Investigative Journalism: Fiction Writer Murong Xuecun Documents a Real-life Pyramid Scheme

Murong Xuecun has gained a name for himself through his unflattering vignettes of gambling, drinking, whoring and corruption in contemporary China. His best-seller, Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (成都今夜请将我遗忘), prompted the authorities to convene a conference solely to critique the novel for sullying the Sichuan city’s image.

But in a change of tack away from fiction writing, early this year the author decided to experience—first hand—just how a “direct selling” operation in Jiangxi’s Shangrao recruits and gains control over its members. His revelations have just hit the stands as the cover story for Southern Metropolis Weekly’s April 19 edition: "Murong Xuecun—Undercover 23 Days in a Pyramid Selling Organization" (慕容雪村卧底传销23天之一).

Publishing professionals outside China may be interested to know that the author plans to publish a longer work detailing his experiences later this year, entitled How Could you be so Ignorant?. His Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu has already been translated into English, French and German.

Below, Bruce Humes interviews author-turned-investigative-journalist Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) for Paper Republic:

Q: What made you decide to “go under cover,” submit to pyramid selling “brainwashing,” and eventually call in the police?

A: At the outset, it was curiosity that motivated me to try to sneak into the pyramid selling organization. I just wanted to see what you could get to eat for 35 Chinese cents [5 US cents] a day. During my 23 days there, I saw many absurd and evil things. Lots of good but naïve people were being hoodwinked and living miserably, so I decided to report it to the police.

Q: Serious social problems abound in today’s China: the omnipresent sex industry, bribery of officials, ruthless exploitation of migrant workers. Why focus on bogus “chain sales”?

A: There are many other matters that need attention, like those citizens in re-education-through-labor camps who have been deprived of their freedom without a trial, working-class people who have nowhere to appeal when thrown out of their homes violently by relocation programs, and those alleged criminals who die in detention due to some bizarre causes… but my abilities are limited. Many things cannot be investigated, we can only address them one by one. Perhaps in the future I will investigate the sex industry and the situation of migrant workers.

Q: How do you assess the effect of your “underground” work, including the reaction to your cover story in Southern Metropolis Weekly? Does a professional writer have a responsibility to engage in such activities?

A: I originally believed that my going “undercover” would help some people, serve as a wake-up call for some people, but I must admit it: I have failed. I helped the police get their hands on 157 pyramid scheme marketers, and reasonably speaking, the police should have helped them to face what they had done, and then taken responsibility for sending them back home. But the police performed their duty in a perfunctory manner. In a symbolic gesture, they kept them standing in the police station courtyard for two hours, but they made no attempt to educate them and eventually just chased them out. Not long after I left Shangrao, they regrouped and began their pyramid selling as before. But I do hope that the cover story in Southern Metropolis Weekly and “How Could you be so Ignorant?” will serve as a warning and help them avoid being swindled. “Going undercover” was very meaningful. It allowed me to gather first-hand material for my writing, and it moved me deeply. But I took this action on my own, and it is unrelated to professional writers as a group.

Q: Use one sentence to describe how readers in China typify the author “Murong Xuecun”.

A: The lion’s share of readers believe that I am a writer who "sees the world for what it is, excels at dredging up man’s inherent evil, and writes in a rather dark style". Or a "sharply critical, relentless, pulls-no-punches" writer.

Q: Your previous novels, Leave me Alone Tonight: A Novel of Chengdu, and Dancing through Red Dust (原谅我红尘颠倒 ) describe the darker side of Chinese society, particularly the ruthlessness and immorality of businesspeople. Have any of your works been heavily edited or even banned? If so, what content was deemed problematic? Where did such pressure originate? How have such experiences impacted your writing?

A: About twenty thousand words were cut from Dancing through Red Dust. And more than ten thousand words were deleted from the first version of Leave me Alone Tonight: A Novel of Chengdu, but one year later the full version was published. After three years of examination by the censors, the film adaptation was granted a permit for public viewing, but this was quickly rescinded. The TV show was abruptly yanked off the air at CCTV, and no explanation was ever given. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because the authorities considered my novel to be "written in a vulgar style that sullied the image of Chengdu". In 2004, the Chengdu municipal authorities convened a meeting specifically to critique the novel. Heavy editing of the novel was undertaken by the publisher, because it has responsibility for undertaking "in-house censorship"; as for limits placed on the movie and TV versions, they would have come from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. This censorship and limitations haven’t had a big impact on my writing, but they have clarified for me which subjects cannot be written about or touched upon, which words have to be avoided, and which people I must not mention.

Q: What format do you intend to use for the longer work, “How Could you be so Ignorant?”, to be based on your undercover experiences during January 2010?

A: I will use an investigative reporting style to relate what I have personally experienced. Even though it is not a storyline dominated by constantly shifting highs and lows, the experience has been very meaningful. My previous works were mainly fictional, but this time I will change my technique.

Q: Will foreign readers be interested in “How Could you be so Ignorant?”

A: Frankly speaking, I didn’t give their reactions any thought. I’m keener to write for Chinese readers, particularly those who lack common sense, young people who are easily fooled or those without education.

Q: Who will publish “How Could you be so Ignorant?”

A: I haven’t chosen a publisher in China yet because I want to wait until I’m done writing it. If things go well, I’ll finish the text by June, so it could be ready for publication in China within July or August. My agent Benython Oldfield will handle overseas rights.