Friday, March 5, 2010

China 2013: A Quick Review

The Prosperous Time: China 2013, by Chen Guanzhong, Oxford University Press (China), HK$70.00.

In a country where social science fiction is currently rare, this neo-Orwellian novel by a Hong Kong author who has lived in Beijing for a decade is quite phenomenal. Set in 2013's Beijing, the story follows Mr. Chen, a writer whose life experience and surname resemble that of the author, as he attempts to track down and pursue the frequently disappearing love of his life, a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi who distrusts the government and whose son is a Party informant. Meanwhile, Chen's old acquaintance, Fang Chaodi, a man in his mid-60s with a complex background, involves Xiaoxi in a different kind of search – for a lost month from the spring of 2011. Both efforts are unpopular and run into political and social obstacles. Suspicious of the government's foul play, Fang, Xiaoxi and another friend eventually kidnap a Party politburo member for questioning. In the novel's final revelations, we learn that there have been 28 bloody days preceding China's prosperous time. However, though the Chinese government has in fact done tricks to successfully create prosperity at a time of world doom, the populace's selective memory loss is not due to one such trick.

What sets the novel apart is its attempt at maintaining an Orwellian perspective against the one-party autocracy while bringing the setting up-to-date: the dark gruesome milieu in Orwell's 1984 is replaced with a jubilant celebratory mood. This proves to be both an accomplishment and a challenge for the plot. The storyline hangs together well for most of the book, but falls short in the end. It seems as if the author had set out to tackle the paradox of why an authoritarian government should be advocated by the majority of people, but ends up being persuaded by his own antagonist of the regime's legitimacy. Part of this weakness might have been caused by missed opportunities in the plot, for which I will attempt a more detailed analysis in a formal review. Despite this neo-Orwellian novel's unintended counter-Orwellian ending, it nonetheless leaves the reader troubled by the possibility of widespread public support for a non-democratic regime and thus the failure of democracy's universal value.

Update: related link - "The Return of Politically Charged Science Fiction in China" (Foreign Policy)

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