The dystopian novel that's turning China upside down

It's 2013, and China's the only country to have survived an economic meltdown. The Chinese own Starbucks, which now serves longan dragon well lattes. So why can't anybody remember an entire month? That's the premise of a new dystopian novel.

There are spoilers ahead, by the way...

Chan Koon-Chung's novel Shengshi Zhongguo 2013 (which roughly translates to "The Gilded Age: China 2013") has gone from being a marginalized, underground text — which couldn't even get published in Mainland China — to becoming a major sensation among China's intellectuals. And according to an essay in China Beat by Professor Zhansui Yu, Shengshi Zongguo 2013 "has changed the way that Chinese define political fiction," and its success is due to the fact that it exposes "the shocking darkness behind [China's] dazzling economic miracle."

The term "Shengshi," variously translated as "The Gilded Age" or "the Fat Years," has become a major meme in China lately — see the magazine cover above. Chan's novel suggests that this prosperity carries a secret, heavy price.

In Chan's novel, everybody in China suffers from amnesia, and becomes unable to remember the most recent month — except for a few people. Two of these people are Feng Caodi and a Taiwanese writer, Old Chen, who search for Little Xi, Old Chen's true love who may remember some crucial events of the missing month. While they travel across China looking for Little Xi, they discover more and more evidence that something is terribly wrong at the heart of China's prosperity. The elites are becoming wealthy by preying on the most vulnerable members of society, and the Party remains in charge only through the use of dirty tricks. We meet a child slave, Zhang Dou, and encounter a village that's being wiped out by pollution from a nearby factory. At the same time, everybody in China seems utterly blissed out, and self-congratulation about China's prosperity is the main pasttime among the elites.

Eventually, Feng and Chen discover the truth about the collective amnesia — and why everybody in China is so happy. They kidnap a high-ranking government official, He Dongsheng, and force him to tell the truth about what happened during the missing period. Here's how the South China Morning Post describes it:

The dystopian novel that's turning China upside down

As He Dongsheng comes out of his drugged state, Old Chen, Fang and Little Xi begin to interrogate the official, who is tied to a chair. He willingly describes how trouble broke out in a few places around China following the economic crisis of 2012, and how, according to a secret party plan, the People's Liberation Army, People's Armed Police and police purposely hold back, except in Tibet and Xinjiang , waiting for the chaos to reach a point where the frightened population becomes afraid of anarchy and begs for the government to step in. When the PLA eventually marches into one city to restore order, the people line the streets to welcome it. In an ensuing "strike hard" campaign, the party takes advantage of its popular mandate to wipe out all its foes.

The campaign is so vicious that the government decides to place a new drug into the water system and all beverages, which has the effect of putting the country on a collective high. An unintended plus is that the vast majority of the population has had its memory of the three weeks of chaos completely erased. To be safe, the government has taken advantage of its good fortune - no one honestly knows how this happened - to destroy books and newspapers and to rewrite what's available on the internet.

And in a twist Doctor Who's Steven Moffat would approve of, He Dongsheng reveals that the Chinese people chose to forget. He says:

If it were not that the Chinese people want to forget, it would be not possible for us to force them to do so... It is the ordinary Chinese people themselves who voluntarily take the drug which causes the amnesia.

As the main character, Fang Caodi, says about halfway through the book:

Given the choice between a good hell and a counterfeit paradise, what will people choose? Whatever you say, many people will believe that a counterfeit paradise has got to be better than a good hell. Though at first they recognise that the paradise is bogus, they either don't dare or wish to expose it as such. As time passes, they forget that it's not real and actually begin to defend it, insisting that it's the only paradise in existence.

It all sounds very similar to Jose Saramago's Blindness and Seeing, except less magical-realist and more overtly polemical. And it does sound like the jabs at China's governing ideology — which uses "hatred" and quasi-fascism to keep people motivated, are pretty sharp. At one point, a character in the novel describes China's ruling ideas:

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' thought of the subject, and national rejuvenation of the incomparable Chinese civilization.

Yes, that's a series of contradictions in terms. "Democratic one-party dictatorship" is pretty great, and so is "a state-controlled market economy." You can see why this novel is making waves in China.

Top image via China Heritage Quarterly. [China Beat and Sina.com and China Heritage Quarterly]