Sep 15 2015 10:45am
Shanghai Redemption: New Excerpt
Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong is the 9th mystery featuring Inspector Chen Cao, an honest cop working in a police state (available September 15, 2015).
“The system has no place for a cop who puts justice above the interests of the Party. It's a miracle that I survived as long as I did.”
For years, Chen Cao managed to balance the interests of the Communist Party and the promises made by his job. He was both a Chief Inspector of Special Investigations of the Shanghai Police Department and the deputy party secretary of the bureau. He was considered a potential rising star in the Party until, after one too many controversial cases that embarrassed powerful elements in the Party, Chen Cao found himself neutralized. Under the guise of a major promotion, a new position with a substantial title but no power, he's stripped of his job duties and isolated. But that's still not enough, as it becomes increasingly clear that someone is attempting to set him up, for public disgrace and possibly worse.
Chen Cao is technically in charge of the corruption case of a “Red Prince”—-a powerful, high Party figure who embodies the ruthless ambition, greed, and corruption that is increasingly evident in the new China. This “Red Prince” has the kind of connections and power to deflect any attempts to bring him to justice. Now with no power, few allies, and with his own reputation on the line, the former Inspector Chen is facing the most dangerous investigation of his career, and his life.
April is a cruel month, if not the cruelest.
For Chinese, April 5 ushers in the Qingming Festival, a date in the lunar calendar considered appropriate for qingming—grave-visiting or -sweeping. During Qingming, people visit the graves of their family, present an offering, and express their feelings. It’s an important and time-honored tradition. In the seventh century, Tang dynasty poet Du Mu wrote a quatrain about the scene.
Around Qingming Occasion, it drizzles / on the heartbroken travelers treading the roads, / “Oh where can we find a tavern, please?” / A shepherd boy points to the Apricot Blossom Village.
Confucius said, “If you present an offering at the graves of the dead, the dead will appear in front of you, as if still living.”
In ancient times, Qingming wasn’t an easy obligation. For graves that were far away, people had to travel—boat-taking, donkey-riding—carrying offerings, and were often left worn-out and miserable on a rainy day.
In the twenty-first century, there were special Qingming buses. On one such, traveling to the Suzhou cemeteries, Chen Cao, ex–chief inspector and ex–Deputy Party Secretary of the Shanghai Police Bureau, was sitting stiff-backed among a group of grave-visitors as the bus crawled along the congested highway. He thought about Du Mu’s lines as he looked out the window, then at his own reflection in the grimy glass. A flurry of raindrops fell from the roadside willows, glistening as if in grateful tears.
More and more, Qingming was becoming a national holiday, and that fact was giving rise to new problems, particularly for the people of Shanghai. With the price of land in Shanghai soaring, people seeking a place to bury loved ones had to look to cemeteries outside the expensive metropolis. The feng shui and the manageable distance had made nearby cities like Suzhou popular alternatives. During Qingming, train tickets sold out days in advance, and the highways and roads were all crammed with vehicles. It could take four or five hours, instead of the usual two, to travel from Shanghai to Suzhou.
Chen decided to make the trip several days after the official Qingming Festival. Still, he balked at the idea of standing in the long lines circling the Shanghai railway station. And those lines, were he to travel by train would be only the beginning. At the Suzhou station, he’d have to stand in another long line, either for a local bus or for a taxi to the cemetery itself.
So for this Qingming trip, he had decided to travel by bus instead. There was a seasonally dispatched one between the two cities that departed from the People’s Square in the morning, went directly to the cemeteries in Suzhou, and then headed back to Shanghai in the early afternoon. Convenient and inexpensive, it was sometimes derisively called the “cemetery bus.” In this new materialistic century, traveling by bus was too shabby for the status of the “already rich.” Instead, they went grave-sweeping in their own luxury cars, sometimes driven by chauffeurs. The passengers on the bus, however, unable to afford their own cars or the expensive high-speed train tickets, were clearly not so well-to-do.
