Many modern Chinese novels depict corrupt officials – the excellent description of the housing crisis in Shanghai, WoJu, A Home of My Own, for example, or the amazing series about the career of a young official, Guanchang Biji, Notes from Officialdom. But it is the novelist Yan Lianke’s depiction of an ambitious young politician’s quest for advancement during the Cultural Revolution, Tough like Water, that, it seems to me, carries a fearsome message about Chinese politics and perhaps about politics in general.
His message seems to be that if there have to be professional politicians then it is essential to give them ways of advancing that do not require them to destroy those they want to supplant; it is essential to find ways of controlling them so that they do not sacrifice other people and everything they feel they need to destroy on their way to power.
In Tough like Water, Yan gives us the seizure of power in a village by a young, ambitious man during or before the 1970s. Because there is no mechanism for the transition to a new generation or interest group, he uses cruel methods and causes damage to many people in order to get his gang in and replace the existing power holders. The interests of the citizenry and society are completely ignored, although he always claims that he is motivated only by idealism and zeal to serve others. It is a brilliant exposition of the mind of a politician, whose motivations and behaviour are similar the world over, though limited and channelled of course by the system in which he or she has to operate.
Gao, the protagonist, is an unprincipled, ambitious young thug of few abilities who therefore chooses the world of politics in which to succeed. Before the age of enterprise, politics or war were the main ways in which young men might make their mark. To himself, Gao justifies his urge to power by his desire to prove himself worthy of his mistress, the pretty wife of a neighbour, with whom he can reach the heights of sexual excitement when they are contemplating or celebrating his political victories.
Gao can only rise if he oust the power holders of his village and, since there are no elections, he can only do this by coup, which involves either killing them or destroying the bases of their power, and/or by impressing the policy makers at the higher level. Maoism gives him the tool in the right to attack, humiliate and ultimately destroy those who run the village; to keep up the pretence that this is an ideological struggle he tries to eradicate traditional customs, buildings and memorials. At one point he finds that someone has been burning incense and launches a witchhunt. The local chief is more concerned about Gao’s neglect of the farmland but Gao puts politics first.
There is a disaster looming in that the crops have been ignored in the enthusiasm to make revolution, ie change the powerholders. When warned that to expend energy pulling down the ancestral temple is not only a distraction at a time of crisis in the fields, but will also so alienate the peasants as to make it impossible to motivate them to work, Gao finds a compromise. He won’t actually pull down the temple but he will inflame a mob of his devotees – the yobs and misfits of the village – to break into the temple and burn the contents. As this in accordance with ideological instructions from on high, the old guard dare not stop it. What it achieves is that it demonstrates his, Gao’s, power. He is very happy to see burn the fruit of hundreds of years of scholarship and devotion, the records of past generations and the very soul of his village, for his temporary personal advantage.
Worse will come. The two cudgel their brains as to how they can topple the local chief, a be- medalled veteran of the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and, carefully paying attention to his behaviour in meetings, suspect that he is having illicit relations with a woman official. In pursuit of evidence, they visit the chief’s home village (some two days’ distance, no telephones or email) where they are welcomed with generous hospitality as visiting officials by the villagers. Astonished by the relative affluence of the village – no-one is starving, there is even plenty of surplus food and there are unheard of luxuries in meat and eggs, they soon discover that, thanks to the chief, this village has never collectivised, but the villagers have been allowed to retain their own smallholdings rather than to work as the slave labour of an official, as elsewhere. No wonder it is so successful!
Feigning admiration, the visitors gather evidence on the grounds that this is a marvellous model which must be promoted widely; the success of it will certainly result in the chief being rewarded (after all, care of the peasants, ensuring their ability to feed themselves, must come first mustn’t it?). When they hear that the woman they wanted to pin illicit sexual relations on is in fact the chief’s sister in law, the wife of another army hero, they are even more excited; the naive villagers help their guests gather evidence of her involvement too.
The ambitious couple leave so thrilled that they just cannot stop making love in celebration; in between bouts of passionate copulation they vie to promote each other to higher and higher positions and eagerly looking forward to getting staff posts in the hierarchy ‘without the duty to labour’. To the reader this is absurd. How can these runts imagine that, just by shopping an able official who has, by being unideological, managed to look after his charges, they can be promoted to senior positions? Yet so it is. The chief, war hero notwithstanding, and several of his associates get 20 years in prison camp – life with death, in other words – and the label of rightist which will plunge their families into the abyss of the persecuted forever. And the young upstarts are on a roll. Power is theirs. Chauffeured cars, big offices, the right to pull down buildings and rearrange gardens and make or break others will be theirs.
The author’s message here seems to be this: without a transparent method of selecting and promoting power holders, China is condemned to this kind of abuse.
The second point is that professional politicians are maybe always meretricious and immoral. Look at Tony Blair – he helped kill or main a million Iraqis to advance himself as an international celebrity. The protagonist of this novel works on a smaller scale, but the deal is the same. This kind of person exists in every society; fortunate is the society that can harness their energies to constructive rather than destructive purposes and also, perhaps, force them to wait for power until experience has matured them into some sense of social responsibility.
As to ideology, it is what politicians use to advance themselves; their ability to persuade others of its validity is their skill; ideology can always be made to trump reality. Look at these English examples: dogmatic monetarism, multi-culturalism, ‘real books’ reading and ‘access’, all ideological positions with dysfunctional results for those over whom the ideologists want to exercise power.
Yan Lianke is a powerful writer about something that matters. Unfortunately the only one of his books so far in English is Serve the People, a story of how sexual passion breaks taboos and undermines political shibboleths.