The poster of the anti-corruption TV drama, In the Name of People. Photo via Weibo

When Chinese viewers turned on their televisions in April, they were astonished to see how a corrupt deputy mayor could flee across the Pacific Ocean, eluding two of the most powerful organs of the state: the police and the anti-corruption agency. In the Name of the People is the hottest drama on Chinese television. It charts a prosecutor’s efforts to unearth corruption in the fictional province of Handong.

For viewers raised on a diet of intrigue in ancient palaces, war with Japan, youth idols or domestic mores, this is gripping stuff. It’s styled to offer viewers a glimpse of the power plays within the Communist Party and an approximation of President Xi Jinping’s top-down campaign against corruption. In 2004, the authorities had banished other hit serials about fighting corruption from their prime-time slots because the subject matter was deemed too sensitive.

As the drama unfolds, ordinary Chinese are gaining an understanding of the five rules governing the behavior of the officials playing the political game. These rules are neither spoken nor written, but they must be obeyed if officials wish to succeed or simply survive.

Rule one: Beware of falling between two stools

At the start of In the Name of the People, the head of the Handong Anti-Corruption Bureau, Chen Hai, receives a request from headquarters in Beijing to assist in arresting a deputy mayor of Jingzhou, the provincial capital, who is suspected of bribery. But Chen’s boss, Handong chief prosecutor Ji Changming, stops him from acting on the request.

“How dare you arrest a bureau-level cadre before reporting to the provincial party committee?” Ji storms. The prosecutor has two bosses: he or she must answer not only to the supreme people’s prosecutor but also to the local government and the local committee of the party.

An emergency meeting of the powers-that-be is held to discuss whether they should follow judicial procedure and arrest the suspect or, since the suspect is a member of the party, follow party disciplinary procedure and let the provincial party chief order him to confess or explain his wrongdoings at a designated time in a designated place – a process called shuanggui.

The lowest-ranking official present proposes they obey orders. Ji thinks it more important to consider the feelings of the local government and the local party committee, so he proposes that they await the word of the Handong provincial party chief. The city’s party chief fears the scandal will slow the pace of development. The police investigator is worried his promotion will be held back. While they argue, the suspect skips the country.

Rule two: Rank and power are different things

Handong Anti-Corruption Bureau chief detective Hou Liangping leads a search of the villa of a low-ranking official, Zhao Dehan, where he seizes 240 million yuan (US$35 million). Zhao may have a lowly rank but he has the final say about every development project in the area.

Even a deputy governor must pay homage and keep his credit card handy while doing so. Zhao’s permission costs developers anything from 500,000 yuan to 150 million yuan.

With a cash cow like this, officials like Zhao have no need for promotion.

Rule three: Generosity engenders good will

Entrepreneur Cai Chenggong asks Hou for his help in settling a business feud and emphasizes his request with a case of Chunghwa cigarettes, two cases of Maotai baijiu and a wardrobe of suits.

But the detective turns a deaf ear. So Cai treats Hou’s 10-year-old son to a game console and a yo-yo. Cai knows that proffering wads of cash would be a crime but that the occasional bottle of booze or toy – or even an antique or a work of art here or there – are quite harmless.

Rule four: Keep the right kind of company

Hou is a graduate of Handong University, where he studied politics and law under Gao, now the provincial party deputy chief. Gao has an avuncular attitude to his former pupils and their careers. Hou carries the stigma of membership of a clique and is generally presumed, rightly or wrongly, to be the beneficiary of nepotism. Gao is presumed to be a peddler of political patronage.

Rule five: Get it while you’re young

Chen Yanshi, 80, lied about his age so he could join the party and fight the Japanese. But the lie stalled his career in the bureaucracy because of the unofficial limits that prohibit promotions to people of a certain age. The limits are another artificial obstacle that only bribery is capable of removing.

Xi said the party would fight “tigers and flies” to beat corruption. In seeking a second term as president later this year, Xi may need the public to understand how hard it is to counter corruption. In the Name of the People may be clever way of explaining why so many tigers are on the prowl and the flies swarm.