Source: International Herald Tribune (1/12/07):
China's political taboos feed market for unofficial books on scandal
The Associated Press
Amid official silence over the graft case against Shanghai's disgraced
Communist Party chief, unlicensed tomes are stepping into the void with what
they claim is the inside scoop on his downfall.
Sold by sidewalk vendors or under-the-counter at legitimate bookstores, the
paperbacks, with lurid, glossy covers and eye-catching titles like, "Chen
Liangyu, His Tragic Fate From Beginning to End," appear hastily assembled.
Their titillating details are mostly unsourced and unverifiable.
China's secretive leadership bans public dissent and censors most sensitive
political news, keeping the public largely in the dark over what's really
going on in the highest echelons of power.
That vacuum of information feeds a lively "alleyway news" grapevine of
political gossip, nurturing a small but lively market in political pulp
fiction. Figures such as Chen, in hot water over alleged misuse of city
pension funds and other offenses, are in no position to fight back.
"Where there is demand, there's a supply," said Sun Wenguang, a retired
professor at Shandong University and frequent government critic.
At least half-a-dozen backstreet books have appeared on the Chen case, which
broke on Sept. 25 with an announcement by the government-run Xinhua News
Agency that he had been fired as Shanghai party secretary.
Chen was also ousted from the party's powerful Politburo. The party's
anti-graft watchdog is investigating him for allegedly aiding illegal
businesses, shielding corrupt colleagues and abusing his position to benefit
A wider investigation centers on allegations over misuse of at least
one-third of a US$1.2 billion (euro920 million) city pension fund that is
said to have been invested in potentially risky real estate and other
projects. At least 17 others have been implicated in the case, including the
head of the National Statistics Bureau, Qiu Xiaohua.
Chen's downfall was considered a coup for president and party chief Hu
Jintao, who has targeted political opponents in a broad anti-corruption
crackdown ahead of a key party congress later this year.
The Shanghai chief's removal "sweeps away a major political obstacle,"
another unauthorized book, "Who Dares Protect Chen Liangyu?" asserted in a
statement far too direct to appear in official media.
The explosion of Internet blogs, of which China has some 28 million, and
popularity of lurid tabloids and television programs focusing on crime and
scandals has primed the public appetite for sensationalistic, unauthorized
information, said David Bandurski, a senior researcher at Hong Kong
University's China Media Project.
"There is a huge market for reliable information and the party's control is
creating a kind of 'yellow journalism' of unreliable information," Bandurski
Chen makes a colorful subject.
Starting out as an army engineer, the 59-year-old Chen rose through the
bureaucratic ranks in China's booming commercial hub, building all-important
political and business connections and amassing influence. In 2003 he was
promoted to party secretary ‹ the city's highest position ‹ and a seat on
Chen is credited with helping remake Shanghai from a crumbling Mao-era
industrial hub into today's showcase financial center. But he also won a
reputation as a short-tempered despot who profited from corruption and kept
a number of mistresses.
Meanwhile, his penchant for huge infrastructure projects and ever-faster
growth ran counter to Hu's efforts to cut back on investment and cool the
country's sizzling 10 percent-plus economic growth.
The unofficial exposes are hodgepodges of fact and innuendo, with ample
borrowing from overseas news reports whose circulation is heavily restricted
in China. The country's lax enforcement of anti-piracy laws facilitates
their publication and distribution.
At least some material appears to be legitimate. One chapter of "His Tragic
Fate" reprints what is said to be a restricted Xinhua report compiling
statements by Chen that mainly portray him as arrogant and overbearing.
That book, bought from a bicycle peddler near a downtown subway stop, is
presented as a publication of Hong Kong-based Mirror Books, though a staffer
at the publisher's Hong Kong office said it had nothing to do with the book.
"We've never published a book by that name," said the man, who gave only his
"Who Dares" similarly uses the name of a legitimate publishing house in
Beijing, but fakes the address and other details.
There is something of a tradition for this genre of political literature in
China. A decade ago, the downfall of another Chen ‹ former Beijing party
chief Chen Xitong ‹ spurred sales of a best-selling allegorical novel about
his alleged exploits, mistresses and opulent villas.
Such works may be tacitly allowed because they avoid direct attacks on
current leaders, and reinforce the public perception that the party is going
after the bad guys.
"It's basically fluff content that's not dangerous," Bandurski said.