In China, Life Unhappily Imitates Art

China’s biggest political scandal in twenty years is unfolding in the courtrooms of Chongqing and the political corridors of Beijing. But the case, involving the powerful wife of a Chinese political figure accused of murdering a Westerner, bears uncanny resemblance to a comedy on Broadway.

Gu Kailai has confessed to poisoning a Briton, Neil Heywood, with whom she and her husband did business. Allegedly, her concerns about the safety of her Western-educated son led her to murder Heywood.

Her husband, Bo Xilai, was a provincial leader slated to rise to the very highest levels of power in China’s once-in-a-decade leadership change, to happen later this year. Now, the husband, Bo, faces criminal charges most likely related to corruption, and his wife, who pled guilty, faces either life imprisonment or, less likely, death by lethal injection.

China likes order, especially in times of political transition like the period in which that nation finds itself today. So this whole business must be deeply unsettling for the Chinese government, given the fact that putting a woman to death in the murder of a Westerner, especially a woman so close to the highest rungs of power, will attract worldwide attention.

But there’s more to the story than all this.

Playwright David Henry Hwang, who brought M. Butterfly to the stage two decades ago, has recently scored yet another massive success on Broadway with the opening of his comedy, Chinglish. The play tells the story of the monumental misunderstandings that occur when a Western businessman seeking to do business in China falls under the sway of the wife of a leading regional official—a judge looking to run for mayor. Not only that, in Hwang’s play, the wife, Xi Yan, has a son, and one of her desires is to have the son educated in the west.

Ultimately, the Westerner and his closest Chinese compatriot are arrested on charges of corruption.

Chinglish is about just how much is lost in translation when we move from one language to the other. For example, Daniel, the Westerner in the story, tells the Chinese minister, “Here’s why we are worth the money.” The translator transforms his words into this: “He will explain why he spends money so recklessly.”

Chinglish is ultimately a story of forbidden love across cultural boundaries, as the Western man and the (married) Chinese woman have an affair, which ultimately creates an enormous amount of disgrace all around. Yet the political situation in China today—a power couple whose involvement with Westerners goes terribly awry—in many ways sounds like an inexact translation of the story Hwang staged in New York.

And both stories shed light on the overall Sino-American relationship, in intriguing ways.

The point of Chinglish, its main character tells the audience toward the end of the play, is that China and America are just too different to fully understand each other, and the best that can be hoped for is enough clarity to actually get things done—do business, avoid war, things like that.

In both the play and in the real-life drama currently unfolding in China, we see Chinese and Westerners each trying to create success for themselves, sometimes in partnership across cultural and national lines, sometimes not. This mirrors the nature of the relationship between the two nations, which is a hybrid of competition and cooperation blurred by unintentional and sometimes willful cultural and political misunderstandings.

When America talks about China’s need to provide human rights, China responds that eating is a human right and that until they get their people fed, they won’t be able to focus so thoroughly on the sort of rights Westerners hold dear. Mitt Romney, for better or worse, has accused China of currency manipulation, a loaded term that the Chinese revile. From the Chinese perspective, they are not doing anything with their currency that any other self-respecting nation would do with its own. Currency manipulation, like human rights, are in the eyes of the beholder.

If you’re going to Broadway to see Chinglish, and I hope you do, skip this paragraph, because I’m going to give away the ending of the play. It’s mixed. The love affair ends, but the judge moves up to the position of mayor, and the American becomes successful doing business in China.

The ending is likely not to be anywhere near that happy in the actual corruption and murder cases. The Chinese government has signaled that it expects a quick guilty verdict in the case of Madame Gu. Their criminal appeals process is nothing like ours. It’s short, swift, and rarely results in reversals. Chances are, Madame Gu will be given a suspended sentence of execution and will either spend a lengthy period of time behind bars.

Her husband’s corruption charges are more likely to be held over until after the transfer of power to the next generation of Chinese leadership later this year, according to news reports. Nobody wants a sloppy corruption story distracting from an orderly transition. For centuries, Chinese political leaders have seen disorder as a symbol of divine dissatisfaction with temporal leaders. So Bo’s disgrace will probably have to wait until spring.

The story of Bo and Gu, however fascinating it might appear right now, will soon become barely a blip in the 5,000-year scope of Chinese history. But the bigger story—the combination of cooperation, competition, and confusion that marks China’s engagement with the West is likely to last forever.

(New York Times Bestselling Author Michael Levin runs, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten books.)