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The Fat Years on South China Morning Post

(2010-02-14 15:57:53)

(This is the first piece of English report on Chan Koonchung's novel "The Fat Years" , or "Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013)

2013 Them and Us: Chan Koonchung's "Shengshi"

by Paul Mooney

South China Morning Post

February 7. 2010

Chan Koonchung's new book is making waves among mainland intellectuals for its eerily realistic fictional account of a modern, prosperous China - and its veiled criticism of those who buy into it

It's the year 2013 and China is stronger and richer than ever before, while the rest of the world is still reeling from a huge economic tsunami that struck a year earlier. Starbucks is now owned by the Wang Wang Group, and the hottest new drink around the world is longan dragon well tea latte.

The authoritarian, and often ruthless, Communist Party faces no serious opposition and is patting itself on the back for not following the path of the West. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics is thriving and foreigners who once lambasted China over human rights are now afraid to offend China. Most interesting, the majority of the Chinese people, at least the residents of major cities, are enjoying unprecedented fat times, and couldn't be happier.

This is China's future as described in The Golden Age, a new novel by Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung, who has lived on the mainland since 2000, spending the last nine years gathering string for this book.

The Chinese title, Shengshi Zhongguo 2013, which can be translated as a prosperous and grand period, has been used to describe the two apogees of imperial history, the Han and Tang dynasties. It's also a term that is appearing more and more frequently in the Chinese media today and which is becoming a daily part of conversations - as a giddy description of present-day China.

While the book was released in recent months in Hong Kong and Taiwan (it's too sensitive to be released on the mainland), it's creating an increasingly loud buzz among mainland intellectuals in China for it's realistic description of contemporary China and its veiled criticism of the growing number of Chinese who have either bought into the system or have been bought by it.

The story is told through the eyes of Lao Chen, a Taiwanese writer who has lived in Beijing for many years, and who shares the strange mass happiness that has smitten the majority of China's population. Or at least he seems quite complacent until he accidentally runs into two long-lost friends, Xiao Xi and Fang Caodi - the only discontented people he's encountered in a long while.

Xiao is a 1980s activist who is frustrated because her former intellectual friends have abandoned the fight against repression in exchange for more comfortable living. "They've changed ..." she tells Lao when they meet. "They've all become so satisfied."

Fang, the son of an early Communist defector, and a drifter, is on a quiet mission to prove that an entire month has been erased from the collective memory of China's 1.3 billion people, with the exception of a small number who seem to have retained their memories -including both Fang and Xiao.

Lao, a successful writer, is a bit disconcerted by the strange claims of his former friends, and he has little sympathy for their cause, until they involve him in the kidnapping of a senior official who spits out the truth about what the government has been doing.

As He Dongsheng comes out of his drugged state, Lao, Fang and Xiao begin to interrogate the official, who is tied to a chair. He willingly describes how trouble broke out in a few places around China following the economic crisis of 2012, and how, according to a secret party plan, the People's Liberation Army, People's Armed Police and police purposely hold back, except in Tibet and Xinjiang , waiting for the chaos to reach a point where the frightened population becomes afraid of anarchy and begs for the government to step in. When the PLA eventually marches into one city to restore order, the people line the streets to welcome it. In an ensuing "strike hard" campaign, the party takes advantage of its popular mandate to wipe out all its foes.

The campaign is so vicious that the government decides to place a new drug into the water system and all beverages, which has the effect of putting the country on a collective high. An unintended plus is that the vast majority of the population has had its memory of the three weeks of chaos completely erased. To be safe, the government has taken advantage of its good fortune - no one honestly knows how this happened - to destroy books and newspapers and to rewrite what's available on the internet.

When Lao visits a book store and asks for books by several famous authors, a search of the store computer indicates the books don't exist. When he confronts the manager and asks about books by Yang Jiang, a famous writer, the manager stares at him, confused, and says, "Which Yang Jiang?"

The Golden Age represents the frustrations of many intellectuals, who previously had high hopes for reform. Chan says that while the party launched huge economic reforms over the past three decades, politically not much has changed.

"In the 1980s there were hopes for constitutional democracy but it's now very obvious that's not the way to go for China," he says, recognising the reality. "A new Chinese-style governance has been established and is accepted."

Chan speaks of a new political model emerging in China, which he first noticed some time around 2008, and which he describes as "an authoritarian government with popular support".

The Hong Kong writer says the party has won people over by showing that it is a strong government that can guarantee stability, as well as one that can use resources to do big things - such as help China's economic development leapfrog the rest of the world's.

He admits that there are many problems, but adds that, right or wrong, many Chinese don't see things this way. Chan tells of a conversation with a retired official who, brimming with confidence, told him: "A big country like China of course has a lot of problems. But there are no problems the party can't handle now."

Chan says it's only been in recent years that Chinese have begun to speak about the China model being better than Western ones. He says that with the financial meltdown in the West, Chinese are getting more confident in their "model".

"There's a lot of buying in from the Chinese public on this," says Chan, who adds that many of the people he's talked with here are very enthusiastic about the future. "There may be structural problems and questions about whether or not China can go on like this," he says. "But that's not the mood right now. And this mood is very helpful to the ruling people."

