AFP - Greg Baker
Beijing, May 25, 2017 (AFP) - In the midst of China's Cultural Revolution, a 14-year-old coal miner bought a yellowing, torn copy of Honore de Balzac's biography from a book collector on the side of the street.
He became engrossed in the text, and dreamt from then on that he would devote his life to literature -- to become, as Balzac was, a "secretary transcribing history."
Today Zhou Meisen is a celebrated 61-year-old novelist and screenwriter who has captivated Chinese audiences with "In the Name of the People," the first television drama showing high-level government corruption to air in the country in more than a decade.
The drama, which completed its 55-episode run in late April, has been a pop culture sensation, garnering nearly three billion views across China's biggest online video platforms.
It was even mandatory viewing at some government offices, local media reported, as some Party cadres were required to submit 1,500-word reviews describing their experience watching the program.
Based on Zhou's novel of the same name, the show was produced with 120 million yuan ($17.4 million) in funds from China's top investigative and prosecutorial agency, and aimed to portray the inner workings of President Xi Jinping's wide-reaching anti-graft campaign.
The crackdown, launched after Xi took office in 2012, has been touted for targeting both high-level "tigers" and low-ranking "flies," though critics have called the initiative a political purge.
The endemic corruption and lavish wealth among members of China's ruling Communist Party has long been a taboo subject. Zhou avoided interviews with foreign press during the drama's run because he feared any small "misunderstanding" could cause the show to be taken off air.
"For the past 20 years I have been recording the dramatic changes in Chinese society," Zhou told AFP.
"Like the French society that Balzac portrayed, we are seeing the emergence of a new bourgeoisie."
In the show's first couple episodes, the star anti-corruption investigator finds more than 200 million yuan ($29 million) in cash in a hidden chamber of a local official's home.
The bills are everywhere -- spread across a bed, stacked against a wall, even piled inside a refrigerator.
When the official sobs to the investigator that he comes from a family of farmers and "didn't dare spend a cent," the investigator counters: "Pity the nation's farmers, to have a son like you."
The scene, which many viewers cite for getting them hooked, reflected an irony of China's upper class: with their newfound wealth, the corrupt end up exploiting the same blue-collar workers among which they once counted themselves.
"My childhood was chaotic," Zhou said. "We lived in such poverty. We relied on government stamps for everything, everything but air."
The opening subplot is based on the real-life case of Wei Pengyuan, a deputy director of the national coal department who stored 200 million yuan in several apartments.
"This case surpassed my imagination," Zhou said. "I thought putting this case at the start (of the show) would let my audience know: 'This author does not tell lies.'"
Zhou had plenty of other material to draw from. According to a January report from China's Central Commission for Discipline, more than one million people have been punished as part of the anti-graft campaign.
In writing his novel, Zhou said, all his research came from public records and media reports. But on the show, the Supreme People's Procuratorate permitted him to interview prisoners in jail and tour police stations.
"Working with (the investigative agency) is not at all like you would imagine it," Zhou told AFP.
"The only mandate they gave me was to create a show about the anti-corruption campaign. They said to me, 'Right now, we don't have a single show about fighting graft.' Other than that, they didn't interfere."
Still, the novelist was surprised when all 55 episodes were approved for broadcast.
"For a long time, people thought there wouldn't be any corruption if we kept our eyes closed," Zhou said.
Viewers have found the drama more nuanced than most of the government propaganda surrounding its graft crackdown, which has ranged from teary "confessions" on primetime news shows to an eight-part documentary series featuring disgraced officials detailing their excesses.
As Xi strives to consolidate power ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year, several more corruption-themed shows are slated to come out of the pipeline.
And Zhou will continue "recording modern Chinese history" as he sees it.
Quoting Balzac, he said: "What (Napoleon) has not completed with the sword, I will complete with a pen."