Authors: Qiu Xiaolong
“Did they find what they were looking for?”
“I don’t know. Zhou hadn’t left anything valuable here.” After a short pause, Mrs. Zhou continued. “We do own several apartments in the city, but it was my decision to buy them. Zhou hardly ever talked to me about his work, but he would get many phone calls. From what I overheard, I thought housing prices would keep going up, so I borrowed heavily from banks for the various down payments. I am still paying off those mortgages. Please don’t believe all the Internet stories about how wealthy our family is.”
It wasn’t up to him to look into the wealth of the Zhous, but Chen couldn’t bring himself to believe anything she was telling him about how their real estate was acquired.
“They were back again the day before yesterday, combing through the apartment one more time.”
That was after Zhou’s death, Chen thought.
“What did they say to you?”
“Jiang, the head of the group, kept demanding that I turn over what Zhou had left behind. I didn’t know what he was talking about. As I’ve said, Zhou seldom talked to me about his work at home, and he didn’t give me anything related to it.”
“Did they have a search warrant?”
“No, but they went ahead without one. Didn’t you say shuanggui is beyond the police bureau’s control? They didn’t have to follow any procedure. They just turned the place upside down.”
“That’s not right.”
“They even forbid me to talk to anybody about it. I was told I couldn’t say a single word to the media or to other people. You’re different, I know. You’re the only one I’ve talked to.”
Chen couldn’t help feeling a wave of sympathy for her. In China, as long as a Party official was in his powerful position, he had everything. But once he was out of power, everything was gone.
That was why Mrs. Zhou appeared so helpless. Her husband was gone, her home had been repeatedly searched, and no one would ever lend a hand.
That was probably why Party Secretary Li had been hanging onto his bureau position so desperately, making things difficult for Chen.
“It has been just like a dream shattered to pieces,” she said, then started sobbing inconsolably. “Last night, I wished I wouldn’t wake up, and would instead stay lost forever in the dream.”
It is nothing but a dream, / in the past, or at the present. / Whoever wakes out of the dream? / There is only a never-ending cycle / of old joy, and new grief. / Someday, someone else, / in view of the yellow tower at night, / may sigh deeply for me
But was there something else to Mrs. Zhou’s complaints?
It was an elusive thought. Chen told himself not to jump to anything like a conclusion. There was a lot more for him to check out first.
The first thing Chen did when he got back to his office was turn on his computer, almost exactly the way Yu had described Peiqin.
Chen was struggling with something he had heard before Peiqin filled him in more fully.
On the Internet, anything politically sensitive would be “harmonized” into nothing through a keyword search by specific Web control mechanisms. So Chen wasn’t exactly surprised when his search for the phrase “95 Supreme Majesty” repeatedly drew a blank. With each search he got the inevitable error message.
After repeated attempts, he changed tactics by typing in “top brand cigarettes,” and this time he was able to find some related content. A lot of questions were being raised about Zhou’s alleged suicide. Speculation about his death was rampant. Posters on various Web forums were devoting an incredible amount of energy and time discussing possible clues, analyzing them, and advancing one possible scenario after another.
Chen spent a couple of hours going through the Web posts and blogs. One of the bloggers was particularly sharp-his tone was satirical, and his conclusion caught Chen’s attention.
“A house isn’t built in one day, nor by one man. Think of all the new houses in the city. Zhou knew too much, so he was harmonized out of sight.”
Chen realized that there was an antigovernment sentiment among the dedicated Web posters and that their reactions were justified. For a detective, however, generalizations like that weren’t the way to conduct an investigation.
Chen moved on from reading about Zhou’s death to some general background information about the housing market.