It was not much of a bus. Old, worn-out, and dust-covered, there was nothing fancy or even comfortable about it. From where he perched himself, the plastic seat was hard, the floor dirty, the windows cracked. At his feet, a couple of late-arriving passengers were sitting on the floor.
Chen hadn’t done any grave-sweeping for several years. He had been too busy working one case after another with the Shanghai Police Bureau’s Special Case Squad. But a change in his position had handed him an unexpected break, and he decided to seize the opportunity. He took out a pack of rumpled cigarettes, then stuffed it back into his pants pocket. The air in the bus was horrible enough, his eyes squinting against a gray shroud of smoke. Waving his hand in front of his eyes, he recalled a similar bus trip several years ago. At the time, it hadn’t struck him as all that uncomfortable. But since then, he’d been spoiled by all the privileges of his position as a Party cadre.
Another drawback to taking the cemetery bus: there was no immediate return. On a day trip to Suzhou, most people liked to do more than simply grave-sweeping. After kowtowing at the cemetery in the morning, they might go to the Xuanmiao Temple Market for tea and snacks, walking around shopping and garden-visiting before returning on the afternoon bus, or perhaps enjoying a Suzhou-flavor dinner before finally taking the evening train back to Shanghai.
Chen was in no mood for tourist activities.
There was no deceiving himself—he was in trouble.
It had been announced the day before, without any warning, that Chen was being removed from his deputy Party secretary and chief inspector positions in the Shanghai Police Bureau and would now serve as the director of the Shanghai Legal Reform Committee.
The decision was presented as a simple exchange of positions. To the outside observer, it might even look like something of a promotion. As a type of cold comfort, the new position even had the same Party cadre rank—and didn’t even have a “deputy” before the title.
But this was a familiar trick in China’s politics, a demotion in the guise of promotion. The committee position was one without real power. The committee was decorative at best, mainly responsible for making reports or suggestions to higher authorities. Because the interests of the Party outweighed those of the legal system, the legal system was anything but independent, and thus a position on a committee focused on “legal reform” didn’t compare to one in the police bureau.
The new appointment was merely a reassuring gesture to Chen and to the public, at a time when “stability maintenance” was a top political priority. Chen was known as a capable and honest police officer, and his sudden removal could have led to unwanted speculation.
But why? It gave him a headache to even think about it.
At the police bureau meeting where the change was announced, Party Secretary Li had said with a catch in his voice, “The higher authorities have decided that Comrade Chen Cao is to shoulder heavier responsibilities for the Party. His extraordinary work all these years is greatly appreciated. A legendary police officer, Chief Inspector Chen has always been our pride. So I’d like to suggest that the chief inspector maintain his office here. There is no rush for him to clear out and move his things. This is his old home, and we hope he comes back to visit us often.”
Teng Shenguo, the chief of staff for Shanghai Party Secretary Lai Xi, also called Chen personally, emphasizing the significance of Chen’s new job. “Congratulations! It’s an arduous yet important task to build a legal society in China. The position requires a lot of research and experience. Comrade Lai agrees that you alone are qualified to take on this responsibility, Director Chen.”
Given the possible candidates in the Shanghai Police Department, that statement was probably true. But it sounded like an echo from the People’s Daily: hollow words, totally unconvincing. Whatever else it was, the new position was not something that called for congratulations.
So Chen found himself on the shabby, packed bus to Suzhou, deprived of the “chief inspector” before his name, a title which, to him, was almost like a shell to a snail.
This wasn’t the moment to get lost in self-pity, he told himself. Yet he couldn’t shake off the sense of foreboding, the feeling that this was not the end of his troubles.
As an “emerging Party cadre,” he was not without connections—some of them within the Forbidden City, near the very top. But his “promotion” had come out of the blue, which in itself suggested the seriousness of the situation. None of his connections had tried to help or to warn him. Even Comrade Zhao, the retired secretary of the Central Party Discipline Committee, with whom Chen had worked closely on politically sensitive cases, had chosen to remain silent.
Two lines by Li Bai came back to Chen unexpectedly:
The cloud drifting, obscuring the sun, / it worries me that there’s no visibility of Chang’an.