He says the party has co-opted intellectuals and scholars and that fewer people today have the temerity to challenge the government, which he worries about.

"Many of those who were once critical of the regime are now part of the system," Chan says. "The party has absorbed the elites by handing out funding, positions, and employment. Those in universities are getting government projects so they are not as vocal as before - they don't want to be vocal."

He says that this is not corruption but rather patronage. "Many people depend on money from the state to build their careers. So the intellectual centre is mainly employed by the state."

Chan says that while this has been happening for years the state is now much richer. "They have the capacity to attract you with funding and apparently the funding is unlimited. There's no end to it."

"There are more people buying into this now," he says. "It's very difficult to find people to make a challenge."

And he says that those who are willing to take on the government "are becoming more and more marginalised".

"It can be very dangerous if there's no critical voice," he says.

Chan tried to write about this dilemma regarding public discourse in a lengthy article in 2005, but says no one paid any attention. He later decided to use fiction to get his views across to a wider audience. He says fiction also gave him more latitude in describing his concerns.

The book has been well-received on the mainland with a small but influential audience of intellectuals, businesspeople and even government officials. The first modest print run of 3,000 copies sold out in about two months; many of these copies made their way in via a back door. They're made available on the mainland through the internet, where they are classified as second hand to get around government restrictions on unauthorised books. Some book stores stock copies, but buyers would need a contact to be able to obtain one, says a publisher, who says the book is not being openly sold.

"The book is hot," she says, pointing out that the harsh sentencing of dissident Liu Xiaobo , the problems of Google and other recent incidents fit the trends portrayed in the novel.

"It's very clear that things are getting harsher and harsher," she says. The limited copies are being read by six or seven people, she adds.

One magazine publisher apparently snapped up 300 copies of the hard-to-find book to offer as an enticement to get people to subscribe to her magazine.

The book has also been reviewed by some leading Chinese newspapers, magazines and blogs, although the writers had to creatively skirt any of the sensitive issues discussed in the book.

A reading club was set up on Douban, a popular portal, for people to discuss the book. And earlier this week an electronic version of the book in simplified characters (the Hong Kong and Taiwan versions are in standard Chinese characters) turned up on the internet and word zipped around the country, spread by Chinese using Twitter.

Li Jun, a journalist, wrote on her popular blog that after reading the book she's devised a new way to view her friends.

"Starting from today, I have no friends and I have no enemies," she wrote. "I now divide people into two categories - those who have read The Golden Age and those who haven't."

The book appeals to people for different reasons. Reviewers have labelled the book science fiction or mythology, utopian and anti-utopian. Several have made comparisons with George Orwell's 1984. A better description might be 1984 with a sense of humour.

The most common comment heard is that the book - despite being fiction - reflects the actual situation in China today. Popular blogger He Caitou said that the absurdities in the novel, "on the contrary, appear extremely realistic".

"It allegorises everyone's common fate and tortuously describes the fears that lay deep in our hearts," he continued.

He concluded that the most important thing about The Golden Age was that it makes one "believe that the world described in the book is quickly bearing down on us".

Readers can also recognise the book's characters in real people, from Xiao, who wants to fight for the truth, to the party official who makes a Hobbesian argument for a strong authoritarian state, to Wei Guo, Xiao's ultra-nationalist college son, who thinks that working for the propaganda apparatus is "romantic".

"We're surrounded by Wei Guos," said one university student who read the book.

The book concludes with the interrogation of He. Drinking the drugged water for the first time, and egged on by a new happy feeling, the senior official pours out his guts to his interrogators. "Zhongnanhai [the party headquarters in Beijing] has its own supply of food and beverages," he says. "What we drink is different from what you drink."

He justifies the government's failure to step in to control the chaos, arguing that only a major crisis could convince the masses to accept rigid controls by the government, which he says are responsible for China's success.

Xiao challenges him. "You say China has already entered a golden period. Then why can't you rule the country with law?" she asks. "Do you mean to say China should not have rule of law? After ruling China for 60 years, you still can't rule with benevolence?"

She answers the question for him, saying that the government doesn't really want political reform and that all the policies are aimed at making party members rich through corruption.

When she castigates the party for feeding the people chemicals without their knowledge, He retorts, with no sense of shame: "Our party does a lot of things that the people don't know about. It's always been that way."

In one of his most telling statements, and a veiled but barbed criticism of people today, He denies that the drug also made people lose their memories. "If the Chinese people themselves didn't want to forget first, we would have never forced them to forget," he says innocently. "It was the Chinese people themselves that took the initiative to take the amnesia medicine."

By morning, He's captives follow through with their promise to release him if he tells all. The accusers seem the worse for the long night, while He is charged with energy, seemingly having proven that the party's policies are correct and for the good of the people. In any case, few people actually care.

It certainly seems that the Communist Party is blessed, as He points out.

"It's a pity I'm a materialist, otherwise I'd say this is the intention of heaven," he says gleefully.

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