Chan Koonchung sits in a crowded Starbucks on the ground floor of Beijing’s Pacific Century Place, surrounded by latte-sipping members of a generation of Chinese that he at once marvels at and worries about. They’re young and affluent, wired and blissfully apolitical.
This same Starbucks is the setting for the opening of Chan’s novel, The Fat Years, a book that has become an underground sensation in China. Officially banned from bookstores and ignored by the state-controlled media – but available for download online if you know where to look for it – Chan’s dystopian vision of the near future has become the book that members of China’s chattering classes ask each other if they have read yet.
The Fat Years is set in 2013, a time when the West has fallen into financial ruin and China has taken its place as the dominant power. Its citizens are deliriously happy to be living in the country’s Golden Age of Prosperity. Even Starbucks is Chinese, having been taken over by the conglomerate WantWant China Group and serving Lychee Black Dragon Lattes.
Only a few Chinese notice that an entire month – the bloody crackdown of February, 2011 – is missing from their memories. No one remembers anything about those 28 days, and nothing about the period can be found in libraries, newspapers or on the Internet.
Chan’s plot, in which the Communist Party has added ecstasy to the water supply in order to keep its citizens smiling, is wild enough that several reviewers have referred to The Fat Years as a work of science fiction. But in the Starbucks café – where Internet searches are restricted by China’s censors and users are required to identify themselves via their mobile phone numbers in order to log on – it seems less far-fetched.
“I set [the story]in 2013, so I could use some fictional events to explain my feelings. So some reviewers called it science fiction or a dystopian novel in the line of [George Orwell’s] Nineteen Eighty-Four or [Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World. But that almost came as a secondary thought. The whole point is to talk about China now,” the stylishly dressed 60-year-old says as he sips a vente cappuccino. “It’s about now, it’s not about the very distant future. That’s why I set it in 2013, instead of, say, 2033 or something.”
Unless they are among the few who know how to navigate around China’s notorious Great Firewall, the real-life Starbucks clientele will find almost no online information about the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, and only Communist Party-approved material on the mass murder and indoctrination of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. But they are materially better off than any previous generation of Chinese, and few seem bothered that someone is filtering what they read.
Chan, who previously was best known for founding a Hong Kong lifestyle magazine and a Taiwanese cable television station, says he did not set out to write a book about Tiananmen Square. Instead, he says The Fat Years is an attempt to warn Chinese and the world that such horrors can repeat themselves in a society that intentionally forgets its recent history.
“For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen massacre have never entered their consciousness,” Chan writes in the epilogue, connecting his fable to the China he was born in and returned to 12 years ago. “They have not forgotten it, they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history – because no one says anything about it.”
The message struck a chord – at least among the small minority of Chinese who take an active interest in politics – particularly this year as the various factions of the Communist Party are known to be jostling for power behind closed doors. The political leanings of the next generation of Communist leaders will not be known until the lineup of the next Standing Committee of the Politburo is unveiled this fall.
“[The book]is closer to a political-science thesis that reads like a work of fiction than a work of fiction that reads like political science,” said Wang Xiaoyu, a professor at the Institute of Cultural Criticism at Tongji University in Shanghai.
While The Fat Years is not on the formal reading list in Wang’s classrooms, he said many students have privately approached him to talk about it. “The book has turned into a major topic in society.”
That Chan can write such a charged attack on the Communist Party, and then sit in a Beijing coffee shop discussing it loudly with a foreign correspondent, speaks to how much China has changed over the past two decades. While The Fat Years – published in Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009 and translated into English last year – has been banned in mainland China, the writer says he has never been harassed or questioned by police about his writings, as political dissidents regularly are. Although he has a Hong Kong passport, he chooses to make Beijing home.
But while he enjoys living in the China of 2012, Chan sees the potential for a rapid slide backward. He offhandedly compares the situation to Germany of the 1930s, when the Nazis initially won plaudits for turning the economy around after the Great Depression.
“Because China is becoming more confident, and [the leaders]know there’s nothing much the international community can really do, they maybe think it’s time to give the dissidents a lesson and punish them harshly,” he says. “I don’t really know which way the regime will be moving, but there is a possibility to move to a worse kind of repressive state than now. I don’t see how it could move to a more liberal state. ... It could carry on like it is, or it could get worse.”
Chan is an unabashed pessimist about where his country is heading. But he also says he has been privately congratulated by Communist Party officials for his understanding of the choices China has had to make, and why history must be left undisturbed in order to focus on the present.
At the end of the novel, the main protagonists – still trying to piece together the mystery of the missing month – resort to kidnapping a Politburo member to force him to explain everything that happened. He admits that the Communist Party turned to ecstasy to improve the public’s mood after the February, 2011, crackdown. But forgetting the entire month, he says, is something Chinese citizens did of their own accord. “The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.”