Chang’an was the capital during the Tang dynasty. Li Bai, though a brilliant poet, got himself into political trouble during the An Shi rebellion, which marked the beginning of the downward turn for the once-powerful Tang empire.
In the present-day world, however, Chen couldn’t come up with a specific reason for his own troubles. As a chief inspector, he had ruffled enough high feathers, unwittingly or not, that any number of actions could have come back to haunt him. Any number of powerful people could have been waiting for the right moment to retaliate, now tackling him from the dark and putting a stop to his career. He was known to be “liberal,” and in recent years, increasingly disillusioned with the contemporary politics of China, he’d made a point of shirking his duty to the Party. But he didn’t think he posed a direct threat to those above him.
Still, Chen sensed there was an unusual urgency to the move to sideline him. With the national Party conference scheduled for the end of the year, there might be something brewing that conflicted with the Party’s undisclosed political agenda. Perhaps a certain case being investigated by the chief inspector spelled serious trouble to someone high up. But as far as he could see, there was nothing special among the investigations waiting for his attention in his Special Case Squad.
The cemetery bus was not the best place for Chen to mull over possibilities. Abruptly, the pungent smell of salty fish surged up, derailing his thoughts. He glanced around, noticing a covered bamboo basket at the foot of an old woman across the aisle. Probably in her late sixties or early seventies, she had a sallow, deeply lined face and a prominent mole on her shrunken chin.
“My late husband likes salted fish,” she said with an apologetic grin, aware of Chen’s gaze. “I bought it at Three Sun. His favorite store. It’s so expensive, but it doesn’t taste like it used to.”
Salted fish was supposed to be a special Qingming offering. It was traditional for people to bring the once-favorite foods to the dead. Chen hadn’t brought anything with him this trip, a realization that hit him hard.
“Tastes different? Little wonder,” a elderly man sitting behind her cut in. “You know how they preserve the fish? By spraying it with DDT. With my own eyes, I saw a fly land on a salt-covered belt fish. It twitched and died in two or three seconds. Poisoned instantly. No exaggeration.”
“What rotten luck!” The woman started crying. “I can’t even serve a bowl of untoxic salted fish to my poor old man.”
“Don’t cry your heart out here, old woman,” another man said. “In an hour, you can weep and wail as loudly as you like at his tombstone.”
Chen didn’t know what he could say to comfort her, so he turned away, rolled down the window, and took out the pack of cigarettes again. A noise broke out behind him.
“No one in this bus is a Big Buck. Don’t put on any damned airs. If you’re a Big Buck, why are you huddled up in a stuffy, smelling bus?”
“We’re all poor. But so what? You may have an iron and steel fence that lasts for thousands of years, but you’ll still end up in a mound of earth.”
“Come on, it’s a mound in the Eight Treasure Hills in Beijing. What feng shui! No wonder their sons and daughters are inheriting powerful positions today.”
It sounded like the onset of a squabble. People could so easily become querulous. And not without reason, including the ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor. The passengers on the bus had found themselves at the bottom of society. The myth of Maoist egalitarianism, promoted by the Party authorities for so many years, was fading into a lost dream.
His cell phone rang. It was Skinny Wang, the veteran chauffer of the police bureau.
“Where are you, Chief? It’s so noisy in the background.”
“I’m on a cemetery bus to Suzhou. Qingming.”
“How can you leave without telling me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m your driver. Why are you taking the bus?”
“I no longer work for the bureau.”
Chief Inspector or not, Chen could still have arranged a bureau car and a chauffer for the trip. He hadn’t cleaned out his office yet. But it wasn’t a good idea to arrange a bureau car for a personal trip.
“You’re the one and only police officer that makes me feel proud about my job, Chief.”
“Come on. You don’t have to say such things.”
