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CHIEF INSPECTOR CHEN CAO, of the Shanghai Police Bureau, was attending a lecture at the Shanghai Writers' Association, sitting in the audience, frowning yet nodding, as if in rhythmic response to the speech.
"The enigma of China. What's that? Well, there's a popular political catchphrase—socialism with Chinese characteristics—which is indeed an umbrella term for many enigmatic things. Things that are called socialist or communist in our Party's newspapers but are in practice actually capitalistic, primitive or crony capitalistic, and utterly materialistic. And feudalistic, in that the children of high cadres—or princes—are themselves high cadres: the ‘red trustworthy,' or the successors in our one-party system.
"In spite of the Party propaganda machines chunking away at full throttle, Chinese society is morally, ideologically, and ethically bankrupt, yet still going, going like the rabbit in an American television commercial."
After tapping his pants pocket, looking for a pack of cigarettes, Chen stopped and thought better of it.
It was one of those controversial yet permissible lectures. The speaker was a well-known scholar named Yao Ji, a research law professor at Shanghai Academy of Social Science. Not exactly a dissident, Yao was nonetheless considered a potential troublemaker because of his open criticisms of the problems in society. He had published a number of contentious articles and posted even more unpublishable articles on several blogs online. A gaunt, angular man, he spoke with his hands on the podium, his body leaning slightly forward, and his prominently balding head reflecting the light pouring in through the stained-glass window. He looked like a hallowed figure, as in a time-yellowed painting.
Chen happened to know a thing or two about Yao due to an internal blacklist memo circulated in the police department. But it wasn't his business, Chen told himself. He adjusted the amber-colored glasses along the ridge of his nose and pulled down the French beret just a little. He hoped he looked like anything but a cop. Here and now, it wasn't a good idea to be recognized, even though several members of the association knew him fairly well. For the moment, Chen found himself bugged by the word enigma. It somehow reminded him, distantly, of a painting he'd seen, though he couldn't recall the details. Professor Yao was producing a flurry of concrete examples.
"Indeed, what are the characteristics of China? There are so many different interpretations and definitions. Here are some examples that speak for themselves. A Beijing University professor tells his students: ‘Don't come to me if you don't make four hundred million by the time you're forty.' The professor specializes in real estate development, advocating high-priced housing investments in return for the referral fees he receives from developers. For him, and for his students, the only value in the world of red dust is what shines in cash.
"In a reality show, where the participants were discussing how one makes a marriage choice, a young girl stated her manifesto: she would rather weep in a BMW than laugh on a bike. The message of that is unmistakable. A rich husband who can provide her with material luxuries—even if in a loveless marriage—is what she wants. In a recent drunk driving case, the accused actually shouted at the cops, ‘My father is Zhang Gang.' Zhang Gang is a high-ranking Party official, in charge of the local police bureau. Sure enough, the cops were hesitant to arrest him, but a passerby recorded the scene with his cell phone and placed the clip on the Internet. Immediately ‘My father is Zhang Gang' becomes an Internet catchphrase.…"
These were all examples of what was really happening in China, Chen thought. But what did they mean?
For the government, "stability" was the main priority. It was declared that the economic and social progress from China's reforms had been achieved because of that stability. Yet the Party authorities were finding it increasingly hard to maintain that stability, despite their efforts to cover up any "unstable" factors.
Professor Yao was coming to his conclusion.
"In a time when the government's legitimacy is disappearing and the Party's ideology disintegrating, I am, as a legal scholar, still trying to hold that last line of defense—a real, independent legal system—hoping against hope for the future of our society."
Chen, his brows knitted more deeply, joined in the applause. As a cop, he found it far from pleasant to listen to such a lecture.
Still, he would rather be sitting here than in a routine political meeting with Party Secretary Li Guohua and other officials at the bureau.
Li, the Party boss of the police bureau, was reaching retirement age, and Chen was unanimously seen as his successor. But for one reason or another, Li had been recently reappointed for another two years. As a sort of compensation, Chen was made the first deputy Party secretary of the bureau and a member of the Shanghai Communist Party Committee.
