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Matt Sheehan

“Waking Up From the Beijing Dream”: An Online Account of Love, Corruption, and Unwritten Rules

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When Chinese news agency Xinhua announced the dismissal of Yi Junqing, head of the Communist Party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, the story appeared to fall neatly into a pattern of corruption exposes that followed China’s 18th Party Congress, where the next generation of the country’s leaders was recently chosen. It has the mistress-money-power combination that has become a hallmark of corruption with Chinese characteristics, but the story and the way it has been told set it apart. Yi was not brought down by a hidden camera or ownership of dozens of houses; his career was fated to end the day his lover, a married 34-year-old post-doctoral researcher at the bureau, posted a 120,000-word account of their affair online.

Titled “Waking up from the Beijing Dream, to float or sink – a record of Yi Junqing’s Nth Lover”  (一朝忽觉京梦醒,半世浮沉雨打萍 ——衣俊卿小n实录), the account reads as part diary, part dime novel. It gives all the gritty and mundane details of the pair’s professional and sex life over the course of their year-long affair. After the piece went viral on the Chinese internet, it was quickly removed and Chang Yan, the author and protagonist, claimed it was a work of fiction written under extreme emotional distress. Given the number of confirmable details in the piece, that explanation fell flat. Five weeks later, Bureau Chief Yi was out of a job.

Media attention in both China and the West has largely focused on what the piece says about the fallen official. The juicy details are enticing, but even more revealing is the account it provides of a woman trying to navigate a male-dominated, pseudo-academic bureaucracy governed by a murky set of “unspoken rules” (潜规则). It gives outsiders a glimpse into what happens when Marxist academics gain control over a large government bureaucracy, the many perks that it has to dole out, and the game of sexual politics that may be played to win these perks.

These images, showing Ms. Chang at left and Mr. Yi at right, have been widely circulated on Chinese social media. (Via Weibo)

Chang Yan’s account stretches from March 2011 through December of 2012, chronicling the days from her first interview at the bureau up until publication of her expose. In the year leading up to publication, Chang and Yi allegedly slept together seventeen times, all while exchanging gifts, promises and more than a little cash. The narrative is clear, but interesting and puzzling questions surround the mechanisms and motives for the Chang and Yi’s relationship. While Bureau Chief Yi appears to be in it for the predictable combination of sex and money (and maybe love), Chang’s motivations are far more fluid.

The relationship begins as part of Ms. Chang’s efforts to ingratiate herself to the bureau and gain a coveted Beijing residence permit, or hukou, in the process. But for much of the story she appears to be blindly feeling her way through a man’s world, a bureaucracy packed with older male academics and several young female post-docs hoping to make their mark on Marxist studies. Chang is by no means a novice — she admits to giving many bribes and faking documents for her post-doc university application — but she still finds herself being toyed with by men who have been playing the game for far longer.

Yi and Chang first met at her interview for a post-doctoral position at the Compilation and Translation Bureau, a Party body dedicated to the Marxist theoretical foundations of government policies. Chang was hurt when Yi dismissed her proposed research topic, and she left the interview determined to win over the man, a spot at the bureau, and a Beijing hukou.

That process began in June of 2011 with a 10,000 RMB (approximately US$1,600) gift from Chang designed to “test the waters.” Over the summer of 2011, the once professional relationship took on a more personal tone with text messages and a gift of earrings from Yi to Chang. Over their first dinner together, Yi boasted that he wasn’t the kind of teacher who would take on doctoral students for just a thirty or fifty-thousand RMB bribe. In the journal Chang writes, “At the time I thought he was a real straight-shooter. Now I can read between the lines: 30 or 50 is too little, 80 or 100,000 would do the trick.” Over that same dinner Chang finds herself puzzling over the main question: “Does he want money, or me?” She didn’t get her answer that night, and at a conference that summer she went up to Yi’s room in an attempt to resolve the question:

I sat on the sofa and covered almost half of my face with my high collar. I was really nervous and just couldn’t figure out what it was that he actually wanted to express. I’d already gone too far by going up to his room. It was really embarrassing, so after talking for a minute I made my retreat. The second day at the conference I pretended I couldn’t see him. I felt like I’d really lost face.

