A controversial novel marks the return of politically charged science fiction in China -- and evokes a decidedly mixed vision of the country's future.
In the euphoric Beijing of 2013, Starbucks is Chinese-owned and called "Starbucks Wangwang." Its trademark drink is Longjing Latté, named for a famed Chinese tea. It is a place where Mr. Chen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, feels comfortable escorting a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi, the secret love of his youth. After running into Xiaoxi in a Beijing bookstore, their first encounter in many years, Mr. Chen asks her whether she had gone abroad. "No," she replies.
"No is good," Chen nods. "As everyone says, no place is better than China nowadays."
"You are joking," Xiaoxi says.
Her sullen mood seems at odds with the jubilant crowd around them. As she suddenly departs, he notices two men smoking nearby who have been following her.
So opens an early scene from The Prosperous Time: China 2013, a hotly controversial Chinese science-fiction novel. Written by 58-year-old Hong Kong novelist Chen Guanzhong, who has lived and worked in Beijing for much of his life, China 2013 presents an ambivalent vision of China’s near future: outwardly triumphant (a Chinese company has even bought out Starbucks), and yet tightly controlled. There is a mood of mounting tension, here evident as a woman with dissenting thoughts is followed by secret police.
The novel, first published in Hong Kong in late 2009, caused quite a stir on Chinese websites early this year. For instance, Hecaitou, one of the most influential bloggers in the country, wrote in January that the book "once and for fall settles the majority of Internet quarrels" on what China’s tomorrow will be like. At the time, the book was only available in Hong Kong. But after interest grew apace in Chinese cyberspace, the author himself "pirated" his rights from his own publisher in Hong Kong to let Chinese mainlanders read it online for free. Since February, numerous digital versions of the novel have circulated and sparked heated discussions on the Chinese Internet.
The significance — and uniqueness — of the novel is that it is a work of social science fiction, a subgenre that has become virtually nonexistent since the establishment of the People’s Republic. Such keen reader interest in visions of China’s political future is remarkable — and reveals a pent-up appetite among readers. Take a look at recent issues of the popular Chinese Sci-Fi World magazine, published in Chengdu, or at Internet rankings of today’s most-read Chinese sci-fi stories, and you’ll find every kind of plotline you might find in Western sci-fi literature — time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it — but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell’s 1984, is almost completely lacking.
That isn’t because politically charged science fiction never existed in China. As popular sci-fi writer Ye Yonglie has documented, the history of modern Chinese science fiction goes back to the early 20th century. The genre was catalyzed by the first Chinese translation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1900. Early Chinese sci-fi works often doubled as political parables and social criticism, starting with 1904’s The Moon Colony. Now commonly cited as the first Chinese sci-fi novel, The Moon Colony tells the story of an anti-Qing dynasty revolutionary’s life in exile; taking a cue from Jules Vernes’ heroes, he travels on a balloon around the world, and eventually migrates to the moon. The book was in part a commentary on corruption in contemporary society.
This politically-charged tradition in Chinese sci-fi continued for more than four decades, epitomized by Lao She’s controversial 1932 novel, Cat Country. Lao She, one of the most important Chinese writers of the last century, published his only science-fiction novel as serial installments in a magazine. The story is set on Mars. Although it was published 13 years before Orwell’s Animal Farm, the political satire functions in similar fashion, with intrigues among a colony of cats on Mars serving as criticism of contemporary political reality in China. It was the only Chinese sci-fi novel then translated into foreign languages.
Cat Country was so popular among readers that it was reprinted seven times over the course of 17 years until 1949. Under Communist rule, however, the book disappeared from shelves, and any social or political criticism content in new sci-fi works disappeared along with it. Mao Zedong’s official literary policy was that "literature and art serve [his] politics." As a dystopian novel, Cat Country was politically incorrect, and in August 1966, Lao She was publicly denounced and beaten by the Red Guards. Not long after, he committed suicide.
I grew up in the western city of Chongqing in the 1960s and 1970s, an avid fan of Lao She’s less controversial works. I had never heard of Cat Country until years after the Cultural Revolution. Following Mao’s death, much Western literature and philosophy were introduced in China for the first time. I still vividly remember the excitement among my friends in 1980s as we vied with each other for copies of translated books such as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Dennis Meadows et al.’s The Limits to Growth and Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. In 1985, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World first became widely available to Chinese readers. (Reportedly, the earliest Chinese translation of 1984 was published in 1979 in a limited-circulation Communist Party magazine to provide "references for the leadership comrades.")
