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Arts & Culture
UPDATED: April 20, 2015 NO. 17 APRIL 23, 2015
Black Holes and Sunshine Laws
Inside the chambers of China's answer to John Grisham
By Eric Daly

He Jiahong (WEI YAO)

He Jiahong, it seems, can work a room as well as he can hold readers on tenterhooks. On March 26, the highly respected legal expert and novelist opens the 2015 Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival discussion marking the release of his second English-language novel, Black Holes, with the qualifier, "I can speak Chinese as well as Chinglish." The audience laughs.

Black Holes is a translation of the second of five novels, originally published in Chinese and featuring crusading lawyer Hong Jun. Meeting He the day before in his book-piled office located within the Beijing-based Renmin University of China's labyrinthine Mingde complex, he is the least self-conscious literary writer imaginable, maintaining that he is no expert in the field of literature.

The professor is being modest. Judging from Black Holes, he is a confident writer with an assured grasp of plot and characterization and a lawyer's eye for observing telling details. One subject on which the professor displays no diffidence is criminal law. In an academic career centered on criminal prosecution and forensics spanning four decades, he has encouraged development of China's criminal trial procedure and, working with the Innocence Project, has played a part in reopening cases of suspected wrongful conviction. The professor also helped to launch China's first anti-corruption postgraduate course and has contributed to the composition and editing of over 100 legal textbooks.

Ties to the past

In 1969, 16-year-old He volunteered to work on a farm in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province as an "educated youth," where he drove and maintained tractors. He wrote a poem published in 1971 and a novel which he submitted to contemporary writers who replied contending that he should stick to short stories until he further matured.

Returning to his native Beijing in 1977, He worked as a plumber and met his wife, a doctor. At the talk, he jokes that should he lose his job as a law professor, he could earn more in the "skilled labor" of his former occupation. His in-laws-to-be were not impressed by this plumber with his literary aspirations, so He took and passed a college matriculation exam, despite the backlog of 10 years' worth of student applications within a university system that had only recently reopened following the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). His first choice was economics but poor math grades meant he chose law, a subject with which he was unfamiliar.

The law and He proved a good match. After graduation, he briefly practiced as a defense lawyer in 1985 before returning to study, obtaining a postdoctoral degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1993. His thesis was a comparative analysis of the U.S. and Chinese criminal prosecution systems. While there, He discovered writers from the then blossoming legal thriller genre such as Scott Turow. The fact that titles approximating technical and mundane legalese such as Burden of Proof, Presumed Innocent, and Body of Evidence were shorthand for suspense among the American reading public piqued his interest.

When He came back to China, he decided once more to write novels, to recapture the "dreams of his youth." He also wished to release something that vividly illustrated and explored issues in China's developing criminal justice system. In 1994-98, he wrote five novels and an abridged version of the first was published in China Youth Daily in installments.

Despite the freshness of China as a setting for a legal thriller, Black Holes is set not in the present but in the 1990s. Before then, He maintains at the Bookworm talk, people didn't know they were poor as everyone was so. Even among his academic peers, it was common to have a second job or to work through one's summer vacation. The stock market for the first time afforded the Chinese people the opportunity to get rich quick. Black Holes' original title was The Black Holes in Human Nature, and He reckons that the 1990s and the turbulent "cultural revolution" were two times in which such cracks opened, creating portals that incentivized and facilitated evildoing.

His frustrated economics career notwithstanding, Black Holes afforded He had a second opportunity to study something monetarily related. In order to give his work the ring of authenticity, he undertook research in a field with which he was largely unfamiliar: securities trading. In the manner of Hong at the novel's beginning, he would spend time on Beijing's trading floors, attuning his ear to the lingo of the marketplace, as well as reading finance books.

ORIGINAL SIN: The Chinese editions of four of He Jiahong's five Hong Jun crime novels (WEI YAO)

Plot devices

In the 1990s, the majority of Chinese crime fiction had a police detective as protagonist. Budding author He wanted to do something different and considered a private eye as his central character. Unfortunately, in 1993 the Ministry of Public Security had rescinded private detective licenses and he worried that this may interfere with suspension of disbelief and reflect poorly on his current affairs knowledge.

"They would say, you're a law professor, how could you not know such things?" He jokes at the talk.

The next logical choice was a defense lawyer, a heroic figure in American representation. This too was problematic. In the U.S. criminal justice system, He explains, there are three stages: investigation, prosecution and trial. America's system can be termed adversarial while that of China has traditionally been inquisitorial. While the United States leans on the trial, China focuses on the investigative stage. Back in the 1990s, this meant that a defense lawyer back would come into play much later in China than in the United States: only seven days before trial.

