In the midst of an unusually sweeping government campaign against artistic dissent, he has published a novel that predicts an Orwellian future for China in just two years. The novel, needless to say, has been banned. Imported copies have been seized at the border. Booksellers who manage to secure some copies for sale have been shut down.
And yet Chan Koonchung (陳冠中) isn’t packing his bags to return to his native Hong Kong. Instead, he’s hunkered down for the long haul, convinced that Beijing is the only place in China worth living.
“You never use the word ‘lovely’ to describe Beijing,” Chan said in an upscale restaurant not far from his high-end apartment. “But I need to be in Beijing because of the people.”
For much of his career, that would have meant the beautiful people.
Chan, 59, is best known for founding a lifestyle magazine in Hong Kong, City Magazine, and starting up a “lite-fare” cable television station in Taiwan, Super TV, which he sold to Sony Entertainment in the 1990s. More recently, he’s made a name for himself writing cultural essays on Chinese cities.
“He’s very much circulating on the party circuit,” says Huang Hung (洪晃), a Beijing publisher and social commentator. “That’s why this work comes as a little bit of a surprise, but it’s a terribly nice surprise.”
The work is a dystopian novel of China in the near future. After the world’s second financial crisis in 2013, the government clings to power only after it sends troops into the streets for a month of bloody killing. Finally, the government laces the water with a chemical that makes people feel happy and eager to spend money.
With China’s consumers finally unleashed from their age-old habit of saving, the country’s economy booms and it leaps past the US and other Western countries. A golden age dawns.
Mostly, though, it’s a book about living in an authoritarian state. In what is probably the most damning part of the novel, the month of killing is forgotten, not through drugs but an act of collective amnesia. The book’s nominal heroes, the country’s Westernized elite, finally figure out what has happened (by kidnapping a politburo member and forcing him to tell all), but they end up agreeing with the government’s measures.
“This is one of the major untalked-about issues,” says Hung, who has championed the book on her popular microblog. “They want to drink the Chinese government’s Kool-Aid.”
The book is known in Chinese as Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (盛世：中國 2013), which can be translated as “China’s Golden Age 2013.” It has just been published in the UK as The Fat Years and is due out in the US early next year.
Chan says forgetfulness is a fact of life in China. The government pushes certain historical memories to legitimize its rule, but quashes other traumas.
“We’re still talking about the Opium War, but we forgot about the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution,” he says.
He decided to write the novel in 2008, when he noticed a shift among the elite. China’s rise seemed to be crowned by Beijing hosting the Olympics, while the West’s problems, which many in China now view as a permanent decline, was highlighted by the financial crisis.
“A lot of people realized that China did something right and they want to express it,” Chan said.
He wrote the book in 2009 and it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan at the end of that year. Chinese publishers declined to publish it.