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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stranger than fiction

Such is life in China. Which publisher,indeed,would find Bo Xilai’s story realistic?

Written by New York Times | Published: April 28, 2012 12:33:18 am

Such is life in China. Which publisher,indeed,would find Bo Xilai’s story realistic?

One day in the early 1980s,at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing,I was playing Ping-Pong,brandishing my favourite red raquet with exceptional speed and spin,trouncing schoolmates. As I was about to leave,a tall one asked if he could borrow my premium raquet,and I agreed. That was the only encounter between me and Bo Xilai. I remember it not because his father was one of the most powerful Communist Party seniors but because he never returned the raquet. After graduation,I moved to the US and eventually began writing detective stories set in Shanghai. As for Bo,I read that he was rising quickly in the party. I would never have guessed that,this spring,he would be expelled,accused of corruption,his wife investigated for murder,that rumours would swirl of his spying on members of the Politburo,on President Hu Jintao himself.

A few years ago he became the party secretary of Chongqing,a city of around 30 million in southwestern China. There he introduced the “Chongqing model,” in which populist economics,tough-on-crime policing and Maoist nostalgia were combined in an attempt to counteract the modern lack of social cohesion. The programme had a slogan: “To sing the red,to crush the black.” To “sing the red” referred to songs in praise of Mao and the Communist party that Chongqing residents were once ordered to sing. To “crush the black” referred to Bo’s crackdown on organised crime.

At first I was surprised by this nostalgia for the “red and black” of the Cultural Revolution. But some years ago,at a karaoke room during a trip to Shanghai,I was flabbergasted by the number of red songs being sung. For me,they do not bring back memories of a purer China but of Red Guards,who,in the name of the proletarian dictatorship,crushed those they saw as counter-revolutionary. Apparently,Bo’s move to turn the clock back was gaining popularity.

Like the detective in my novels,I tried to figure out why. With increasing economic inequality,the bankruptcy of traditional ethics,the rise of unbridled materialism,the absolute power of the one-party system leading to absolute corruption,people were simmering with frustration and discontent. But where did Bo fit in? This March,I made another trip to China. It was after Wang Lijun,Bo’s police chief,had fled to the American Consulate in a dramatic move,and after Bo had been dismissed as the Chongqing party chief,but before he lost his seat on the Politburo and before we knew his wife was under investigation for the death of Neil Heywood,a British businessman.

The day Bo was suspended from the Politburo,a friend compared his downfall to that of Lin Biao,the Red Army commander who was eventually accused of plotting against Mao. Except back then,the Chinese took the scandal seriously. Now they compare the events unfolding in Chongqing to TV drama. Indeed,life in China can be so much stranger than fiction. Murder,conspiracy,ambition,corruption. “You should write a book about it,” a young friend suggested. An American friend had suggested that,too,but didn’t think it would work: “If you wrote a novel with a plot like what has happened,the publisher would surely have rejected it as being too crazy.” One way or another,I’m sure some details of the Bo scandal will make it into my next book. After all,he still owes me my Ping-Pong raquet. When he failed to return it,I remember thinking of a couple of lines from The Book of Songs: “All the land stretching out to the horizon,/ belongs to his lord alone.” He believed that.

Qiu Xiaolong is the author of the forthcoming novel ‘Don’t Cry,Tai Lake’

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