huge oil painting entirely covers one wall of a bedroom. As the painting slowly slides up, it reveals a wall of banknotes stacked in bundles. Whipping off the quilt, one finds the king-size bed is made of banknotes too. Such a haul of cash is found in the villa of a lowly division head of a certain ministry, the banknotes totalling 230 million yuan (US$33 million) hidden in almost every corner.
The scene comes from the second episode of the television series, In the Name of the People, dubbed by media as the Chinese version of House of Cards, the hit UK and then US political drama.
Written by Zhou Meisen, one of the most influential contemporary writers in the political genre, the series is built around a complicated corruption case brought to light by a conflict at a factory in a fictional province.
The 55-episode series became an immediate hit after its debut on Hunan Television, one of China’s most pioneering networks, on March 28, 2017. Its pilot episode attracted a total of 350 million views on television and online. The show has become one of the highest-rated domestic TV dramas of all-time on rating and review site Douban with a score of 8.7 out of 10, with 56,524 votes.
Sponsored by the TV and Film Production Center under the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), the highest agency responsible for both investigation and prosecution in China, the show is the first drama series since 2004 to feature high-level government corruption as the primary theme. It is part of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.
The show’s unprecedented choice of making a deputy-state-level official a villain, faithfully depicting the internal power struggles within officialdom and explicitly revealing the lifestyle of senior officials, has already earned the series the reputation of “the most daring anti-graft drama ever made in China.”
The genesis of In the Name of the People came about with Fan Ziwen’s repeated visits to his old friend, the renowned writer Zhou Meisen, at the end of 2014.
Fan, deputy of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate’s Film and Television Center, badgered Zhou into picking up his pen again to write an anti-graft drama that reflects the intensified anti-corruption campaign of recent years.
As one of the best-known writers of political fiction, 61-year-old Zhou Meisen has written a series of political novels including Supreme Interest, Absolute Power and The State’s Public Prosecutors. Many of his works have been adapted into television series. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, anti-corruption shows usually have to undergo extremely strict censorship. An anti-graft work, even when painstakingly completed, still faces the danger of being canceled.
Zhou told NewsChina that when his previous work Absolute Power (2002) was submitted to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) for censorship, more than 800 parts of the original script were marked for changes. Another of his works, The State’s Public Prosecutors (2003), went through eight months of censorship and seven rounds of major changes, yet was still almost canceled.
SAPPRFT banished TV dramas that dealt with corruption from primetime hours in 2004 so as to “protect the youth.” Since then a decade called the “silence period” followed for anti-graft dramas, during which programs featuring corruption could only be broadcast after 11pm.
“Authorities used to insist on the incorrect belief that anti-corruption-themed works would exert a very negative effect on society. But putting the leash on anti-graft-themed works, to some extent, has allowed the deterioration of corruption,” Zhou told NewsChina.
From 2004 to 2014, the most shocking social reality for Zhou was that corruption became increasingly rampant. “It’s a self-deluded idea that banning anti-graft stories would inhibit corruption. It turned out to be quite the opposite. See, it’s getting worse,” Zhou added.
Originally, the writer felt hesitant when invited to write a new series. The question as to whether or not an anti-graft drama could be produced haunted him for a long time.
The then director of the Television Series Administration Bureau under SAPPRFT, Li Jingsheng, supported Fan Ziwen’s idea of creating a new drama production to reflect the latest anti-corruption campaign. Li gave a guide for the theme: “The principle [of the work] is to fight against corruption, instead of demonstrating it. The core message it conveys needs to be ‘anti-corruption, pro-clean government and positive energy.’”
Zhou eventually began writing the series in early 2015, and the writing process went smoothly. He finished the first two episodes in just one week. “My inspiration spurted out,” said Zhou, describing his creation as an accumulation of a decade of preparation.
Zhou Meisen’s familiarity with officialdom also comes from his personal experience.
He was a deputy secretary-general in the municipal government of Xuzhou City in east China’s Jiangsu province in 1995. The one-year term gave him a chance to learn the way the government operated. He made friends with officials there and witnessed their rise and fall.
He told NewsChina that, many officials, due to a lack of political background and resources, might struggle to get promoted and end up staying in the same position for decades. “Many of my friends were already a division head 25 years ago, but still remain in the same position 25 years later,” Zhou said.
In such situations, the writer pointed out, there exist two common psychologies within officialdom: some officials, with hopeless prospects for their future career, just muddle along all day and would rather sit idle than do work where they might make mistakes; others stick to the idea of “the more, the better,” embezzling as much money as possible.
“Isn’t it easy for officials to take bribes? Taking in three million or five million [US$435,000 to $725,000] every year for them is as easy as child’s play. A county mayor can tantalize entrepreneurs with investment opportunities, and a county Party secretary can do some money-for-official-position deals. Such occurrences used to be extremely common until 2014,” Zhou said.
To further delve into the real status of fallen officials, Zhou interviewed inmates in Pukou Prison in Nanjing in 2015, accompanied by SPP staff.
