ONLINE ONLY: "The Informant"

December 16, 2011

Reading time min

Wang Xiaodong was a loyal Party member. He did not claim to have fought with Mao, but in the early days of the People’s Republic he had stepped into whatever roles were needed—army officer, assistant director of the propaganda department, and now, after 15 years of loyal service, he was the Party Secretary of Chang’an county. Immediately he sensed the seismic shift that his new stature brought him; the staff took his orders unquestioningly, did not banter with him as they had done in his former positions.

And so, Wang was comfortable in his middle age, with a good wife and two sons and the respect of comrades. When the first edict came out from Beijing, Wang was glad that the remaining capitalists would be accounting for their past sins. The front page of the paper depicted the great leader extending his hand to the masses; all of China’s youth had arrived for his declaration. Wang’s hand quivered and he nearly dropped his ceramic teacup. Beneath his spilled tea the mosaic of ten thousand gaping mouths and little red books melded like tea leaves. He was relieved that the stain had not tarnished Mao’s face; he would have to report it to his superiors.

A week later, from his second-story window, he could see a crowd gather below around the first of Chang’an’s targeted capitalists. “A weed and scourge, that’s what this former landlord is,” declared one youngster, pulling an old man’s hair back and snipping it briskly with a pair of scissors. The Red Guard was perhaps only 12 years old, missing a few teeth. Wang could not tell if he had lost them to poor hygiene or fighting.

In time, the denouncements spread like weeds. All day and night the loudspeakers blared with recriminations. Old landlords and capitalists were dragged out of their houses, and the youth rebels would force their victim to wear a long dunce cap that tipped to the ground like a fishing pole. In the town square Wang encountered the crude opera several times a week, and always the persecuted would have his hair shorn, head lowered, and arms shoved back into the vise-like grip of the student militants.

Wang wondered at times if the punishment had surpassed the crime. When the local university split into factions, with the sons and daughters of peasants in one camp and the newly vindicated children of capitalists in the other, he tried to intervene at first, only to be told that even the People’s Liberation Army had no power over the youth rebels.

And then the second edict came from up high. “Enemies of the revolution must be rooted out. They are among us, at all levels of government. If the rot is not plucked out of ripened fruit, then our entire system will collapse with corruption from the inside out.”

That was Mao’s poetic way of saying the revolution was still alive and well, and now the enemy could be residing in the neighboring house, or the adjacent office.

The orders trickled down that no stone of dissension would be left unturned. Wang was a diligent man, but since his county extended 300 kilometers, bisected by a river, he relied on subordinates from its far corners to report any suspect activity to his attention. The reports came diligently by telegram each day. One correspondent in particular caught his attention; his reports revealed a diligence beyond perfunctory spying as the chain of persecutions escalated in his town of Guangshan.


Under the new law of the land, it was not uncommon for Party members to be under 24/7 surveillance if their loyalty or mental faculties were called into question. Wang Xiaodong sent a young woman to monitor the headmaster’s wife, following her through the course of the day, even sleeping in the same bed with her.

Guangshan was an unlikely place for such intrigue. The town had been a poet’s paradise, where the elderly sat under willow-lined streets along the central canal. It was a place for the world-weary to renew their spirits and reinvigorate the chi. Centuries-old lore had made the town famous. A Song dynasty hero once slayed a white tiger by riding on its back, but the fame bestowed by the emperor had gone to his head. To this day people still say this about the seductiveness of one’s desire: Qi hu nan sha. “When you ride a tiger it’s hard to get off.” It seemed to Wang that the revolutionary fervor of those around him could be treacherous as that tiger. He was wise, however, to keep these opinions to himself. The chairman of the township’s Peasants Organizing Committee had been accused of pocketing funds from a newly formed commune. And Wang knew that these new claims could not only remove him from office but blacklist his entire family for generations to come.

Wang figured that the headmaster’s wife was involved in a ring of corruption, until the next telegram arrived from the informant, who went by the code name of Twilight.