This would drastically compress the timeline of even a fast-paced thriller narrative. The author then thought of a conceit buying him (and his narrative's hero) some time, reasoning his character could investigate fictional wrongful convictions and that the pre-trial investigative period could be extended if new evidence came to light. Since the mid-90s, thanks to He and others, this aspect of proceedings has been redressed and as of 2012, a defendant can access a lawyer from the moment a charge is brought against them.

The conceit would also allow He to tackle another issue. Given the thankless nature of the role, up until recently, few Chinese lawyers were drawn to defense work. The writer wished to create a character that would inspire future generations of defense lawyers in his native country. An avid badminton player, He noticed that he did not improve until he played players better than himself. The same, he believes, is true for lawyers. Honing defense lawyers' skills, according to the author, would lead to corresponding improvement in prosecutors, resulting in a more equitable and balanced legal system. Hong Jun, "the gentleman lawyer," was born.


Hong and his creator have much in common: They share nominal initials and alma maters, and both work with miscarriages of justice. When asked where he and his literary doppelganger diverge, He says, "He's taller than me." The writer also adds that Hong enjoys the social aspect of being a practicing lawyer whereas his more academic creator enjoys a life of solitude with plenty of time to think and write.

In 2008, a 15-volume set of He's works was released, including his novels and an accompanying seminar was held. The novelist, a China Writers Association member, admits facing a jury of his literary peers was nerve-racking, saying that his fellows thought his work too didactic, the narratives needing to stay more true to the characters and their motivations. In a move uncommon for Western writers but in keeping with He's scholarly fastidiousness, he revised his novels for the Chinese market in 2009, partially in line with their recommendations and partially to update the legal content.

At the Bookworm, He reveals how English was not the first foreign language to host his work. To his surprise, a French Chinese translation student once contacted him stating she wished to write her dissertation on his literary works. She subsequently traveled to Beijing to meet He. Some time later, she got in touch with the author to tell him that a French publisher was interested in his work. Italian and Spanish translations soon followed.

The writer says at the talk that all of this took him aback as he had written his novels solely with a Chinese audience in mind. Eventually, Penguin Australia took notice and in 2012, an English-language version of He's first novel Crime of Blood was released, entitled Hanging Devils: Hong Jun Investigates. Its French translation, Crime De Sang, had previously made it onto The Guardian's list of top 10 Asian crime fiction in 2007.

So do the translations deviate from the original works? At the Bookworm event, He states that his Penguin editor did make profound changes to the ending. In the original, the fate of a character close to Hong is made explicit whereas it is left open ended in the translation. Interestingly, He says that a Chinese readership would find such ambiguity a cheat while he supposes that Western readers prefer to make up their own theories once the story ends.

Art imitating life

For He, art and activism are not mutually exclusive activities. The final two books in his Hong Jun quintology examine the fictional implementation of a "sunshine law" for corrupt officials that He himself has campaigned for in real life. His fourth novel, Not Guilty Corrupt Official, is set in a fictional city in Guangdong Province where an amnesty of this kind has been declared. Such a law would allow officials to privately and without fear of prosecution hand over ill-gotten liquid and non-liquid assets. The idea came from visiting Hong Kong, which passed a similar law in 1977 amid widespread police corruption. The reasoning was that processing each outstanding case of corruption would take between 40-50 years.

The professor figured that amnesty could similarly benefit law and order in China. Over 2008, He published seven articles in Legal Daily espousing the merits of such an initiative and reckons they might have somewhat influenced public opinion. The innovation has provoked government interest and trials have been conducted at provincial level. The difficulty is that a sunshine law may prove unpopular among the public. Owing to the Chinese people's strong sense of justice, it may be seen as "going soft" on corruption. The law may also encounter opposition from officials as, according to He, some may possess property unfit for declaration.

With the rising popularity of He's translated novels, one supposes that it is only a matter of time before Hollywood comes a-knocking. As to the question if he would have any problem with his works being relocated to present-day China or even the United States, He replies that his attitude would be "do whatever you want." He also reveals that one of his novels was recently scheduled for adaptation but that the project fell through owing to the passing last year of the famous Chinese director Wu Tianming, who had been slated to helm the production.

His reticence to write a screenplay is understandable. On the way out of his office, He mentions that he is busy working on a second revamp of Crime of Blood, the book's third Chinese edition, in addition to his ever-burgeoning teaching and research duties. Keeping this in mind, I leave Professor He to his books, his musings and dreams of a better China.


Born in Beijing in 1953, He Jiahong is professor of law of evidence at the Law School of Renmin University of China, with research interests including criminal investigation, forensic linguistics and the criminal justice system. In addition, he has held part-time positions including deputy director of Renmin University's Research Center for Criminal Justice and director of the university's Institute of Evidence Law.

He has acted as a visiting scholar at third-level institutions in Australia, the United States and Japan, and is frequently the "go-to" expert for overseas media covering legal matters in China, having been interviewed by, among others, the Financial Times.

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

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