Ensuring that Communist Party of China (CPC) officials have the right reading list has become a priority for authorities who have taken to regularly recommending books to rank and file members. However, scholars are concerned about what books are being recommended, to what extent they are engaging their readers and how much can be learned from them.
This measure is seen as a grass-roots education strategy by the CPC which has long paid a lot of importance to ensuring the constant education of its members.
Vice President Xi Jinping gave an address to the Party School of the CPC Central Committee in 2009, saying that officials should take great interest in reading worthy literature.
"Reading and studying are important ways for officials to strengthen their cultural awareness and reinforce their training, which are requirements for their positions," said Xi.
According to People's Daily, the choice of books read by officials does not stem only from their personal preferences, given the power they wield. This is all the more crucial as the country is undergoing a period of transition as its reform and opening-up policy is strengthened and social changes arise more frequently.
In keeping with this, several top CPC bodies have recommended six batches of books for officials since February 2010. These bodies, responsible for ideology and political thought within the Party ranks, have forwarded these recommendations to the more than 80 million Party members.
A publishing house told Oriental Outlook, a weekly magazine, that organizations such as the CPC's publicity department sometimes ask for books to be brought to their attention, which they will buy en masse should they approve the recommendations. These bodies are reported to also always keep a close eye on the latest published books.
The Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee refused to comment for this story. Most of the books tackle Marxism, Leninism or the thoughts of Mao Zedong and subsequent Chinese leaders. Others describe the history of the CPC or are biographies of men such as Sun Yat-sen or scientist Qian Xuesen, one of the fathers of China's missile and space programs.
Others smack of more usual propaganda such as guidance for members' everyday lives such as books about Lei Feng, a young PLA soldier who has been held up as a model of devotion for decades since dying at the age of 22 in 1962.
Dai Yanjun, a professor with the Party School, told People's Daily that he agreed with this practice, given the wide range of subject matters being offered up. "Encouraging officials to read books by recommending notable tomes is a very good idea," he said.
This was echoed by Cheng Ping, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance, who agrees the policy is helpful but questions whether officials have enough time to read these books.
A survey jointly conducted by Chinese Academy of Governance and Guangming Daily in May 2011 echoes Cheng's doubts. It found that annually 52 percent of officials read less than five books, 33.6 percent read less than 10, and only 12 percent read over 20 books, although it did not specify how many officials had been surveyed.
"Some officials tend to make work decisions based on their past experiences and what they have read. This naturally poses problems," said Cheng to the Global Times.
Cheng added that officials must not take reading materials at face value. She encouraged them to reflect and think over what they have read or research subjects in more depth so as to gain a broader overview of key topics, instead of basing their opinions on fragmented findings.
Broader selection needed
However, the books recommended by the Party are far from enough. "Those books are confined to a very limited area, which shows that the motivations behind the lists are old-fashioned and that the books do not really represent what the Party members are interested in," said Cheng.
She encourages the reading of literary magazines for members to gain better knowledge of the full gamut of literature in China and to see how publishing trends reflect social changes and the psychological make-up of the country.
One high-ranking official said in a speech at the Chinese Academy of Governance that he had been a reader of Fiction Monthly Magazine for many years and found it very helpful.
Professor Cheng's opinion is shared by Liu Suhua, a professor with the Party School, since she sees more reading as being vital to the communication abilities of officials.
"Some officials make mistakes partly due to them not being well-read enough," said Liu.
How to choose
Yu Hai, a sociology professor with Fudan University in Shanghai, says that the books being recommended still center around the ideology of political struggle and class warfare. Yet, Yu says the focus of the Party's attention has shifted since the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy.
"Those books are not useful and have little connection with the rapidly evolving society of today," Yu told Global Times, although he added that most CPC officials are receiving the right kind of training overall.
Not all officials have outdated books on their coffee tables. Sui Lanlan, an editor with CITIC Press Corporation, said that The Fifth Discipline, a book on management published by her company, was proving very popular and topped their sales lists.
Yu pointed out that some officials read books which are supposed to "equip" them with "tricks" to get promoted up the rungs of power, instead of arming them with the tools to make the right decisions and judgment calls to serve the public.
Houheixue, a book written in 1912 by Li Zongwu, which can be roughly translated as Thick Black Theory, is one of the most popular books among certain officials.
"Thick faces" and "black heart" are metaphors symbolizing shamelessness and ruthlessness which are summarized by the author as "weapons" that officials should use to further their careers.
"The popularity of books like Houheixue reflects the vulgar tastes of some officials. Those books make people selfish and put the society at a disadvantage," said Yu.
However, Yu commented that these poor choices cannot all be blamed on the officials given the paltry selection of good books on offer.
He proposed that books written by top scholars should be recommended to help officials abandon a materialistic mindset and cultivate a long-term vision.
Professor Cheng went one step further, suggesting that particular importance be paid to scientific works. "Reading these books will help officials understand developments in the field of science and technology, and help prevent wrong decisions from being made," said Cheng.
She said nowadays natural sciences and social sciences have been separated, and that officials only knowing one of these could be risky.
Premier Wen Jiabao has often recommended the Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith.
Wang Yang, the Party secretary of Guangdong Province, is well-known for his progressive political ideas and policies. In 2007, when he held positions in Chongqing Municipality, Wang recommended the World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. This author became widely known in Chongqing because of Wang.
In 2011, Wang proposed books to officials related to his political thought of building a happy Guangdong. His choices were Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, by Tal Ben-Shahar, a PhD graduate from Harvard University.
Books are not sinful
Hu Changqing, a former vice governor of Jiangxi Province who was executed in 2000 for bribery, was said to be an aficionado of erotic novels such as Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, and Jinpingmei. Ma Xiangdong, a former vice mayor of Shenyang, Liaoning Province who was executed for bribery, often carried gambling books with him, according to the People's Daily.
Jin Zhong, an official in Shanghai, said that public servants should not view their reading materials lightly, given the influence the books can wield on the way they treat people, according to the Qianzhong Morning Post in Guizhou Province.
However, Wang Jie, a public servant in Hunan Province, said that human nature must be taken into account. Before someone is judged for what they are reading, the purpose of reading the books should be assessed along the frequency with which they are read and their influence on the readers' lives.
To Wang, books are not to blame. "Is there anything wrong if the Jinpingmei is read for academic research?" he asked.
Jinpingmei, translated as The Plum in the Golden Vase, has been labeled as a forbidden book since it being written in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) due to its explicit depiction of sexuality.
Chairman Mao Zedong used to recommend the book to provincial secretaries in a talk in 1957, according to People's Daily Online.
He said the book reflects the financial situation of that time and shows in stark contrast the contradictions between the rulers and their subjects.