To those on the outside, it looked like a promotion for Chen, but not in the Party power structure. Some "leading comrades" in the city government, not considering Chen "one of them," didn't want him to be the head of the bureau. They were uncomfortable with the prospect of Chen's taking on such a key position.
So the meeting at the Writers' Association gave him an excuse to not attend the routine Tuesday political studies meeting at the bureau. It would only drive him nuts to sit there while Li mouthed all the political phrases from the Party newspapers.
The subsiding applause pulled him back from his wandering thoughts. Now came the question and answer period. After that, it would be time for the meeting of executive members that they had scheduled weeks earlier.
Chen got up and walked out of the conference hall and out into the building's secluded garden. The association was located in a mansion built by a wealthy businessman in the thirties, then seized by the Party after 1949. For many years, the mansion had been used as the office complex for the Writers' Association.
He walked through the garden, coming to a stop by a tiny pond. He gazed at the white marble angel posing in the middle of the water. It was nothing short of a miracle, he mused, that the statue had survived the Cultural Revolution.
It was all because of Old Bao, the doorkeeper for the association, who, as an ordinary worker, was "politically glorious" and trusted by the Red Guards back then. One dark night during the Cultural Revolution, he moved the statue home in stealth on a tricycle and hid it under his bed. When the Red Guards came to smash anything "bourgeois and decadent," the nude statue, which was on the top of their list, was inexplicably gone. They questioned everybody except Old Bao, who was wearing a red armband and shouting revolutionary slogans more loudly than anyone. The disappearance of the statue remained a mystery for more than a decade, until after the Cultural Revolution ended. Then Old Bao moved the statue back to its original site in the garden. When people asked him why he had taken such a risk, he simply said that it was his responsibility as doorkeeper to keep things in the mansion from being damaged or destroyed.
Looking up from the pond, Chen saw a man waving at him from the visitor registration desk near the building's entrance. It was none other than Young Bao, the only son of Old Bao. When the old man was about to retire in the midnineties, his son was without a job. Thanks to Chen's suggestion that the son succeed the father, Young Bao came to sit at the same desk, with the same register, with a cup of tea—possibly the same cup—just as Old Bao had for years.
Chen was waving back at Young Bao when he heard footsteps. He turned around to see An, the newly elected head of the association, approaching.
An was a swarthy, medium-built woman in her midforties. She had written a prize-winning novel portraying the vicissitudes of Shanghai from the point of view of an unfortunate, helpless woman who had fallen prey to the relentless changes of the time. The novel was made into a movie, but An had not done anything close to that level since then. Perhaps, Chen contemplated, it was no wonder. In her new position, she enjoyed the privileges of a ministry-ranking Party cadre. She wouldn't want to write anything that could jeopardize that.
"Party Secretary Chen," she said jokingly. It was conventional for people to add one's official title to one's name and to delete the deputy as well.
"Come on, An," he said. "I felt ashamed listening to that lecture as a policeman, let alone as a deputy Party secretary for the police bureau."
"You don't have to talk about that with me, Chen. Back in college, you intended to be a poet, not a cop, but when you graduated, you were state-assigned to the police bureau. It's a story that we all know well. Still, there's no denying that you've done well at your present position. There's no point discussing that, either."
What she did want to discuss with him was a series of lectures being sponsored by the association. All of them were to be delivered by its members, and given the excellent location of the association here, there was no worry about there being a decent turnout. Not only that, there was the possibility of collaborating with Shanghai Oriental TV. Recently, lectures about Chinese classics had become popular. People were too busy making money to read the classics, but when relaxing in front of the TV, they enjoyed lectures with easy explanations and vivid images in the background—like fast food.
"A critic compared these lectures to infant formula, which the audience swallows without having to digest," Chen pointed out.
"It's better than nothing."