Wang could not afford to lose the alliance of his comrades in Guangshan. Even Party Secretaries could fall prey to the smear campaigns. In the topsy-turvy climate of revolution, a slip of tongue or a vengeful subordinate could demote him, or at least subject him to the vitriol of angry posters and speeches. He wasted no time in sending his wife Li-lian, who had been appointed the county head of propaganda, to talk to the woman. She would coax her to give up the incriminating photos, or threaten her with the same fate that had befallen her husband.

A week later, Li-lian could turn up no trace of these photos. The woman had vehemently denied the insinuations. “Only beasts would yield to their baser instincts,” she said. “If I am caught uttering such blasphemy again, then you can cut off my lips.” Indeed, a thorough search of the house yielded nothing.

Wang was beginning to doubt the reliability of his informant, but the next telegram from Twilight was more urgent than ever. The central leadership in town was being dissolved, it said; Wang’s friends faced persecution for harboring capitalist sentiments. Not only could they be demoted, but the threat of imprisonment loomed.


He decided it was too great a risk to let the matter go, even if Twilight might have sniffed down another false trail. Half a dozen of his friends had been axed in recent months for minor infractions. Even a casual remark hinting that Mao may not have been so poor in his youth landed 10 years of prison for comrade Qiu Bin in the Civil Affairs Bureau.

When he arrived at Guangshan, Wang was surprised to find no signs of mass agitation, no banners decrying the leaders in bold black and red characters, no parade through town with their arms pinned back and their heads thrust down, their hair about to be shorn. Not a whiff of danger in the air, only the sultry fragrance of Cape jasmine filled the streets. His comrades were smoking pipes in their offices, wondering what Wang had gotten all excited about.

“Want a smoke, Wang? They’re Havana cigars, the finest.”

“Me, I like the bootleg British stuff. So what if they’re capitalists.”

Wang shook his head, looking furtively from one face to another. He was furious. He spotted the chief of the Public Security Bureau, and pulled him aside. “My informant has sent me chasing after feathers in the wind. How foolish of me, to follow one false lead after the other. Tell me, who is this man calling himself Twilight?”

“He’s an odd fellow,” said the chief. “Keeps to himself, but never misses a beat on his paperwork. Haven’t known him to give us any trouble.” They dug out the file on Twilight, and while the informant’s record was impeccable, a report dated two years earlier revealed that his brother Lu Shaoming had been sent to a labor camp in Mongolia.

“I know that man’s name,” said Wang. “I reduced his sentence from 20 years to five. All he’d done was barter surplus rice for grain.”

“You ought to watch your back, my friend,” said the chief. “Stick your neck out for someone, and you could find yourself on the firing line.”

Wang was about to return by train the next morning when an assistant showed up, bleary-eyed and breathless, insisting that he stay put. “It’s dangerous for you to go home, sir. The entire town is on a manhunt for you. They’ve set fire to the books and furniture in your office, and they were headed over to your house when I left last night.”

It was true. The radio announced a full-scale campaign to cleanse the country of Capitalist Roaders and Western sympathizers, from the highest levels of government on down. The seat of Chang’an county was ablaze with bonfires, men and women shouting slogans and marching through the streets.

“Down with Wang Xiaodong, enemy of the Republic!” The litany of voices crackled through the radio receiver until Wang silenced it with a trembling hand.

His comrades urged him to go into hiding immediately. But Wang insisted on finding out where Twilight lived. Did the fellow know this was coming? Why else would he have concocted such stories to lure him to Guangshan? He wanted to thank the man, and ask him what else he knew. But it was not to be.

When they arrived at his house in an alley behind the fish market, Wang and his assistant found the door open, its rusted hinges squeaking in the wind. Inside, the alley cats had made their home, leaving fish bones strewn across the living room, where a single kerosene lamp illuminated a desk made of old planks. Wang called out the informant’s name. One of the cats meowed in response, craning its neck in search of the next meal. A thorough search revealed nothing of value; Twilight must have fled his home. All they could find, behind a portrait of him with his brother, was a poem scrawled inside his copy of Mao’s little red book.

In these difficult times, when black is painted white, only the conscience of a few souls will strangle—or save—the republic.

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