China's "golden age"

A Q&A with sci fi novelist Chan Koonchung


Chan Koonchung is the Shanghai born, Hong Kong raised author of The Fat Years, a near-future soft science fiction novel about a China closely resembling today’s. He has now been living in Beijing since 2000. In his book, China has entered a “Golden Age of Ascendancy”, after a second economic crisis has crippled the West. But no-one within China can remember the crackdown that preceded it, and everyone is oddly and unnaturally euphoric.

The novel alludes to contemporary China very closely, and is banned in the mainland. It has been accused of “telling not showing”, but I would still highly recommend it as a literary exaggeration of China’s political truths, in the same vein as Brave New World. I sat down with Chan Koonchung in a Beijing Starbucks, to ask him what he really thinks about today’s China.

You came up with the idea for your novel in 2008. Why set it five years later?

In 2008, I realised something significant had happened to China’s perspection of itself and the world’s perception of China. I thought I had a story. I call it “the new normal”. The title of The Fat Years in Chinese is Sheng Shi, which means the golden years of ascendency and prosperity. This phrase was not used to describe China for at least a century and a half. Now, suddenly everyone is using sheng shi to describe China.

But as I started writing the book in 2009, my intellectual friends in Beijing didn’t agree – they didn’t feel that China was entering an age of ascendency. They emphasised the dark side of China. I wanted to write about what was happening before my eyes, but I didn’t feel my writer friends would agree. So I set it in the not-too-distant future, 2013, so I could come up with fictional events to describe my view of what was happening. In fact, it’s all about the present.

Well, here we are in 2013 now. How has China today lived up to your imagination?

Sheng shi was never meant to be perfect. It’s not a real utopia. The last sheng shi was during the Kangxi [emperor] era of the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. And that was when China had the most intense persecution of free speech, and a very aggressive war in what is now Xinjiang. So sheng shi was never a peaceful and humanitarian idea. But the fact that people are again using those two words, after a century and a half of degeneration, is something new.

During the Chinese new year in 2010, I was invited to give a speech at Nanfang Zhoumo [Southern Weekend newspaper]. My title was “China is one of the great powers”. I said it was number two after the US. They all disagreed, for different reasons. Some said I was praising the Communist party, so was a fifty center [apologist for the regime]. Others said I was an idiot, that we still didn’t have an aircraft carrier and didn’t control the South China Sea. None of them thought that China was a great power. Then just a few years later, everyone is saying China’s a great power, from Hong Kong to the mainland to the rest of the world.

In The Fat Years, everyone is experiencing a mysterious mild euphoria. Is that a comment on high happiness polling rates in China?

At the time I wrote it, the polling rates were not that high in China. But in 2008, industrial chemicals were found in milk products including baby milk powder. Some babies died from it. This was known to the state for months, they just covered it up. So I thought, if you can do that, you can do anything. In China everyone’s a little bit too happy for what they are facing – bad air, unsafe food, but still they’re so optimistic. Most people think tomorrow will be even better.

Another storyline of the book is that everyone has collectively forgotten a crackdown that began the age of ascendency.

I tried to do that in a literary way. Of course, people forget things all the time, everywhere. But in China you’re not allowed to remember or make a fuss about certain subjects. There’s a generation gap though. Older people think everyone will remember incidents such as June 4th, but the younger generations genuinely do not know about it. When you show them a picture of the tank man, they cannot recognise it. So it’s a literary trick, that people don’t remember a disaster only two years ago. That was a controversial indictment of my own people, in a way.

Do you think that Chinese citizens are still willing to accept the deal to forget or not mention politics if the economy is doing well?

I almost made that statement. Because it’s a novel, I could say it in a tricky way. People are making compromises, being reluctant conformists. Many people are genuinely in the dark. But even people in the know are compromising, and others choose not to know. For instance, I personally know some middle level bureaucrats. They don’t know a thing. Why? They choose not to know, because knowing could get them into trouble. Their computers at their office trace what websites they visit, so they never visit any sites apart from publicly sanctioned ones. They don’t care, but they have a good life. They stop you when you try to tell them things. They didn’t even know Chen Guangcheng went to the United States – that’s my true experience.

He Dongsheng, the fictional top-level bureaucrat in your book, implies that if you don’t have a strong government above the law, then there would be chaos.

I think many people buy into that argument, even if they think it’s not moral. I know some young dissidents who told me that if China devolves into chaos, they would be in trouble because their parents’ pensions would be gone, and they cannot afford to support their parents. That’s their honest reaction to the situation. But the argument that without a strong government China would devolve into chaos, like a Hobbesian state, is not a justification for one party rule. Of course we need government, but who said the government needs to be one-party rule?

