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Books: The fat years of China

August 15, 2010

By Claude Arpi
Sify (India)
August 13, 2010

A new dystopian novel is said to be spreading
‘like a fire burning in the wilderness’ amongst
intellectuals in China. Let me explain.

‘Dystopian is the antonym of ‘utopian’. According
to the dictionary, it is used for ‘a futuristic
society that has degraded into a repressive and
controlled state, though often under the guise of
being utopian’. In other words it is a negative utopia.

‘Like a fire burning in the wilderness’ is an
expression used by Mao Zedong to describe ‘the
unexpected rise and popularity of something marginalised or rebellious’.

These metaphors describe a new ‘political’ book,
Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 written by Taiwanese art
critic Chan Koon-chung who has been residing in Beijing for the past 10 years.

With ‘shengshi’ usually translated as ‘fat
years’, the novel is a description of the ‘fat years of China in 2013’.

Though not distributed in the mainland, Chan
Koon-Chung's novel has already had a tremendous
impact in Hong Kong and Taiwan and of course
amongst netizens and bloggers in the People’s Republic.

In The South China Morning Post, Paul Mooney
explains: "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
longane 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."

The Middle Kingdom has reached the peak of its
prosperity when suddenly the entire population
(with the exception of a few) suffers of a
‘collective amnesia’: a month is erased from the
memory of the nation, at the same time the
population gets intoxicated with the feeling of happiness.

The first part of the book introduces the main
characters, while the second tells the story of
Lao Chen, a Taiwanese writer who has been living
in Beijing for many years (like Chan Koon-chung)
and shares the collective happiness, until he
meets Fang Caodi, one of few who still remembers the terrifying lost month.

Both search for Xiao Xi, a young rebel who may
also have witnessed this ‘lost month’. Xiao Xi is
terribly frustrated as her intellectual friends
have stopped fighting against the regime in
exchange of comfortable bourgeois lives: "They've
changed "They've all become so satisfied."

While searching for Xiao Xi, Chen and Caodi
slowly discover a dark China behind the material
prosperity. China is not shining, though its
people suffer from a collective illusion.

The culmination of the story is when the seekers
managed to kidnap a high-ranking official named
He Dongsheng. They force him to tell the truth
about the lost month. After they learn that the
Chinese ‘gilded years’ have been achieved by
‘cunning, deception and terror’, they decide to
leave the ‘prosperous, powerful, and happy China’.

The novel raises several fascinating (and
embarrassing) ‘political’ issues about today’s
China. This is probably the reason why the novel
will not be published in the Mainland.

A reviewer wrote: "the author provides a
convincing assessment of how deceptive
propaganda, historical misrepresentation, and
forced amnesia work together to severely distort
the personality and mentality of China’s new generations."

Interestingly the new generation is as severely
touched by the loss of memory as the older one.

It is worth reflecting on some of the
contemporary issues raised by Chan Koon-chung.

* The Party uses violence to control its own
people. In the novel, the Party treats China’s
drinking water with a chemical which can change
people’s mood, managing to induce the entire
nation into a feeling of well-being and happiness.

This stirs deep into the psyche of China’s
intellectuals. Many in China probably realise
today that they have swallowed the amnesia pill.
Chan writes that most Chinese have forgotten what
happened between the big disaster and the fat
years. What about the Tiananmen Square event
(referred to in the book as 8964 for June 4, 1989)?

The main character Chen asks if this event really
happened or not, because after the massacre, “a
lot of people in China believed that if the
government didn’t suppress the people, society
would deteriorate." It is what Party propaganda made them believe.

* Another interesting point raised by the novel
is that the ‘masses’ have been the accomplice of
the Party. One character argues, "If it were not
that the Chinese people want to forget, it would
be not possible for us to force them to do so,"
and concludes "it is the ordinary Chinese people
themselves who voluntarily take the drug which causes the amnesia."

It is a fact that many Chinese academics or
thinkers prefer today to ‘work’ with the Party
and join one of the thousand-odd official
think-tanks run by the Party, rather than rebel
and fight the system like Xiao Xi does. Even in
India, most young citizens dream of a sinecure,
justifying that he/she will be more useful to the
society working within the system. As a result,
most sins (social injustice, corruption, babuism,
nepotism, etc) are bound to remain forever.

The kidnapped official He Dongsheng says at one
point that the Central Propaganda Department does
indeed do a lot of work to cover up the truth of
the lost month; but it is the Chinese people
themselves who choose to forget in the first place.

* It is true that ‘fat years’ have a soporific
effect, not only in China. A double-digit growth
makes many in India very complacent. Does it mean
that when a nation become ‘fat’, the thinkers
should stop thinking and keep mum?

* The founder of a leading Chinese scholarly
journal lists ten features of the ‘Chinese
model’: “democratic one-Party dictatorship, rule
of law with social stability as its top priority,
an authoritarian government for the people, a
state-controlled market economy, fair competition
dominated by the central government-owned
enterprises, scientific development with Chinese
characteristics, self-centered harmonious
diplomacy, a multi-racial republic with
sovereignty of one people, post-Occidental and
post-universal main body of thought and national
rejuvenation of the incomparable Chinese civilization."

The ten characteristics show the skills of the
propaganda masters in Beijing; they manage to
marry incompatible values such as ‘democratic’
and ‘one-Party dictatorship’, or ‘authoritarian’
and ‘for the people’ or even ‘multi-racial
republic’ and ‘sovereignty of one people’. The
only question seems to be: how long can the
amnesia pill remain potent and keep the people of the Middle Kingdom asleep?

* What is rather shocking is the abandonment by
the intellectuals of their role as ‘conscience of
the society’ and their open complicity with the
State. It is probably why the book stirs so deep
in today’s China. In the novel, a member of the
Party explains that for intellectuals
"recognition by the Party is the greatest success
and honor possible." In other words, the
intellectuals are bought out by the promise of
material gains or social status. Some may argue
that it is not very different in India.

The book has been frequently compared to George
Orwell’s 1984. A Chinese reviewer wrote: “From
the surface, The Fat Years: China, 2013 and 1984
have several similarities. Both are set in a
fictional totalitarian future, and both satirize
the system which corrupts the society and the
human soul. When we read The Fat Years, we can’t
help but be reminded of its predecessor. There is
also a Winston Smith in The Fat Years, in the
form of Fang Caodi, who is searching for the
‘lost February’. There is also a Julia, in the
form of the solitary fighter Wei Xi Hong. There
is even a high official in the form of He
Dongsheng who is a reminder of O’Brien.”

However, the times are different. The Soviet
Union has collapsed, and China has 300 million
netizens and potential bloggers (and a few lakh
hackers) who should be clever enough to bypass
the Great Firewall Wall of China to find out the truth.

But as long as the Party is able to feed the
people and make them proud to be member of the
G2, their national egos will probably grow ‘fat’
and they will be blinded by the ‘Orwellian’
system. One doubt however hovers above the Middle
Kingdom: can the economic miracle last forever?

The themes used in the novel are obviously
written with the situation of China in mind, but
what makes this book special is that the concept
can be applied at all times and to all nations.
Did not Germany suffer a five-year amnesia between 1939 and 1945.

And what about India?

The parties in power (whether present or
previous) have never had the propaganda machinery
or even the cunningness to make the people
swallow a long-lasting pill on their own, and
India’s famous democratic system has proved to be a safety valve.

Remember when a Party’s mantra was "India is
Shining"? It was trashed during the following
elections. This is perhaps the greatest advantage
of ‘democracy’ compared to the ‘Chinese Model’.
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