"They will not only bring in additional revenue to our organization, but a much-needed boost to literature too. So as an executive member, you should be the one to lecture about the Book of Poetry."
"No, I'm not qualified to do it. I've written nothing but free verse."
Chen understood her reasons for promoting the lecture series. The government subsidy for the association was on the decline, and in spite of An's efforts to generate extra money, such as renting out the attached building to a wine importer in the name of "cultivating an exchange between Chinese and French culture" and breaking down a section of the wall along Julu Road to build a café, the association remained financially strained. Its members were constantly complaining of inadequate service and benefits, and An was under a lot of pressure.
A cicada started chirping, a bit early for the time of the year, during a temporary lull in their conversation.
Chen glanced up to see a young girl moving light-footedly toward them.
Slender, supple, she's so young, / the tip of a cardamom bud / in the early spring. He didn't think she was one of the members, having never seen her at the association before. She was dressed in a scarlet silk Tang jacket, reminiscent of a delicate figure stepping out of a traditional scroll, with "spring waves" rippling in her large clear eyes as in a line of classical poetry, yet holding a modern camera.
"Hi, Chairman An." She greeted An before turning to him with a bright smile, "You're Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, aren't you? I've read your poems. You used to write for us."
"So you are…?"
"I'm Lianping, of Wenhui Daily. I'm a new hand, covering the literature section for the time being. I would like to ask both of you to continue to give your works to our newspaper."
She handed over her business card, which beneath her name declared her to be "the number-one finance journalist."
Interesting. He'd never seen such a title on a business card. Still, her request was not an unpleasant one.
"Yaqing's out on maternity leave. So I'm stepping in to cover the literature section while she's away." Lianping added, "Please send your poems to me, Chief Inspector Chen."
"Of course, as soon as I have any time for poetry."
For the newspaper nowadays, poetry was nothing but a bunch of plastic flowers tossed into a forgotten corner of an upstart's mansion. Few paid any real attention to it.
Then, as if in response to the cicada, his cell phone started chirping. The number displayed was that of Party Secretary Li.
Chen excused himself and strode off, stopping under a flowering pear tree. Flipping open the phone, he heard agitated voices in the background. Li wasn't alone in the office.
"Come back to the bureau, Chief Inspector Chen. We're having an emergency meeting. Liao and Wei are with me at my office."
Inspector Liao was the head of the homicide squad, and his assistant, Detective Wei, was a veteran police officer who had joined the force at about the same time as Chen.
"I'm attending a meeting at the Writers' Association, Party Secretary Li."
"You are truly versatile, Poet Chen. But ours is a most special case."
Chen detected a sarcastic note in Li's voice, even though the phrase "a most special case" sounded like a typical cliché from the Party boss. Once a sort of mentor to Chen in bureau politics, Li now saw him more and more as a rival.
"Zhou Keng committed suicide while in the Moller Villa Hotel."
"Zhou Keng—I don't think I know who that is."
"You've never heard about him?"
"The name sounds familiar, but sorry, I can't recall anything."
"You must have been working too hard on your poetry, Chief Inspector Chen. Let me put you on speaker phone, and Detective Wei will fill you in."
The deep voice of Wei took over. "Zhou Keng was the director of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee," Wei stated. "About two weeks ago, he was targeted in a ‘human-flesh search,' or crowd-sourced investigation, on the Internet. As a result, a number of his corrupt practices were exposed. Zhou was then shuangguied and kept at the hotel, where he hanged himself last night."