“Let me tell you a true story. I went to a class reunion last month. At such events, people like talking about their jobs and about the money they make. Those of my generation, with ten years wasted by the Cultural Revolution, consider themselves lucky to have a steady job, though a job as a driver is nothing to brag about, let alone as a driver for the police department. But I got to declare, ‘I drive for Chief Inspector Chen.’ Several people stood up and came over to shake my hand. Why? Because of you. They’d heard and read about you. That you are a capable and conscientious cop—an almost endangered species nowadays.
“And then Xiahou, a multimillionaire businessman, toasted me. ‘To your extraordinary job.’ Seeing that I was flabbergasted, Xiahou explained, ‘You mentioned Chief Inspector Chen. Now, you must have heard about “singing the red,” the movement to make people sing patriotic songs. I could have been thrown in jail for refusing to have my company sing these songs like rituals. It was Chen that spoke out for me. Mind you, he didn’t even know about me, he was just speaking out as a honest cop. He’s a qingguan—like Judge Bao or Judge Dee.’”
“Qingguan,” Chen murmured. In ancient China, qingguan meant incorruptible officials, those rare, practically nonexistent officials who were not the product of the system, rather an aberration of it. Consequently, they frequently got into trouble. That was probably why Skinny Wang brought this up just now. But Chen didn’t remember any businessman named Xiahou.
“Anyway, you’re my Chief Inspector,” Skinny Wang went on. “I don’t see anything improper in asking me to drive for you.”
“But grave-sweeping is something personal. I don’t think I should use the car for personal matters, even if I keep my office in the bureau.”
“If you say so. Next time, I’ll drive you in my own car, but you have to let me know.”
“I will. Thank you so much, Skinny Wang.”
Closing the phone, he turned back to look out the window at the passing landscape. Suddenly the bus erupted in noise again. A loudspeaker started broadcasting a red song called “No Communist Party, No New China.”
Oh the Communist Party, it works so hard for the nation, / It wholeheartedly tries to save the country, / It points out the way of liberation for the people, / It leads China to a bright future …
It was one of those old revolutionary songs that sang the praises of the Party, though this version had a suggestion of jazz in its modified rhythm. It was surprisingly familiar yet strange. The message, however, was unmistakable. Only the Party can rule China, and whatever it does is justified and right.
For Chen, such a song brought back the memories of the Cultural Revolution, and of that morning, seeing his father standing, broken under the weight of a blackboard hung around the neck, pleading guilty repeatedly like a damaged gramophone. All the while, the Red Guards were shouting slogans and singing that song around a book-burning bonfire.… This red song, along with a number of similar ones, had disappeared after the Cultural Revolution. But now they were staging a fierce comeback.
“Turn the damned machine off!” a passenger shouted out to the driver. “Mao’s dead and rotting in his grave. Go and play those red songs in the cemetery.”
“Don’t drag Mao into this, you pathetic loser,” another passenger snapped back, glaring over his shoulder. “Don’t forget the movie Hibiscus Village!”
“What about it?”
“The Cultural Revolution will come again.”
“Come on. Those were nothing but the ravings of a lunatic at the end of that movie. You must have lost your mind too.”
“Let’s not fight. It’s Secretary Lai’s order that we play these red songs on the bus,” the driver declared.
Was another Cultural Revolution on the horizon? Chen contemplated that idea. The revival of the old revolutionary red songs was a campaign that originated under Lai, the First Secretary of the Shanghai Party Committee. A relative newcomer to the city, Lai had lost no time leaving his mark through a series of political moves, made possible by his background as a princeling—a child of a high Party member—and the fast-changing political weather. He was regarded by many as a leading figure of the left in China. It was increasingly said that Shanghai was just a stepping stone for Lai in his inevitable rise to the very top of the Party power structure.
What Lai did appealed to some of the people frustrated with the problems of modern China, because it harkened back to the days of Mao. But Chen didn’t think it could work. China was still changing dramatically, despite these old red songs.
A gray-haired passenger was nodding in front, as if lost in the familiar tune. He had perhaps heard the song many times in his youth, and what the words meant hardly mattered any more.
Of course, the man in front might be napping instead, his head merely bobbing along with the bumpy ride. Still, several others in the bus seemed to be humming along, one of them even tapping his foot on the floor. At least they didn’t appear to be bothered by the song.
