China has changed dramatically since the mid-1980s. It's not just the increase in freeways, billboards and skyscrapers that disorientates long-time visitors. Even a visit to a bookstore can shock anyone who came to know China decades ago, when it seemed inconceivable that works by non-Marxist theorists would ever outnumber those by Marxists. A theater company has even been allowed to stage Animal Farm, George Orwell's anti-authoritarian allegory, once known to socialist-bloc readers only via underground editions.
The changes run deeper, of course. In the 1980s, there were no beggars on city streets, and the main social cleavage divided the small number of politically well-connected people, who enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, from everyone else. Now, there are both beggars and a burgeoning middle class. It used to be difficult to find anything to do on a Saturday night in Shanghai. Now, Time magazine calls the city the "most happening" place on earth.
While preparing for my first trip to China 20 years ago, George Orwell's dark masterpiece, 1984, seemed a useful lens through which to view this "people's republic." Control in China was not nearly rigid enough to be the embodiment of an all-embracing, authoritarian Big Brother state, but there were parallels, from the disparagement of many forms of "bourgeois" enjoyment and entertainment to periodic propaganda campaigns insisting that two plus two equaled five.
Still, despite all the changes, when foreign commentators nowadays want to spice up a China piece with a literary allusion, Orwell remains the seasoning of choice. Big Brother is invoked in stories about Internet censorship. When the authorities issue a White Paper on human rights, references are made to Newspeak.
But is this really the best lens through which to see China now? It is worth considering if Aldous Huxley, who taught Orwell at school and who wrote another great and portentous piece of political fiction, Brave New World, has a more relevant perspective.
Huxley's masterpiece, which had more to say about materialism, mood-control, mass-distraction and social fragmentation than Orwell's, offers a new kind of insight into what is really happening in 21st century China.
With its bliss-inducing drug "soma" and sensuous entertainments known as "feelies," which provided the sort of engrossing distraction now offered by video games and iPods, Brave New World's perspective adds a new dimension to understanding the durability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a protean ruling party.
Of course, Newspeak is alive and well in many places, and there are certainly Orwellian echoes in the authorities' pronouncements and actions. But Orwell's critique doesn't help in explaining the CCP's surprising ability to retain power long after the demise of most of the socialist bloc, even in the face of widespread protests, including an estimated 74,000 separate incidents across China in 2004 alone.
After reading 1984 in 1949, the year of the founding of the People's Republic of China, Huxley sent his former pupil a letter praising the novel. He noted the emphasis that it put on rule via "boot-on-the-face" techniques and a puritanical distaste for pleasure.
But wasn't it more likely, Huxley mused, that future ruling elites would strive to keep the governed in line by distracting them with sexual allurement, entertainment and other forms of pleasure, a la Brave New World? In many ways, today's Chinese consumer culture is precisely the kind of palliative that Huxley described.