Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong
As is often the case when starting off these reviews, here’s a question for you to chew over. Is it possible to write an apolitical piece of fiction? One view of the political process is that it’s the discourse used by those who seek to achieve power. Although some would no doubt wish to reserve the meaning to the electoral mechanisms for appointing people to government, the practical reality is that the way people communicate with each other can be used to influence decisions at a personal or small group level. I might get very political in discussing possible projects with friends and colleagues. This might be trading on the nature of existing relationships or offering outcomes which might be mutually beneficial. Hopefully, these exchanges will be benevolent but, inevitably, there are times when threats of unpleasantness are made. The process of negotiation is always about sticks and carrots.
When authors write about their own cultures for the readership of those who are a part of that society, much of the mechanisms of political interaction can be left unspoken. Among those who have been socialised in the culture from birth, there’s no need to state the obvious. Hence the moment an insider offers a commentary or critique, it’s always classified as humour or, more dangerously, as satire to warn people the content is not to be taken seriously. I cut my early teeth on Stephen Potter’s books defining and exploring gamesmanship among the English. The art of cheating without getting caught has always been close to my heart. If outsiders write similar books, the English are patronising or faintly contemptuous as if outsiders can never be trusted to see through to the truth about Englishness (whatever that is). In the end, it’s all about controlling the salience and importance attached to the book. If a book is saying something unpalatable, it has to be marginalised so it will not disturb the smooth flow of the discourse. Assuming its release can’t be prevented, of course.
Writing about China is always political. This is a nation whose culture depends on the concept of face. It’s not considered socially appropriate to write or say anything that might cause others to lose face. Equally, at a higher level, it’s not politically acceptable to say anything that might divert public opinion against the current orthodoxy as defined by the Party apparatus. So here comes a book written by a Chinese born man who now makes his home in America. In these internet-connected days, what one writes in one country is often picked up and commented on in others. This means the author must be careful what he writes. If he wishes to return to his home city of Shanghai, he must tread carefully when deciding what picture of China to present to his American or other readers in the West. Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the eighth instalment of the Inspector Chen series (not to be confused with the Detective Inspector Wei Chen series by Liz Williams), which feature Chen Cao as Chief Inspector of the Shanghai Police Bureau, first deputy Party secretary of the bureau, member of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee and sometime poet.
So how is our politically aware police officer to interpret his appointment to oversee the apparent yet suspicious suicide of Zhou Keng, the director of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee? As a man with a reputation for honesty, is he supposed to rubberstamp the predetermined official finding of suicide, or is he to act as a kind of stalking horse to flush out prey? The “safe” line would simply be to assume endorsement of the party line is required. If there are doubts, they can be included in an appendix to the official report which his superiors in the party can forget to publish. But without being able to ask anyone for guidance, he must judge the factional landscape. For all the party might like to portray itself as monolithic, there are always political currents and eddies as different groups vie for influence and power. In this instance, there may be stresses in the relationship between Beijing and the local government in Shanghai. If this speculation is correct, Beijing might expect a very different report. So to whom does a police inspector who’s rising through the ranks owe his duty? Is it to his immediate political masters or to higher powers.
In answering this question, we should not forget the rise in the power of netizens as the internet enables challenges to the discourse published through state-controlled media. Indeed, it was a piece of crowd-sourced investigative journalism that triggered this particular crisis. Zhou Keng was exposed as probably corrupt through a photograph of him smoking a very expensive brand of cigarette. Other officials are also being photographed wearing expensive watches and driving luxury cars. Although action can be taken against individual bloggers after prejudicial information is published online, it’s very difficult for the party to deter future revelations. To appease the public, Zhou Keng had therefore been relieved of his post and placed in a form of extralegal detention. The Shanghai authorities naturally hope his suicide in custody will be interpreted as an admission of guilt and bring this particular matter to an end. Inspector Chen must decide whether to investigate and, if he does, what he must do with the results. It might suit Beijing to make an example of Shanghai if the corruption was widespread among the Shanghai government elite.
Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong is a rather pleasing meditation on the nature of duty and the role of a police officer. He might suggest it’s not his job to prejudge the facts or second-guess the judges (legal or political). All he need do is discover the “truth” and leave it to others to decide what to do with it. Except if he had a romantic view of justice, he might consider himself under a more universal imperative to act when it’s the right thing to do. The answers here are illuminating. China, as the title suggests, is an enigmatic culture so you should not expect easy, black-and-white assertions. In the final analysis, it’s somewhat melancholic to discover that this culture is not unlike our own. The decision to become a whistleblower is no less difficult in our society which is supposedly more open and accountable. Those in power never like to feel threatened by mere police officers.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.