As a rule, government control of Web content applied there as well. But complaint or criticism seemed to be permissible to an extent. Perhaps the government was aware that it would be useless to try to totally suppress it since the housing problem affected too many people. On the other hand, the Web forums and blogs where it was discussed seemed to be run by people clever enough to avoid direct confrontation with the authorities. Chen particularly liked a bit of doggerel he found titled “Calculation”:
It would take three million yuan / to buy an apartment of one hundred square meters / in an acceptable location in Shanghai, / therefore, for a farmer tilling three acres, / at the average income of eight thousand yuan per year, / he would have to work from the Ming dynasty to the present, / not calculating in the possibility of natural disasters; / for a worker, with a twenty-five hundred yuan monthly income, / he would have to work from the Opium War in the Qing dynasty, / with no holiday, weekend, or any break whatsoever; / for a white collar, with sixty thousand as his yearly salary, / he would have to start working in 1950, / without eating or spending anything; / and for a hooker, she would have to fuck ten thousand times, / every day, with no interruption / even during her period, moaning, groaning, writhing, / from the day she turned sixteen to the age of fifty-five, / and all that without including the necessary expenses / for decoration, furniture, and electronics for the room
That explained why these “netizens” threw themselves into the search campaign that brought Zhou down, but as another post pointed out, Zhou wasn’t an isolated case.
Zhou’s actions wouldn’t be possible without the long, long chain of corruption behind him-link after link, circling the whole city. Behind all the propaganda, housing reform is in reality a huge scam, benefiting only Party officials, and inflating the economy into an impossible bubble. Theoretically, the land belongs to the people collectively, but now it’s sold to them-and only for seventy years. The seventy-year limit is a long-sighted regulation or calculation. Not only can the current officials sell the land, but their sons and grandsons can sell it all over again…
The phone rang and interrupted Chen’s Web browsing, bringing him back to the reality of his office. It was Jiang, the investigator for the Party, who was still staying at the hotel. He was the one the police were supposed to report their progress to.
“Is there anything new, Chief Inspector Chen?”
“Not really. Detective Wei is in charge of the investigation. We just compared notes this morning. It seems to him that there are some questions raised by the autopsy.”
“According to the autopsy, Zhou took a fairly large dose of sleeping pills that evening.”
“We checked into that. He had trouble falling asleep. It wasn’t unusual for him to take that many pills. He told me he took them every night at the hotel. He was under a lot of stress in those last days.”
“But it’s rather unusual for a man to take sleeping pills shortly before hanging himself.”
“Perhaps, in spite of the sleeping pills, he was too worried to fall asleep that night. Then, in the darkness, he thought of suicide. It isn’t unimaginable.”
“I visited his widow,” Chen said, “who complained about the repeated searches of their home, and the confiscation of his computers and all other documents. Was there anything found on his computer?”
“Nothing. He had deleted all the files.”
Chen wondered whether Jiang was telling the whole truth, but there was nothing the chief inspector could do about it.
“What else did she say to you?” Jiang asked.
“She kept repeating that Zhou had worked so hard for the city, and it wasn’t fair for him to bear the responsibility alone.”
“How could she say that?” Jiang asked after a short pause. “The city government has asked us to reach a conclusion as soon as possible regarding Zhou’s death. So far, you haven’t found anything really suspicious about the circumstances of his death. I think it’s reasonable to presume suicide.”
“I understand the situation. It’s complicated. I’ll discuss it with Wei and report to you again.”
Putting down the phone, Chen decided he did need to have another talk with Detective Wei, but for a reason he wasn’t going to tell Jiang.
The next day at lunch, Chen sought out Wei in the bureau canteen.
“How about a cup of coffee after lunch?” Chen said, holding a bowl of barbecue pork and rice.
“I’m not a coffee-” Wei broke off, leaving the sentence unfinished. After a brief pause, Wei said, “That would be great, Chief.”
Fifteen minutes later, they walked out of the police bureau together.
“We could go to Starbucks or any other place you like, Wei.”
“I know nothing about coffee,” Wei said, “but my son talks a lot about a place called Häagen-Dazs.”
“Yes, let’s go there. There is one on Nanjing Road, near the corner of Fujian Road, next to the Sofitel.”