The government might argue that without this strong, Leviathan-like state, China could never have entered its “age of ascendency” and got richer.

Well, the state is getting richer. But what would have happened if there was no Communist rule? What if in 1946 the Civil War was won by the Nationalists? Probably, as [early Republic era Chinese scholar] Liang Qichao predicted, sometime around the 1970s China would be just like it is today – a capitalist state with tons of cheap labour for export. China would side with the US not the Soviet Union, and the US would not have to support Japan or Korea or Taiwan. China would be an Asian tiger, getting quite prosperous by the sixties or seventies. There would be inequality. It might still be a kind of authoritarian state, but it would not be poor. It would be just like now, but without a thirty year detour.

A more minor character in your book, Wei Guo, is a fascist young nationalist. Are you worried about people like him?

Yes. The fenqing [angry youth] are very aggressive. Some academics are becoming more aggressive too. The Party has very cunningly changed the narrative to justify its own existence. In the early years of the fifties, the Communist Party always emphasised class struggle, and getting rid of feudal influences. Now they never talk about it. Instead they talk about national revival – the hundred years of humiliation under Western imperialism, and how the Party saved China from it. So they have changed the narrative to a kind of nationalism, and many people buy into that story.

But of course, in reality the Chinese did more harm to ourselves than anyone else. Western imperialists contributed to it, but the main culprits are the Chinese themselves, for instance in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Civil War, or even in the 19th century with the Taiping rebellion, in which 20 million people died. We did all kinds of terrible things to ourselves, but they are not mentioned, and especially what was done by the Communist Party is buried. The only story now is new power after a century of humiliation.

What is your reaction to Jackie Chan's statement that China is unsuited to democracy, that “we Chinese need to be controlled”?

That argument is of course long refuted by the experience of Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I’m not sure this Chinese state will evolve naturally into a constitutional liberal democracy. It’s now realising another kind of government, which I call an “oversized corporatist state”. The corporatist state of Mussolini only lasted two decades, so there is no serious precedent, but in the 1920s Mussolini was praised as the third way between Western democracy and Soviet communism. China is fulfilling that third way, and there’s no reason why it cannot be sustained.

With the communist system almost gone, it’s not only liberal democracies that can survive. There may be another serious challenger to liberal democracy – a capitalist economy with lots of consumer freedom, but state intervention and a one-party authoritarian rule. There are all kinds of interest groups, like capitalists, workers, farmers and others, but what I mean by a corporatist state is that it’s all incorporated in and controlled by a single party. The state still controls everyone.

After the financial crash in the West, more credence was given to this state capitalism model of China’s as an alternative. Do you agree?

I think there’s no reason why it cannot be sustained, because in China we have the scale. In other countries, the China model is not repeatable. You cannot generate the kind of massive Party animal like the Communist Party anywhere else. The world has become more cynical and less idealistic. In other countries such as India or Indonesia, they will not support the idea of one-party rule. So the Chinese political model is very difficult to export. There are stories about why this type of system cannot ultimately be sustained, but I think it could continue for many years.

You imagined what China would be like in 2013. What are your predictions now for the years to come?

In the medium term, ten to twenty years, I would say China’s rise will be unstoppable, in spite of the economic hiccups. There will be ups and downs of course, but in general it’s going to expand and its influence will grow relative to the world, and it could still all be under this one-party rule.

So that’s what you think will happen. What about what you want?

I wasn’t a very political person until I got here, but one thing I cannot stand is that justice is not a value here. Like the headmaster sexually assaulting school girls – instead of punishing him, they said you shouldn’t make a fuss out of this case, and the girls better change their identity so we can cover it up. That makes you mad. If there was only some justice, I wouldn’t be writing this kind of novel. I could write about other things, and have a happy life in Beijing. I’m sure the Chinese have a sense of justice, but because of the way things are organised, justice is not a value – it’s all organised around the state.

If the government could follow the 1982 constitution, and avoid anti-humaritarian behaviour, most of my critical friends will be happy. I use the metaphor that the constitution is like an electrical appliance without electricity. It’s just for show.Sometimes the government pays lip service to it. But if you pass electricity through it, and activate it, then it will improve governance a lot, and not allow the Party to dictate. If they move in that direction, I think everyone will be happier.

This interview also appeared in the LA Review of Books China blog, here