Chang found herself caught up in a game with unspoken rules and no clear answer as to who was doing the refereeing. She had passed her first interview, but the process of entering the bureau and switching hukou was turning out to be far more complicated. At a bureau banquet, Chang spoke with the bureau’s head of human resources, who made sure to emphasize that she still lived in the bureau-provided apartment, and without their help would not gain a position. That night, she cried while trying to figure out who was behind the threats.

In my tiny room I tried desperately to figure it out and I cried until the tears fell off my face. I was going crazy: is it Yang [secretary of the bureau] or Yi? Do they want to force me out? … Women’s and men’s way of thinking really are different, so I couldn’t figure out what it was that Yi was doing. Now I think back, if I’d just obediently taken off my clothes or handed over cash I wouldn’t have been bullied by people at every turn.

Eventually a combination of sushi and sake led to the beginning of Yi and Chang’s physical relationship. Still unclear of where she stood, Chang capped off their first sexual encounter by giving Yi 50,000 RMB in cash.

At their second meeting, Yi riffed on the connections he had and the many bigger postings that could be in his future. It was then that Chang began to fall for the man she’d previously just been using:

When I heard him talk, I became infected by his emotions. In my heart he really was a great man, and the next logical step up was to a major department. … I really hoped he could continue to rise up. Not for anything else, but just so that a man from the northeast with such an indomitable spirit could realize his dream.

But those magnanimous feelings didn’t last. Within just three months of their first time together, the relationship was already descending into a tangle of love, jealousy and blackmail that ended with a strange ultimatum from Chang demanding monetary payment.

Chang quickly regretted the ultimatum and took it back, but the event set in motion a 10-month unraveling that would culminate in her publishing the account. As the months passed and her hukou issue remained unresolved, she grew increasingly jealous of other women, including Yi’s other female post-doctoral students. Even so, the pair’s secret rendezvous continued largely as before, and in April of that year Chang even made another gift of 30,000 RMB to her lover/professor in hopes of moving things along.

But by the summer of 2012, the relationship had begun to deteriorate with all the grace of an ugly high school break up. Chang continued to threaten to “make them both famous” by publicizing the affair, and eventually extorted 1 million RMB from the bureau chief. Even that act of blackmail couldn’t keep apart the lovers seemingly hell-bent on career-suicide. Yi used intermediaries to try to prod Chang into returning to her university in Shanxi, but she dug in her heels. The two continued sleeping together regularly.

Chang’s narrative ends on August 30, 2012, but relays the following three months by posting all of the couple’s thousands of text messages. The messages are often nothing more than a hard copy of the typical sidewalk temper tantrum between Chinese couples.

As with most temper tantrums, Yi’s attempts at appeasement only fanned the flames that would eventually devour both his and Chang’s careers. In early December, 2012, Chang put the full account online, and last week Xinhua announced that Yi had been removed from his post for his “improper life style.”

In explaining the reasons for posting her account, Chang portrayed herself as someone wading into the dark corners of China’s academic establishment:

For a women to get by in academic circles is so difficult. I carelessly went in and didn’t want to fall behind, so I paid ‘the price of development.’ I don’t deserve pity; I got what I deserve and I’m ready for the consequences. I don’t just want to expose the Emperor’s new clothes. I’ve shamelessly and bravely exposed the tip of the iceberg for the hidden rules of academia. … This is a tragedy; I’m a sacrifice and so is Professor Yi.

The expose contributes much to an outsider’s understanding of the intersection between China’s bureaucracy and the country’s ivory towers. But it’s clear that Chang’s motivations are in no way selfless. She writes honestly and with great self-awareness, but ultimately chooses to tell her story because she chose to play a high-stakes game with her sexuality and her identity. Unfortunately for Chang, she possessed only a vague knowledge of that game’s unspoken rules, and ultimately emerged a loser.

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Matt Sheehan

Matt is a journalist and translator living in Beijing. He's spent over two years in China learning to speak the language and love the people. You can check out his writing at www.optimistschina.com or follow him on twitter at @mattsheehan88.
  • http://twitter.com/alanatpaterra Alan Engel

    Please include relevant links in TLN posts.

  • http://twitter.com/alanatpaterra Alan Engel
  • http://www.sinolicious.com/ Gay Chevara

    What’s the betting that this will cause an entire library of copycat blogs/stories from now on?