It’s been a while since I’ve had a chilling feeling after reading a book, but that happened with The Fat Years. It is a novel, but contains so much truth that it is almost like a primer about contemporary China. The fact that it first came out in 2009 in Chinese and is still very relevant indicates the level of the HK-raised author’s knowledge and foresight.That it is banned in mainland China (proudly stated in the book’s subtitle) tells you how sensitive the contents are.
The story takes place in 2013, a time of great prosperity and happiness in China. This period of Chinese greatness started just two years ago when a global financial crisis erupted, plunging the West into chaos and enabling China to become the world’s undisputed economic and cultural superpower. Lao Chen, a Taiwan-HK author living in Beijing, suddenly meets two old friends separately – Xiao Li, a former judge turned Internet activist and Fang Caodi, an older world-wise traveler. Both seem a bit crazy. Both are convinced that something happened to Chinese society which made people happier but also perpetuated a false reality. Fang is convinced of a forgotten month that existed between the global crisis and the start of China’s golden period, something that goes against all official accounts. Lao Chen meets a high-ranking government official who he bonds with after late-night movie viewings at a friend’s place. Soon, Xiao Li flees Beijing and Lao Chen and Fang search for her. Eventually they concoct an audacious scheme to find out the truth, which leads to an extremely disturbing finding.
The China in the book reflects much of what is already true – a rising China with a massive economy that by one measure is already the world’s biggest and is carrying out ambitious global and regional institutional, trade, investment and financial projects. Some of the measures taken by the government in the book have actually happened – bureaucratic restrictions have been lifted on several industries to encourage private businesses, private investment is being sought, even in state-owned ventures, and a sustained crackdown on corruption and official extravagance has been launched. This has also been accompanied by a reduction on media, online and academic freedoms. Of course, not everything in the book is true such as an alliance with Japan that helped China break the Western geopolitical domination and 15% annual growth rate.
How the writer, Chen Koonchung, who was born in Shanghai, grew up in Hong Kong and ironically lives in Beijing, managed to predict these is impressive. He shows a keen understanding of political, economic and social aspects of Chinese society which he links together solidly to show how things work and the associated strong points and contradictions. One might even wonder if he has some high-placed contacts.
In the book, his depiction of a confident China with happy citizens that have largely forgotten about the terrible events in the past is not that far off, at least in Beijing and Shanghai. Most telling though is that regardless of the events, schemes and incidents in the book (and in real life), the Communist party’s goal is always to stay in power and keep control. In the party’s eyes, the party is the country and that is something people should realize about China. I admit that in my more naive moments, I did not fully realize this either.
The book is not without a few faults. Lao Chen is not exactly the most compelling or interesting character. He is driven more by his feelings for Xiao Li than by her and Fang’s belief that society has suffered a major shift. Meanwhile, the end is driven by a long expository dialogue that could have been shorter. The characters are mostly predictable and even the twist at the end is not too surprising.
There are convincing arguments both for and against the party’s current rule. Living standards have risen for a lot of Chinese, who enjoy “90 percent” freedom in their lives, which a character says. The current system is the best for China, a government official in the book states. It would be easy to see some truth in this, when one reads about the country’s rising political profile, staggering economic figures, bilateral trade deals and mega-acquisitions done by Chinese firms.
But the most powerful counter-argument is made by Xiao Li – “Why is such a powerful nation so weak that it can’t accept even the smallest amount of criticism?” That is a simple but strong criticism of China – that if it was truly so prosperous and strong, the authorities would not need to resort to so much censorship and control, which the book’s banning on the mainland is a small example of.
Even so, the book raises a striking and disturbing question – what if people prefer a false paradise rather than a good hell?