Another characteristic of China's socialism was its reliance on shuanggui, a sort of extralegal detention by the Party disciplinary bodies. The practice began as a response to the uncontrollable corruption of the one-party system. Initially, the word meant "two specifics": a Party official implicated in a criminal or corruption probe would be detained in a specific (gui) place and for a specific (gui) period of time. The Chinese constitution stipulated that all forms of detention had to be authorized in a law passed by the National People's Congress, and yet shuanggui took place regularly, despite never having had such authorization. Shuanggui also had no time limit or established legal procedure. From time to time, senior Party officials vanished into shuanggui, and no information was made available to the police or media. In theory, officials caught up in the extrajudicial twilight zone of shuanggui were supposed to merely make themselves available to the Party investigation and, once that was concluded, to be released. More often than not, however, they were handed over to the government prosecutors months or even years later for a show trial and predetermined punishment. The authorities claimed that shuanggui was an essential element of the legal system, not an aberration to be corrected. More importantly, shuanggui prevented any dirty details from being revealed and tarnishing the Party's image, Chen reflected, since everything was under the strict control of Party authorities.
A shuanggui case wasn't in the domain of the police.
"Because of his position and because of the sensitivity of the case, we have to investigate and conclude that it was suicide," Li cut in mechanically, as if suddenly a recording of readings from the People's Daily had been switched on. "The situation is complicated. The Party authorities want us on high alert."
"Since Liao and Wei are working on it, why am I needed?"
"As the most experienced inspector in our bureau, you have to be there. We understand that you're busy, so we'll let the homicide squad take care of it. Most of it. Still, you must serve as a special consultant to the investigation. That will demonstrate our bureau's serious attention to the anticorruption case. Everyone knows that you are our deputy Party secretary."
Chen listened in silence while he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Then he remembered.
"Zhou. A crowd-sourced investigation. It was because of a pack of cigarettes."
"Exactly: 95 Supreme Majesty. A picture of it online started the investigation, which resulted in a disastrous scandal. We can spare you the details," Li concluded promptly. "You'll consult with the homicide squad."
"But I don't know anything else about the case."
"Well, you know about the background, and that's important, very important."
Chen had merely glanced at an article in a local newspaper. It was just out of curiosity that he even remembered the term "human-flesh search." It was something connected with the Internet; that had been about all he could figure out at the time. A considerable number of Internet terms had started popping up in Chinese, their meanings barely comprehensible to non-netizens like himself.
Apparently, the case was a political one. A government official who fell dramatically as a result of scandal and later died while in shuanggui. It was a case that could easily lead to wild and widespread speculation.
But what about Li's insistence that Chen serve as a consultant? Presumably it was a gesture on Li's part. Zhou had been a high-profile Party cadre, so assigning Chen to the case underscored the fact that the bureau was taking a major investigation seriously.
"You said that Zhou committed suicide in a hotel?" Chen said.
"Moller Villa Hotel, the one on the corner of Shanxi and Yan'an Roads."
"Then I don't have to come back to the bureau. I'll go there directly. It's close. Are any of our people on the scene?"
"None of ours. But two teams are already there. One from the Shanghai Party Discipline Committee and a special team from the city government. They had checked into the hotel with Zhou at the very beginning of shuanggui."
That could be something. A shuanggui investigation was usually the job of the Party Discipline bodies. There was no need for both the city government and the Party Discipline Committee to have people stationed there, especially now, with the police department involved.
"Well—" Chen said instead, "When will you will be there, Wei?"
"I'm leaving right now."
"I'll meet you there."
Chen hung up and ground out the cigarette on a rock. He was ready to leave when he glimpsed the young journalist named Lianping walking around the pond, heading back into the hall, possibly for an article in Wenhui about the association meeting. She was speaking into a dainty cell phone.
There was a flash of a blue jay's wings in the light overhead, and Lianping's face blossomed into a bright smile. Chen was reminded of a poem by Lu You from the Song dynasty. It wasn't one precisely suited for the occasion, except perhaps for the lines, The ripples that once reflected her arrival / light-footed, in such beauty / as to shame wild geese into fleeing.
He shook his head in self-mockery at his thinking of romantic lines when he was starting a major investigation. Perhaps, as An had just teased, he wasn't meant to be a cop.
On second thought, he decided to go back to the meeting as he'd originally intended. After all, he was only a consultant to the investigation. There was no point in getting to the hotel before the homicide squad.
Copyright © 2013 by Qiu Xiaolong