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.
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 (called Cat Country). 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. 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.
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.