Banned In Beijing

AUTHOR WANG SHUO FINDS HIS stories in the dark corners of the new China. His 20 novels--profane and often violent pulp fiction populated by drifters, thugs and hookers-have been best sellers. Now they're also collector's items. Beijing recently banned his four-volume anthology as "reactionary" and "vulgar." This year censors also kept two Wang television dramas off the air and chopped up two of his movies. One of them, "Papa," tells of a single father's struggle to raise a rebellious teenage son. After the boy is beaten by gangsters in one scene, Dad rushes him to an emergency room packed with mangled young street fighters, a scene reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. "The makeup people made the actors look really awful," Wang admits, grinning wryly. "But based on last year's standards this would have been approved."

That was then. Until recently, Chinese artists could be frank about everything but communism. But last week the communist leadership, locked in power struggles and determined to keep order, announced a much tougher campaign for a "spiritual civilization." A new 15,000-word directive rules out not just slander against the party but anything that encourages "social vices" and makes people "doubt the future of socialism." The declaration calls on cadres to be China's "soul engineers" and attacks those who "pander to low tastes."

By his own admission, Wang, 38, is an expert panderer. Beginning with his first novel, "Stewardess," the 1984 story of a liaison between a young flight attendant and a discharged sailor, he has delivered plot lines that captivate the urban masses. His best known is "Hot and Cold, Measure for Measure." A college girl is seduced by a grungy ex-con, then turns to prostitution and finally kills herself. Wang's gallery of bad girls, hoods and drifters comes straight from his own wasted youth, spent on a Beijing military compound during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. As a teen, Wang cut class, fought often and landed in jail-prompting his father to enlist him in the navy. Two years later, the military-run magazine Literature and Arts paid Wang $5 for his first short story. Writing, Wang discovered, was a great way to make a buck.

Wang tired of writing books in 1991 and promptly conquered the worlds of television and film. His scripts for a string of hit shows brim with street talk and sarcasm. His sitcom, "Tales From the Newsroom," lampooned two Mao-spouting newspaper editors. "Papa" was completed last February, but the government stopped his second feature film, "Relations Between Men and Women," in mid-shoot. The plot centered on an adulterous relationship of the sort common, even fashionable, in China's cities. Censors deemed it offensive to pub-lie morality. "It's a Chinese version of 'Bridges of Madison County'," Wang says. "But my film got banned while the American one hit theaters across China."

Officials have their own ideas about mass culture. Chinese intellectuals say the party's propaganda department recently compiled a list of banned writers. China's film output has dropped by half since hard-line officials were assigned to clean up culture early this year. China has also put a ceiling on foreign TV programming and blocked "subversive" Internet sites, ranging from pornography to The Wall Street Journal. Beijing is hyping "Kong Fansen," a docudrama about a Chinese cadre who spent his career "serving the masses:' in Tibet. This year's most talked-about book, "China Can Say No," is a shrill anti-U.S. polemic. And the hottest new personalities-- profiled lavishly in the press-are model workers. One, Shanghai plumber Xu Hu, unclogs neighborhood sinks free of charge. Another, Beijing bus conductor Li Suli, reports for work before dawn to scrub her vehicle and studies English to aid lost tourists. Such government-backed fare has been the centerpiece in numerous campaigns since the 1970s. It usually bombs. And the strategy directly contradicts ongoing efforts to make movie studios, TV and publishing houses more responsive to the market-and less needy of state handouts.

China's literary bad boy views the new crackdown as an imposed vacation-like the one he took after Tiananmen, when he "played poker for money." Now he tallies lost royalties as pirates churn out unauthorized editions of his books. Why not make a patriotic flick? "My fans don't like anything ideological," says Wang. "If I made a film like that I would lose money." And his fans would lose a writer who, unlike the Politburo, gives them what they want.