It might not be such a good choice, Chen thought. Häagen-Dazs was a brand of ice cream, but in Shanghai, it was something fancy. It was a status symbol, and a number of the Häagen-Dazs specialty stores were marketed as luxurious spots for young people. There was even a popular TV commercial where a pretty girl declared: “If you love me, take me to Häagen-Dazs.”
But the Häagen-Dazs store on Nanjing Road also served coffee, which turned out to be quite decent, though Chen would still have preferred a regular café. They chose two seats on a sofa, facing the window looking out on an ever-bustling pedestrian street.
“Tell me how you’ve been progressing,” Chen said, taking a sip of the coffee.
“We have to conduct a thorough investigation before we are able to conclude it was suicide, right?”
“That’s right. You remember what Party Secretary Li said the first day we were assigned to the case: ‘Investigate and conclude it was suicide.’ But don’t worry about him. Let’s go over what you’ve done.”
Detective Wei gave him a quick look of surprise, having caught the sarcastic tone about Party Secretary Li, then addressed his question.
“It’s difficult because we know so little about the background. Zhou was shuangguied a week before his sudden death. Jiang is not sharing any information he got prior to our arrival at the scene. Why?”
That wasn’t a difficult question for Chen. From Jiang’s perspective, the details of Zhou’s shuanggui case had to be covered up to protect the image of a harmonious society, even at the expense of the police investigation.
“Now, for the sake of argument,” Wei continued, without waiting for Chen’s response. “Let’s suppose that it’s a murder case. Hypothetically. What could be the motive?”
“Have you found one?”
“Perhaps more than one. In our investigations, it’s common to focus on people who would directly benefit from the death, isn’t it?”
“That’s true. In this case, I don’t think such a list will be too long. It’s definitely worth checking out.”
“Also, I have a hunch that the list may be connected to the picture that started everything.”
“Explain that to me, Wei.”
“When the picture first appeared in the newspapers, no one paid any attention to it. Then it showed up in a Web forum where the original crowd-sourced search started. According to Jiang, the manager of the Web forum was sent an electronic file of the picture along with a note about the pack of cigarettes.”
“Who sent the photo?”
“We don’t know yet. The sender used a one-time, fake e-mail address and logged in from an Internet café.”
“So the sender applied for the e-mail address while he was at the café, and then never used it again.”
“Jiang checked into it with the Internet café, but he drew a blank. He concluded that the troublemaker must have calculated all the possible consequences of initiating the crowd-sourced search. That’s why Jiang has been focusing on that angle-”
“Hold on a moment, Wei. Does Jiang think the sender could be the murderer?”
“No. For Jiang, it’s suicide. A foregone conclusion. So the reason for his focus is beyond me.”
“What about you?”
“I’m not saying that the sender is necessarily the murderer-we don’t know if the person benefited from the death of Zhou. But it’s not that difficult to see that some people did benefit from it, Deputy Party Secretary Chen.”
The Party title sounded extremely awkward coming from Detective Wei. In fact, it was the first time Wei had chosen to address Chen as such, and Chen didn’t miss the implication. What Wei was implying was that the people after Zhou’s position would be on the top of the list of suspects.
“Have you been to Zhou’s office?” Chen asked, ignoring Wei’s statement.
“Yes. The day Zhou was marched away from his office, a team headed by Jiang did a thorough search. There was nothing of value left behind. I talked to the deputy head, Dang Hao, for more than an hour, but didn’t learn much that was useful. You know how a Party cadre can talk on and on in politically correct language. Dang simply kept on denouncing Zhou, just like an editorial in
“When a wall is shaky, people will all push. Especially the one next in the line for the position,” Chen started, then cut himself short, realizing that he too was a Deputy Party Secretary. “What else did he say?”
“While Dang was critical of Zhou, he defended the work of the office. He admitted that Zhou’s job was a complicated, difficult one, considering how much the Shanghai economy relies on the booming housing market.”
“In other words, Zhou wouldn’t have delivered that speech without the approval of the city government?”
“On that, your guess is as good as mine” Wei said. “Dang did confirm that the photo was approved by Zhou himself, then given to his secretary, Fang, to send out to the media.”