You’ve said to me in the past that getting an introduction to the Chinese police is like getting an introduction to the Mafia. Shall we leave it at that, or do you want to explain that comparison?
Ha! You’re only accepted by either if you’re introduced by somebody who is known and accepted by them. My initial introduction came from an American criminologist, called Dr Richard Ward, who trained and taught 500 senior police officers Western policing techniques in Shanghai during the 1990s, so he was like God to the Chinese police. He really opened doors for me that would usually remain closed to foreigners.
Then I was taken under the wing of the Department of Propaganda in the Ministry of Public Security. They have a different take on propaganda: That department is basically a production and publication unit. They publish crime fiction and they make crime movies and TV series. The propaganda is based on the notion that the characters who represent the police in literature, cinema, or on TV are always the good guys. A very senior police officer had just solved a widely publicised crime, and as a result he was promoted to the head of the propaganda department. The first thing he did was make an eight-hour dramatisation of that investigation for Chinese television, which he wrote, produced, and starred in as himself, so he became the best-known cop in China. The average nightly TV audience in China is about 500 million, so when he took me under his wing, his name opened doors anywhere I went.
Why did he take you under his wing?
I think he saw an advantage in it. He wanted to put out a good image of the Chinese police, and though I wasn’t there to be an apologist for China or the Chinese police, and some of my stories involve high-level corruption in the Chinese police, my central character is exposing that corruption and bringing these guys down. He’s a Chinese police officer and he’s the good guy. So while I was a bit apprehensive initially about how they may receive the books, they accepted them remarkably well, much better than the Chinese censor who recently refused to allow us to shoot a movie based on one of the books in China because the script involves high-level government corruption and a relationship between a Chinese man and a Western woman, and that is absolutely verboten.
So how did you become an honorary member of the Chines Crime Writers’ Association?
That came out of my involvement with the Propaganda Department. They love Western crime fiction. They first published Sherlock Holmes in 1912, and all the stories were republished in the 1950s… There’s a phenomenon in Chinese society called ‘guanxi’. If you do somebody a favour, they are duty bound to return that favour in some way. Because I was getting all this help in China with my research, I was building up this huge deficit in guanxi, and I was aware that they were going to ask for something from me at some point, though I had no idea what that might be.
I got back to Beijing one day, having spent 22 hours on the train from Xi’an, when I got a phone call from Mr Dai, saying: “We would like you to attend a banquet in the Imperial Restaurant in Tiananmen Square at five o’clock this afternoon. A car will come to pick you up.” A big black limo arrived in front of my hotel with police plates and a police driver. My wife and I got in and headed off to Tiananmen Square. As we approached it, our driver asked whether we would like to see inside the compound that used to house the British embassy. It now accommodates the Ministries of Public and State Security. I thought: “Do I? Will I ever come out again?” But you can’t resist an offer like that, so I said: “Yes?” He showed the guards on the gates lots of papers, they let us through, and we drove through the compound. People don’t just work there. They live there as well, so the only people around were kids, playing football in the street. We keep driving around and the driver says: “The cops are in this building. The spies are in this building…” Amazing.