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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #30 (July 29, 2008), page 16.

A mystery behind the impending Chinese revolution

A Case of Two Cities

By Qiu Xiaolong

St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006

Hardcover, 307 pages, $24.95

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Corruption in China has been a hot topic in the news this past year, with recalls of faulty Chinese pet food and children’s toys, along with the execution of one of its own top drug administrators. In the West, we sometimes deride these latter efforts as mere show trials, but to the Chinese they are serious business, a way of showing the world they’re a commercial and political superpower, not some bad copy of the failed Soviet state. Corruption becomes even more difficult to control as the world’s most populous country experiences an explosion in modernization, and cities expand rapidly to house the workers migrating from the country. Dollars and yuan fly around at a dizzying pace, and the temptation to grab some of this can be irresistible.

Inspector Chen knows this all too well when he is asked by a top-level Communist party official to continue a corruption investigation in A Case of Two Cities, Qui Xiaolong’s fourth Chen mystery. The subject of the case is Xing Xing, a similarly high-ranking party official considered China’s "number-one corruption case." Xing has been involved in many smuggling operations and shady land deals, and fled to America soon after these were uncovered, claiming political asylum.

Because uncovering Xing Xing’s crooked dealings is part of the Communist government’s latest anticorruption campaign, Chen is given the special authority of a qinchai dacheng, an "Emperor’s Special Envoy." This is a mixed blessing, for it gives him unusual investigative power, but also raises his profile to a dangerous level — his predecessor in the pursuit of Xing died in suspicious, unsavory circumstances. Confirming his fears, the first people Chen interviews either clam up immediately or are found dead.

Then, just as it seems he’s getting somewhere, Inspector Chen is suddenly reassigned to head a writer’s delegation visiting the United States. Although he is a published poet of minor significance, and the writer intended to lead the delegation has suddenly fallen ill, Chen suspects an agenda hidden behind this new assignment. Is this an effort to get him out of the way so Xing’s Chinese contacts can cover their tracks, or is it intended to get him closer to his target?

In the tangled lines between policing and politics, it is hard for him to know for sure, and nobody will give him a straight answer. In the end, he has no choice but to follow his orders and proceed to America. There, Chen must deal with another layer of bureaucracy when U.S. officials take a special interest in the writer’s conference, making his job even more difficult. Fortunately, an old friend (and old flame) is among the officials, although Chen wonders if this, too, is mere coincidence.

Chen is a likeable character. The book’s drama is both vivid and current, and Xiaolong’s style takes full advantage of Chen’s literary bent. The book is littered with Chinese poetry, metaphors, and aphorisms, and Chen often finds inspiration in the snatches of verse or prose he recalls from his extensive reading. Xiaolong also perfectly captures the mood and attitude of contemporary China, a stoic and organized culture trying to wrap its collective mind around the sudden, hectic growth in capitalistic enterprise. The two cities of the title touch on this notion, referring both to the old and new Beijing existing side-by-side all around Chen and to the vast gulf he must bridge between American and Chinese cities.

Not as tautly written as a more traditional mystery novel, A Case of Two Cities concerns itself as much with items on the periphery as it does with the central chase for Xing and his organization. Xiaolong is happy to linger with Chen and his feelings for his American counterpart, or in elements of Chinese culture, ancient and modern. As suggested by the title, the setting of the story ricochets back and forth between the extremes of history and present, East and West, so we are sometimes able to glimpse one alongside the other, like a shadowy doppelgänger.

The case is ultimately resolved, but much as Chen does with his superiors, one suspects a deeper agenda to Xiaolong’s book than mere mystery. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities showed how the new ruling class in France became just as corrupt as the royalty it overthrew in the French Revolution. Xiaolong suggests similar pitfalls of power await the new ruling classes of China. With an immediacy that seems ripped from the headlines, A Case of Two Cities tells two interwoven stories of this new Chinese revolution: one of the long and tangled trail left by a corrupt official; the other about the struggles of China to achieve superpower status, a longer and more convoluted trail that will surely involve many more mysteries, corruptions, and investigations to come.


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