Zhou attempted to explore the inner conflicts of the officials after their fall from high position. What impressed him most was that, besides being regretful, many convicts express a sense of feeling being wronged.
“One of the officials has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for embezzling 500,000 yuan [US$72,000]. ‘15 years!’ He repeated it several times. I can feel his grievance strongly,” Zhou recalled. “500,000 yuan is a small sum compared to other cases of serious corruption.”
In the process of writing, Zhou paid close attention to corruption-related news reports and studied the anti-graft cases that had come to light since the 18th National Congress in 2012.
Many of the cases featured in In the Name of the People were based on real events, including the famous case of Wei Pengyuan, former deputy head of the coal department at the National Energy Administration.
To pose as an honest official, Wei usually rode a shabby old bicycle to the office. Nevertheless, investigators found a bed made of banknotes worth 230 million yuan, or more than $33 million, at his villa. The sheer quantity of cash meant that four of 16 money-counting machines burnt out during the investigation.
The case inspired Zhou to create a character in the first two episodes of In the Name of the People as an example of a seriously corrupt low-level official.
From the writer’s perspective, corrupt officials are neither “demons” nor “devouring tigers,” but “ordinary human beings of flesh and blood.” “Sometimes a moment of weakness leads to a great mistake,” Zhou said.
Zhou felt sad for these fallen mandarins: on the one hand, they trampled the law and wreaked the political ecosystem; yet on the other, the dysfunctional political ecosystem, where power roams unchecked, had a corrupting effect on them.
A remarkable element of In the Name of the People compared to previous dramas in this genre is the seniority of corrupt officials. One of the villains is a top-ranking government leader, something which never happened in previous productions.
In the past, one guideline for anti-graft dramatic productions was that the rank of antagonists should not be higher than the deputy provincial and ministerial level.
To what extent would he be allowed to demonstrate the reality of corruption? How far could his writing demonstrate the depths of corruption? Such questions haunted Zhou Meisen throughout the whole process of writing.
Zhou told NewsChina that the character of the deputy state-level official was not in the original plan. In his first draft, the highest rank of corrupt official was the head of the public security department of a province.
After reading the original script, Zhai Taifeng, former Party secretary of the China Writers Association, encouraged Zhou to change the story into “one with greater gravity.” “The reality is that so many higher-level officials have been arrested in recent years. How can you touch on the subject so lightly?” Zhai asked the writer.
Zhai’s words came as a real confidence boost to Zhou Meisen. He eventually made a deputy state-level official the series’ biggest “wire-pulling tiger.”
After the series was finished, what surprised Zhou and other producers most was the exceptional tolerance of the censorship body.
Zhou originally thought the huge project would take an extraordinary amount of time and effort to get past the SAPPRFT. He also braced himself for probably five episodes being deleted and more than 1,000 points being earmarked for revision.
However, approval of In the Name of the People took just 10 days. Only a few dozen parts were to be changed. Sensitive scenes such as a protest that happens in a clothing factory and workers suffering burns in a warehouse fire all passed censorship.
“Compared to their predecessors, the [censors] seem to come from a different universe,” Zhou joked.
Not only that, the authorities gave very positive reviews. “Groundbreaking and soul-stirring,” censors of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate described the show, the show’s director Li Lu told NewsChina.
Mao Yu, director of the Television Series Administration Bureau under SAPPRFT, said in the annual conference of the Chinese Television Directors Association in January that, “We [the SAPPRFT] are deeply moved by such a realistic show [In the Name of the People]. We greatly admire its makers’ shrewd understanding of Chinese society and the insightful answers they give to major problems of our time.”
“Although the series realistically reveals the phenomenon of rampant corruption, it still shows the audience how light conquers darkness. In the show people can feel the power of justice, the warmth of human nature and never-fading hope,” Mao said.
To bring “positive energy” is a crucial principle. Fan Ziwen told NewsChina that television series with an anti-graft theme are a double-edged sword – if handled well, they can demonstrate the Party’s determination in fighting corruption; if not, they would to some degree hurt the image of the ruling members.
After it aired, the show instantly became a hit and was widely acclaimed by the public. The novel of the same title went immediately out of stock on the first day of broadcast. 460,000 copies were sold in a week.
One critic commented that the depth of the show’s depiction of society and exploration of human nature has far exceeded previous anti-graft dramas. It involves all walks of life, from lower-level officials to highest-ranking leaders, from merchants to intellectuals, from social elites to disadvantaged groups.
Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Government Integrity and Anti-Corruption Research Center of Peking University, told the Xinhua news agency that the popularity of In the Name of the People shows people’s eagerness to know what really happens in the process of anti-corruption, which is usually unclear to the public due to the niche nature of its work and the specialization of the professionals involved.
“People’s passion for the anti-graft drama, essentially speaking, reveals how deeply they care about social justice as well as their own development, and how much they hope to understand how the Party and government work,” Zhuang said.