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Crime and Punishment
China's boldest anti-graft TV drama becomes a phenomenon
By Li Nan | NO. 18 MAY 4, 2017
In Zhuo Minliu's home, there's now one bond that has skillfully narrowed the generation gap between her in-laws, husband and 10-year-old son, becoming a topic of animated conversation for the entire family.

It's a TV soap, and a political drama at that.

"It's one of the few TV soaps which keep all of us riveted to the screen," the 32-year-old math teacher in south China's Hainan Province told Beijing Review.

The plot centers on Chinese anti-graft investigators apprehending corrupt officials amid complicated bureaucratic infighting in Handong, a fictitious province in east China. Its daring presentation of the fight against the dark side of Chinese society has earned In the Name of the People frequent comparisons to the popular U.S. political drama House of Cards.

Since its premiere on the Hunan satellite channel on March 28, In the Name of the People has hooked millions of followers of all ages. It has wrested the highest TV rating in a decade in China, according to Beijing-based CSM Media Research, a leading domestic radio and TV audience research agency, in late April.

Data from China's five major video-sharing websites by April 25 showed In the Name of the People had 13.32 billion views in a month. Over half of them are from people below 30.

The eponymous book that was made into the series, authored by seasoned political fiction writer Zhou Meisen, has been selling like hot cakes. Published at the beginning of 2017, it has sold 400,000 copies and been reprinted six times.

A publicity still from In the Name of the People (FILE)

Key to success 

The realistic and daring plot, characters who are credible and multi-faceted, and an excellent cast have made the TV drama a smash hit.

Daringness is a key element. The main villain is an official at the sub-national level, the second highest level in China's civil service hierarchy. No previous TV dramas featured corrupt officials of this rank. The show sheds light on political factions with varied connections, high-ranking moles in public security departments, collusion between corrupt officials and business people, as well as bribery flourishing among students, stunning the audience.

"We aim to explicitly show the world China's fight against corruption in recent years," Zhou, who has also written the script for the series, told Beijing Review.

The ongoing campaign has led to the downfall of numerous unscrupulous officials. It is often described as a battle that calls for the resolution and courage shown by a protagonist of an ancient Chinese fable who, when bitten by a snake, chopped off his wrist to stop the venom from spreading and save himself.

Zhou worked as deputy secretary general in the Xuzhou Municipal Government in east China's Jiangsu Province in the 1990s and the stint helped him to get to know many government officials. It also gave him an insight into political circles. "Most of my stories stem from real life," the author said. "I hope to depict China's political landscape, comprising various characters, in its entirety."

To know how officials fall due to different factors, Zhou interviewed previous officials jailed in a prison in Jiangsu in 2015. He also talked to procurators who worked there to learn how matters had reached such a pass.

Consequently, none of the characters in the drama are presented in black and white. Even the honest officials are sometimes bureaucratic and the biggest adversary has a human side. "All characters in the show are alive. That's why I am mesmerized," math teacher Zhuo said.

Rather than hiring expensive young stars, the producer chose more than 40 veteran actors and actresses who were willing to put in a great deal of effort to get into the skin of their characters. Lu Yi, the hero, visited procuratorates and interacted with anti-graft investigators. Wu Gang, who plays a blunt municipal Party chief named Li Dakang, watched news footage online to learn how government officials behave to portray his character with authenticity.

Reel impact 

The show has left impacts on real life, including the workings of some local governments.

In the drama, there is a scene showing Li chastising a subordinate over an inconvenient reception window which forces visitors to kneel down to talk to civil servants. Soon after the episode was aired, an online post appeared on social media, showing a similar reception window in central China's Henan Province. The post calling for "Li Dakang's intervention" went viral and put the local government under the spotlight. The government promptly responded, bringing in chairs so that visitors could sit.

Surprisingly, many young viewers in their 20s are fascinated by the drama, especially the hardworking Li, and relate to it in their new-generation way. They have named the male cast the Handong Boys, like a boy band, and have been creating emoticons based on Li's memes. "It's not an easy task to instill mainstream values into the minds of the young generation," Zhou said. However, the feat has been achieved.

The drama has its critics too. Some say In the Name of the People, where most of the baddies are policemen, is giving cops a bad name. "As a policeman, I don't like In the Name of the People. It shows little respect to our profession," Tan Wang, a 36-year-old police officer, told Beijing Review.

But the author doesn't buckle under the criticism. "I reveal China's social reality," he said. "So criticism is expected. But I don't care because when fiction comes alive, the author is dead. There is no need for me to explain."

Zhou Meisen, author of In the Name of the People (WEI YAO)

Searching for the Highest Common Factor

Zhou Meisen, author of In the Name of the People, the book which became a hit TV drama, talks to Beijing Review reporter Li Nan about his work and future plans.

Beijing Review: How is In the Name of the People different from House of Cards?

Zhou Meisen: What House of Cards presents is an American story stemming from the United States' political system and social reality. In the Name of the People portrays China's political environment…in the primary stage of socialism. This is the most striking difference between the two dramas.

When you wrote the book, what was the biggest difficulty as the book touched upon the dark side of society?

The biggest difficulty in writing political fiction is to find the highest common denominator which is acceptable to the audience, the government and the author.

I participated in China's reform and opening up and highly appreciate its achievements. This is my starting point. No matter what serious problems and conflicts I present, I hope our country gets better and better.

Art and literature can't ruin a country. Nor can they save a nation. What they can do is to influence the way things work and how people think.

Now overseas Chinese and mainstream foreign media, including the BBC, are talking about the drama. It's not common for a Chinese contemporary drama to make such a splash abroad. Will In the Name of the People be released overseas?

Copyright cooperation for different versions of the drama as well as the book is under negotiation. It's been reported that some foreign diplomats in Beijing also watch In the Name of the People, taking it as a window to know more about China. I believe it's possible for the drama to be released in Europe and other overseas regions.

What's your next writing?

I have several incomplete drafts in my drawer. I need to think thoroughly about the divided perception created by this drama. Although it's well-received, there are many counterviews which also make sense. I will take a break and think about the response.

I haven't decided whether to write a sequel yet. I don't want to rush into the follow-up season just to make a fast buck. If there is a second [book], I hope to produce good fiction. Otherwise, I'd rather quit.


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Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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