Another argument was just beginning to rise up as the bus jerked to an unexpected stop.
“What a lousy ride!” An old man cursed. “The bag of my old bones is being shaken loose.”
“If you want to enjoy a comfortable, luxurious ride,” the driver shouted back, “take the high-speed train.”
“It’s easy for you to talk. How can a retiree possibly afford the train?” the old man wailed. “Alas, why do poor people like us have to suffer like this? If he were alive today, Chairman Mao would never let it happen.”
“Your brain must be totally addled, old fool. Mao had a special train just for himself, with pretty waitresses dancing attendance on him, and, from what I hear, dancing under him, too. Use your imagination! I saw a documentary that said that one of the train girls became his personal secretary, and later became a powerful politburo member.”
“Let Mao lie in peace,” another passenger said, from across the aisle.
“Under Chairman Mao, you wouldn’t have been allowed to sweep graves during Qingming. It was forbidden as a superstitious practice.”
Chen nodded along to the arguments flying back and forth, but he didn’t get in the middle of it. It was then that his phone rang again. It was Detective Yu Guangming, his longtime partner at the bureau. At the same time Chen’s departure had been announced, Yu had been named the head of the Special Case Squad. Chen trusted Yu, so it was a relief that Yu had succeeded him, but he tried not to put too much stock in the choice. Yu’s promotion might just be another part of the reassuring show.
“I’m sitting on a cemetery bus. You can hear the background noise—and the red song—can’t you? It’s no place to talk.” He added, “And I’m not ‘Chief.’ Not anymore.”
“But I need to discuss the cases we took over just before yesterday’s announcement.”
“No, you’re the squad leader now, Yu. You don’t need to discuss anything with me.”
“Some of the cases are ones you’d already started reviewing, and your opinion may be invaluable to the squad.”
He thought he knew why Yu had called him. A demonstration of solidarity. But that was the very reason he didn’t want Yu to go on. The phone call might be tapped.
“I’ll be back from Suzhou soon, Yu,” he said. “I’ll call you.”
Detective Yu had a point, though. His sudden change in job duties could have something to do with one of the cases recently assigned to the Special Case Squad. The squad’s cases were deemed “special” mostly because there were politically sensitive. What Chen was supposed to do with those cases was provide damage control for the Party. The problem was that he took the cases, and his role as chief inspector, too seriously. Now, he was in trouble.
But he failed to see how his current trouble was in any way related to the squad’s current caseload, particularly the case he’d been handed the day before. It was about a dead tiger—a publicly disgraced official or businessman who wouldn’t be able to fight back—and it was assigned to Chen’s squad as a formality, because of its high-profile nature. Chen hadn’t done anything with it and wasn’t planning to. He left the case file unread on the bureau’s computer.
He did have some other files stored on his laptop. Without going back into the bureau, he could review them again. For the time being, however, he wasn’t going to contact Detective Yu.
The bus ground to another abrupt stop. The driver caught sight of several people walking along the road with their cemetery offerings. He pulled over, let them on, and charged them ten yuan each. It was his own bus, and it made sense for him to make money any way possible.
The bus started up again and then swerved onto a newly built highway. Chen didn’t remember having ever seen that highway before, but the high-rises along both sides looked strangely similar. They were all almost identical, like gray concrete matchboxes precariously piled up.
The bus took another turn, rolling down narrow roads with old, ramshackle farmhouses lining both sides. Occasionally, though, there were newly constructed villas, just like those in the suburbs of Shanghai.
“Gaofeng Cemetery!” came an announcement on the bus’s loudspeaker.
The cemetery bus pulled slowly into the parking lot.
Copyright © 2015 Qiu Xiaolong.
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Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai and, since 1988, has lived in St. Louis, Missouri. A poet and a translator, he has an MA and a Ph.D. from Washington University. He is the author of several previous novels featuring Inspector Chen, including the award-winning Death of a Red Heroine and A Case of Two Cities.