many believe it’s largely based on Jiangsu province).
However, as the story unfolds, more and more senior officials become involved, including people who were close to him, and Hou has to decide whom he can trust.
While the series claims to be fictional, many of the characters feel eerily familiar. For instance, in the first episode, a low-ranking government official is busted for hiding Rmb230 million worth of cash around his house (under his bed, obviously, though he also uses the fridge). That is based on the true story of the infamous Wei Pengyuan, a former senior energy official who received a suspended death sentence after taking Rmb200 million in bribes from 200 firms, which he stashed in bags and suitcases in an empty apartment (see WiC240). It took 14 hours for five counting machines to record his illicit haul.
Another plotline about a deputy mayor that fled the country is also reminiscent of Yang Xiuzhu, a disgraced Wenzhou official who fled overseas in 2003 after amassing over $40 million in bribes. Described as “China’s most wanted fugitive” by the local press, she was detained in the US in 2014 for using a fake passport and returned to Beijing in 2016 to give herself up to the authorities.
And then there’s a government official who is caught in bed (literally and figuratively) with two sisters, which reminds audiences of the Hu sisters in Shanxi who slept with three senior government officials in exchange for business favours.
The main reason for the series’ popularity is its “accurate and bold” portrayal of corruption, power struggles and other social woes that usually go unmentioned in official media yet are omnipresent in Chinese society. The screenwriter Zhou Meisen – also the author of the original novel – was embedded with anti-corruption agencies for over six months and interviewed transgressing officials in jail to gain first-hand knowledge and inspiration for his work.
The boldness of the series is reflected in its inclusion of many politically sensitive references. For instance, the show assigned the name Zhao to the highest-ranking corrupt official and his greedy and lawless family. It will have surprised many Chinese viewers when they heard “the Zhao Family” repeatedly mentioned by the anti-corruption officials during their investigations. The phrase is borrowed from Lu Xun’s novella The True Story of Ah Q, written a century ago. But it reappeared a year ago in an internet article titled “Vanke – Baoneng struggle: barbarians at the door, the Zhao family is behind the scenes”. The phrase in this context alluded to very senior government officials and their “powerful and wealthy” families exercising control of companies to enrich themselves. Unsurprisingly, the Central Propaganda Department swiftly banned the buzzword on all media platforms, which has made its frequent use in this TV series all the more remarkable.
The drama also showcases Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel – referred to as the “Three Seasons Hotel” in the show – as the refuge for Zhao Ruilong, son of the highest-ranking corrupt official, and his cronies. Nicknamed “the north-facing watchtower,” the hotel is a favourite place for rich Chinese who have fled the country to evade government investigations (see WiC263). It was from this hotel that billionaire Xiao Jianhua was reportedly grabbed by the Chinese authorities in February and repatriated to China to assist their investigations (see WiC354).
In the Name of the People is claimed to be an initiative of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the national agency responsible for prosecution and investigation of crimes in China. The agency is portrayed by the show as the main force in leading the corruption investigations, and it is thought to have been the main financier of the drama’s Rmb120 million production cost. In reality the graft-busting at both national and local levels is led by the Central Commission of Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) headed by Wang Qishan – who is known to be a big fan of Netflix series House of Cards. The CCDI commands more power to investigate Party-related corruption – it is a Communist Party organisation – than the People’s Court and the People’s Procuratorate, which are government bodies.
It’s apparent that the show’s mission is to bolster public support for President Xi Jinping’s ongoing crackdown on corruption, which was launched shortly after he assumed the supreme leadership of the Communist Party, the state and the military in 2012. The show’s release also comes at a sensitive time – ahead of the 19th Party Congress meeting this autumn, during which Xi is expected to start his second five-year term and further consolidate his authority. China’s propaganda machines have been touting his achievements in the run-up to the meeting, and netizens think it is hardly a coincidence that the last character in the names of the three main heroes on the show can be combined to spell ‘Xi Jin Ping’.
Having released over 30 episodes on TV and via the internet as of this week, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. On Douban, an online TV and film review site, the series received a rating of 8.6 out of 10. It has also become the highest trending topic on weibo, prompting hundreds of millions of tweets each day.
“I haven’t stayed up overnight to binge-watch a show for a long time. But In the Name of the People is definitely worth it. It is so thrilling to watch,” one netizen wrote on weibo.
Another concurs: “Compared to those time travel series and reality TV, this new series is like a breath of fresh air. Not only do we see the government’s determination to stem corruption, the positive energy from the show has stuck with us. After all, the fight against abuse of power is going to be long and hard. The process is also going to be painful but together, we can overcome.”
In addition to the titillating details about corrupt officials’ lavish lifestyles, audiences say they also find the show educational when it comes to office politics. For instance, the character Qi Tongwei – Handong’s provincial police chief and one of the key villains of the show – often cozies up to his superiors to advance his political career. However, sucking up doesn’t always work to his advantage. In one instance, another senior official deems Qi untrustworthy after sensing that he is too eager to ingratiate himself.
Similarly, the series highlights the importance of nepotism in China. Virtually all the characters are connected to someone who works for the government. Marriages and school connections, too, are used to enhance those lineages. So while the show aims at exposing corruption, it also showcases (perhaps inadvertently) the importance of family and social networks within the Party.
Zhou the screenwriter says he made sure that Hou – the hero in the story – did not come from a privileged background or have a lot of political connections, so that the character would be more “idealised” by audiences. But sharp-eyed and quick-witted netizens beg to differ. Hou and Qi, the police chief, both graduated from Handa (a fictional university). Hou’s family background is vague, but the fact that after marrying a mid-level CCDI official he is quickly transferred to headquarters in Beijing has made people speculate that his wife must come from an unusually powerful family.
On the contrary, Qi comes from a humble background and has to work extremely hard and sometimes compromises his principles to advance his career. In order to join his true love in Beijing, he takes a dangerous post as a drug-buster and is shot in the line of duty. He laments in one scene that “I naively thought that by being a hero, I may get to be transferred to join my true love. But ‘hero’ can’t argue with power. In front of power, ‘hero’ is only a tool.”
In the end, Qi has to give up his love interest and accept the advances of the daughter of a high-ranking official, marrying a woman who is 10 years his senior. Some netizens expressed their sympathy for the villain Qi and instead called Hou “the pretty boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth who can afford to be clean and upright”. (A more negative interpretation and one which is somewhat at odds with what the screenwriter claims to have intended.)
Some critics of the show think it is overrated: “The reason audiences in China are so amazed by the show is because they know very little about corruption in China,” says Hong Kong’s Apple Daily. “That’s why for audiences outside of the country, where information is more readily available, the show doesn’t feel that scandalous. At best, it is the most accurate portrayal on television so far about the corruption that plagues the Communist Party.”
Others reckon that what they see on screen barely scratches the surface. “Just the TV show itself is already so scary, what about those stories that never saw the light of day? One can only imagine how big a problem corruption is in reality,” one audience member wrote.
But no matter, fans of the show will be pleased to learn that the series is just the first of five anti-graft dramas the Procuratorate’s broadcast department has been preparing. According to one producer, the goal for the agency is to release at least one film and two TV dramas annually.
One has to say there’s no shortage of material to work with…
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