Megan Walsh is a journalist who has lived in Beijing and Taipei, and holds a MA in Chinese studies from SOAS University of London. Her work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Times of London, and the Wall Street Journal. Her new book, The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters, will be published in February.
Machines churn out 1.2 million cubic metres of fake snow, smog-billowing factories shut down and blue skies appear over Beijing – the 2022 Winter Olympics is an impressive tribute to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to bend reality to its will. Given how dry Beijing’s climate is, almost all of the snow will be artificial. The Chinese government spares no effort when it comes to creating and controlling its image through big-budget political and sporting theatre.
There is a stark difference between the sunny days of the 2008 Summer Olympics, back when China was a dazzling debutante on the world stage, and the international froideur that surrounds the coming Winter Games. Diplomatic boycotts – along with name-calling – on account of human rights abuses in Xinjiang have ramped up tensions with the West. Meanwhile, the continuing mayhem caused by the pandemic in China, brought to heel by a draconian and highly-effective zero-COVID policy, has bolstered Chinese people’s faith in the government’s tactics. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that those tight restrictions offer a home advantage: overseas fans are banned. Inadvertently, but perhaps appropriately, the Winter Olympics feels like a curtain raiser for China’s defiant and inward-facing global hegemony.
This past year the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been especially focused on getting its house in order. It celebrated its centenary with a mix of patriotic programming and a stream of unforeseen crackdowns on a variety of public figures, from celebrities, “sissy men” on TV, business moguls, and tech giants to China’s highest-ranking female tennis star. Some were too influential; others had gone a little too off-message. The Peng Shuai scandal, – which broke in November when the tennis star accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault – was one that gathered worldwide attention. While largely unknown in China, it offered to foreign audiences an uncharacteristically brazen demonstration of how the party likes to rewrite the truth for its own purposes, as well as its willingness to make an example of anyone who dares to speak out. In China, it is not just athletes who are supposed to be representing their country, every individual, no matter who they are, is expected to serve as a metaphor for the government, to be its representative.
There is an enviable clarity to sporting metaphors. For other public figures it can be difficult to know how best to represent your country. While it’s clear what athletes need to do to be “patriotic” (win medals), for artists expected to chronicle epic triumphs and sacrifices, to “take patriotism as their muse,” the goals are less quantifiable, even for the keenest party pleasers. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the poet Wang Zhaoshan described the dead victims of Sichuan’s devastating earthquake – it killed nearly 90,000 people two months before the opening ceremony – as happy ghosts, cheering on China’s victorious athletes. He was widely condemned for his both his distastefulness and his toadyism. But it also inadvertently highlighted the inherent thorniness of patriotic art, even for the people who are supposed to like it: it always feels off. Still, one can’t help having a little sympathy for Mr. Wang, who was simply following his training.
These days, nationalism and praise for the party are part of China’s school curriculum in which student essays promoting patriotic values score highly. Controversial and outspoken blogger and novelist, Han Han, quipped how easy it was to get high marks. He’d “brainwash” himself, pick a trendy political slogan and spin an extravagantly patriotic yarn. Essay assignments, he said in his book This Generation, “subconsciously tell you that saying things you don’t mean is normal and necessary, that’s the very secret of survival.” Students and aspiring writers must either play the system, or embrace it. This dilemma was aptly summed up by a question in the national college entrance examination in 2015 about the nature of art itself. The answers “Art is a form of ideology that reflects people’s lives, while serving the people at the same time,” and “Art originates from daily life,” were both correct, while “Art depends on innovation,” was not.
Cannier writers, singers, actors and filmmakers in China trade public complicity – membership of state-backed writing groups, not speaking publicly about anything controversial – for a little creative leeway in their work. In particular, authors old and young, well-versed in the official script, carve out distinctive fictional worlds to confront and convey their own struggle with it. For who better to challenge the artifice of governmental stagecraft than fiction writers themselves: as representatives of their country and their industry, it is only through metaphor that the artist can expose the theatricality of the culture they work in.
Yan Lianke, once a “red pen,” for the People’s Liberation Army, regularly draws on his early skills as a propaganda writer. Using a style he calls “mythorealism,” he depicts what he sees as the unreality and absurdity of contemporary China. He refers to the state of a writer in China as being “castrated” and “caged,” but his work offers stunning proof of how generative those handicaps can be. The community of disabled villagers in his 2004 novel Lenin’s Kisses serve as a metaphor for his own plight. Forced to set up a travelling freak show, they ply their disabilities for money after “hot snow” – surreal freezing summer conditions – wipes out all their crops. His fiction, like the strange phenomenon of “hot snow” itself, captures the vital possibility of contradictory ideas.
Sheng Keyi addressed directly the need to critique the state obliquely in her dystopian novel The Metaphor Detox Centre. She imagines the government treating the use of metaphor as a disease. Sufferers, who tend to be educated, idealistic and imaginative, are prescribed metaphor abatement pills and targeted therapy to remove creative parts of their brain. Restrictions and loopholes can lead to fantastic ideas, she said, “but the meticulous censorship system is winter for writers. Nothing grows.”
The climate of censorship in China, often referred to as “the weather,” has unintentionally produced a fascinating landscape of Chinese fiction, from the innovative, the combative to the submissive and the warped. Its diverse and peculiar range is proof that culture cannot, despite political edicts, be determined by ideologues. In these conditions, writers have learnt to sublimate complex experiences and, sometimes, social taboos into imaginative worlds, and fiction emerges as the best, if not only medium to depict reality.
As foreign media visas are rejected or simply not renewed, citizen journalists are arrested and the state media remains a noisy megaphone for party propaganda, fiction offers readers, at home and abroad, a chance to better understand the experience of Chinese people beyond the pantomime of CCP statecraft, and the false binary in the West of China as friend or foe, economic miracle or oppressive authoritarian regime.
The scrutiny that was for decades often focused on writers and artists has now broadened to any public figure seen to challenge, or even disregard the party’s master narrative. This unexpected shift in climate may have come as a shock to previously venerated celebrities such as business magnate Jack Ma or actor Vicky Zhao, but it is an environment that many authors know well, and they have developed their own unique ways of anticipating and quietly challenging it. Which may be needed more than ever. The staging of the Winter Olympics is a time for the government to shore up domestic support and to deflect international attention away from their whitewashed, snow-covered controversies, and it will almost certainly entrench the kind of weather both the snow machines and the CCP seem to have been gearing up for in the past year or so: a big chill.
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