OCTOBER 8, 2020
QIU XIAOLONG’S Hold Your Breath, China is a murder mystery about contamination. Contamination of the environment, to be sure; the book is dedicated to “two victims of China’s air pollution.” But also, a “contamination of the mind” at the heart of China’s modern-day woes — corruption, a lack of morals and concern for others, a government that prizes GDP above all else. The murders at the center of the story arise out of this contamination as well, though not in exactly the way one might expect.
At the midway point of the novel, Shanshan, an environmental activist, gives voice to the theme: “[T]here seems to be nothing left for people to believe in — except what they believe they could grasp in their own hands, for which they will do anything at whatever expense…” The story is also a bittersweet paean to good people who stand up for what is right, even if doing so ultimately destroys them. The protagonist of Qiu’s story, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, is one of these good people (as is Shanshan, but more on that later).
Hold Your Breath, China is the 10th installment of the best-selling Inspector Chen series, beginning with the award-winning Death of a Red Heroine in 2000. It is also the second Inspector Chen story to focus on an environmental theme, after 2012’s Don’t Cry, Tai Lake.
At the beginning of the story, we find Inspector Chen on the outs. No longer a rising star in the Chinese bureaucracy, he has been blacklisted within the system for pursuing anti-corruption cases too doggedly and prioritizing law and justice over the interests of the Party. An article arguing for the virtues of judicial independence is just another of his sins. For this “political immaturity,” as one character puts it, the powers that be have sidelined Chen. But the head of the police bureau needs to solve a series of grisly murders in Shanghai. A serial killer on the loose is a political liability, especially when the most recent victim is the wife of a former vice mayor. He brings the highly experienced, if politically unreliable, Inspector Chen and his sidekick Detective Yu in as “informal consultants,” but the expectation is that the incompetent detectives who are the nominal heads of the investigation will get the credit when the murders are solved.
Soon enough, Chen is called away on a special assignment by the powerful Central Party Discipline Committee to investigate the above-mentioned environmentalist Shanshan. The reasons for the investigation are vague, but the authorities seem interested in learning more about a documentary she is making on China’s air pollution that threatens to expose corruption and name names. Readers of Qiu’s earlier novel Don’t Cry, Tai Lake will know that Chen and Shanshan also once had an affair. Chen was so smitten that he penned (and published) a poem named “Don’t Cry, Tai Lake” inspired by their meeting. Throughout the book, Chen repeatedly drifts off into gauzy reverie about his time with Shanshan, who he has not seen in years. She has since married and become an internet celebrity activist of sorts. When he snaps out of his Proustian moments, though, Chen worries the assignment is a trap. Do the authorities know about the affair? Is this a test of Chen’s loyalty to the Party?
These interwoven narratives drive the story to its conclusion, which includes a surprisingly sympathetic denouement for the murderer.
The strength of Hold Your Breath, China lies not in the murder mystery that frames the story, but in its revelations about work and life in China. Portions of the book are reminiscent of the “bureaucracy lit” of Wang Xiaofang (see The Civil Servant’s Notebook, 2009) and Qiu captures the political dynamics of life “within the system” (tizhinei) particularly well. Qiu’s references to food and historical touchstones (such as the 36 Stratagems), as well as the day-to-day interplay of relationships, add a richness to the story.
There has been some debate as to whether Qiu accurately portrays China. To some, he panders to a foreign audience and engages in self-orientalism, but for my money, Qiu’s portrayal of life in China rings true. In these days when xenophobia and fears of China’s rise are ascendant, his portrayal has a humanizing effect that should not go unmentioned. Amid growing talk of a clash of civilizations, Qiu reminds us that Chinese people are grappling with love, politics, social complexities, workplace pettiness, and serial murder, just like the rest of us.
The aspect of Hold Your Breath, China of greatest personal interest to me was the focus on China’s environmental crisis and the efforts of Shanshan and Chen to fight the problem against powerful vested interests. I spent many years in China working with environmental advocates and government officials just like the ones that populate this book. Qiu’s portrayal of the pressure cooker within which environmental advocates do their work is accurate. I felt more than a bit of PTSD reading the passages about surreptitious surveillance of Shanshan by the government and corporate opponents alike. Although activists have more space on a day-to-day basis to do their work than most outside of China realize, the tremendous pressures in China on public interest advocates (including those inside the bureaucracy) are genuine.
Some of the major set pieces of this story are based on real-life events. Shanshan’s story here is based on the experience of Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary, which garnered several hundred million views in the span of a few days before being scrubbed from the internet in 2015. Chai’s documentary had a tremendous impact in China, but she herself became persona non grata after the film was deemed “sensitive” from on high. Groups who provided information for the film came under pressure in China and were the subject of anonymous online character assassination. Like in Qiu’s story, one of the villains of Chai’s account is the petroleum industry. A Party security chief named Yong is clearly a stand in for the real-life Zhou Yongkang, an oil boss who became China’s third most powerful man before being sentenced to life in prison for corruption and abuse of power.
Qiu also captures the widespread concern that the party-state has been hiding the extent of the environmental crisis and protecting its own. In Qiu’s story, the senior official from the Central Discipline Committee travels with a state-of-the-art air filtration unit that he installs in his hotel room. Qiu also references the infamous fine particulate (PM2.5) monitor the US Embassy in Beijing placed on its rooftop in 2008. The US air quality data, which the Embassy posted to Twitter, regularly painted a bleaker picture of air quality than did official Chinese data. This reminds us of rampant falsification of environmental data that has long stymied environmental enforcement. In 2008, for example, one of my colleagues found that Chinese cities were regularly overstating the number of “blue sky days” they had achieved.
Qiu recounts the arrest of a Tai Lake environmental activist named Jiang on allegations of extorting an “environmental ransom” from local companies. This too is based on a real situation: the much-publicized case of environmental activist Wu Lihong, who served a prison term on what some see as trumped-up charges. Wu’s wife and daughter suffered from harassment and around-the-clock surveillance as well.
Collectively, these bits and pieces of narrative capture just how difficult it can be for citizens to push for positive change where it is seen as against the Party’s interest. And Qiu deftly points out just how malleable the interpretation of the Party’s interest can be — subject to the vagaries of factional infighting, cooptation by vested interests, and, perhaps, even the sense of someone in power of what’s best for the people.
One wonders where Qiu plans to take the Inspector Chen series. By the end of Hold Your Breath, China, Inspector Chen seems to be reaching the end of a narrative arc. The powers that be are taking the first steps to remove him from his position at the Shanghai Police Bureau. Qiu may have in mind Qu Yuan, the Warring States period poet and statesman, as the model for Inspector Chen. Detective Yu’s wife, for example, delivers secret messages in zong zi, the traditional bamboo leaf-wrapped sticky rice traditionally eaten during the holiday to commemorate Qu Yuan’s life. And Qu Yuan, as we know, is a patriot who ultimately commits suicide at the capture of his beloved Chu by the Qin.
Another clue that Qiu is in a dark place is his empathetic treatment of the serial murderer at the end of Hold Your Breath, China. This unexpected turn made me think of Ai Weiwei’s 1995 work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. That piece was meant to draw outrage — why destroy a precious artifact in such a cavalier way? One interpretation of Ai’s work is as a vehicle for drawing attention to the much broader cultural destruction that is part and parcel of China’s ongoing “modernization.” Qiu’s sympathetic treatment of a serial killer seems to challenge us — if you think this is bad, then do not ignore the rampant harms wrought by China’s pollution of air, water, and food every day.