It was around the late 1970s and early 1980s that some Chinese sci-fi writers became bold enough to embed reflections on domestic events such as the Cultural Revolution in their stories. For a while, it seemed that social sci-fi might reestablish itself as a literary subgenre in China. That hope, however, was extinguished in 1983, when Deng Xiaoping launched a "clean up spiritual pollution" campaign against writers, in effect clamping down again on freedom of thought.
Economically and culturally, the China of today looks entirely unrecognizable from that of previous decades — with new skyscrapers, shopping malls, and airports. Still, political censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech continue. "Newspeak" style journalism is far more common than independent voices. Writers are still being indicted for their words. In February, a Chengdu writer, Tan Zuoren, was sentenced to five years in prison for an essay about his personal experience during the June 4 massacre. China 2013 was fortunate to be published in Hong Kong, where the press enjoys greater freedom than in mainland China, due to the "one country, two systems" policy.
Modern China is a paradox. Its coexistence of economic prosperity and political autocracy is baffling. Chen Guanzhong’s China 2013 presents a fairly Orwellian view of China’s future. Although Chen has said he does not think his novel is like 1984, certain parallels between the two are pretty obvious. Key Orwellian concepts such as a "memory hole," "doublethink," and "newspeak" find echoes in Chen’s novel, and the antagonist is a party official reminiscent of O’Brien, a character in 1984.
As the novel’s plot unfolds, on the day that marks the beginning of an unprecedented world-wide economic crisis, the U.S. dollar falls by one-third. The same day, China officially enters what its leaders call "the prosperous time." Every Chinese person accepts this happy coincidence, except for two men and a woman. The three remember events differently: They believe that a month, somehow been lost from public memory, separates these two events. And they set out to recover memories of that lost month.
The three truth-seekers are led by Fang Chaodi, a man in his mid-60s who immigrated to the United States in 1972 after Richard Nixon’s Beijing visit but returned to China in late 1990s. He is accompanied by a young rural man named Zhang Dou, as well as Xiaoxi, a woman who distrusts the government and whose 24-year-old son is a party informant attempting to send her to prison.
Unable at first to unravel how an entire month has disappeared, they eventually kidnap a member of the Politburo, He Dongsheng, who confesses that between the start of global economic meltdown and the advent of China’s prosperous time, there was in fact a chaotic period — mysteriously now largely forgotten. The first week of that period is filled with public disquiet, panic buying, and looting. Initially the government takes little action to prevent the nation from falling into a state of anarchy, other than instituting strict curfews in Tibet and Xinjiang.
But in the second lost week, the People’s Liberation Army suddenly marches through streets everywhere in a dramatic crackdown against alleged criminals. The crackdown eerily mirrors certain real-life precedents in China; in reality, as in the novel, the party presumes itself to be above the law. For three subsequent weeks, the country is engulfed in a rampage of military and police violence, in which both guilty and innocent blood is spilled. (At one point, Fang is nearly executed on the spot simply for carrying an American passport.)
On the last day of the crackdown, the government adds a drug to the nation’s water supply. It works its magic and turns almost everyone in China into a more jovial and complacent person. The day after, the government announces that the country has formally entered "the prosperous time." New economic policies are implemented; national GDP continues to grow, and the party’s hold on power grows ever more secure.
The most surprising turn in the plot is that, as the reader eventually discovers, the public’s selective memory loss turns out not to have been induced by the government. It is a voluntary memory loss. This unexpected twist is a brilliant stroke from the author; it provokes hard questions not only about the government but about popular complacency in China. Equally sharp and biting is the author’s portrait of China’s intellectual elite indulging in the carefree "prosperous time," willingly letting go of the unpleasant past and their critical spirit.
The book’s author has said that the novel is essentially more "realism" than science fiction. Its ending is pessimistic.
When the truth seekers interrogate He Dongsheng, the Politburo member, they lose control of the conversation, which effectively becomes a monologue by the official. The interrogators can muster only feeble rebuttals to his claim that "the one-party capitalist-socialist autocracy is today’s China’s best option." The novel evokes the dark side of the one-party autocracy, yet its heroes seem to be overwhelmed by He’s eloquent policy speech.
This might well be the novel’s message: Paradoxically, it’s the Chinese public’s aversion to political upheavals and desire for a better economic life that enables the government to operate with impunity.