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Novelist Chan Koonchung on China’s ‘Lack of Trust’

“I started to think about this book in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics,” says Chan Koonchung of his dystopian novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (The Fat Years). “2008 was the beginning of a new chapter for China, which is when I realized I had a story: the quake in Sichuan, the Olympic torch, the market crash, the Olympics, the meltdown in the West … It was a very eventful time,” he says. His novel takes the reader just beyond the present time, fast-forwarding to 2013 and to a China that has encountered no obstacles to its formidable economic growth. The world’s democracies have basically collapsed one after another, following a devastating financial crisis. China, its authoritarian regime strengthened even further by economic success, is now the only important player left standing, triumphant in its imperviousness to those who nagged it about the need to respect human rights and basic freedoms. Fearful of chaos but enamored of the joys of consumerism, the population shuns all involvement in politics and is eerily happy: all is well, if a little bit off, in the realm of “90% freedom.”

Shengshi was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009 and gained worldwide acclaim (the rights have been sold for at least sixteen languages), but was promptly deemed unprintable in China: “Many people approached me inquiring about a mainland edition. I told them to read the book first, and never heard from them again,” Chan says. Still, his novel has had a wide readership in the country, thanks to pirated PDF versions accessible on the Internet, and to the many mainland visitors to Hong Kong who returned to the mainland with copies to distribute among friends and colleagues. The Chinese blogger Li Jun wrote that she could divide her acquaintances into two categories, “those who have read Shengshi and those who have not.”

Before The Fat Years, Chan, who was the editor of Hong Kong’s popular City Magazine, had written other books, screenplays, and countless articles. But it was his vision of a gloating China where a stupefied population consumes with abandon and has mysteriously forgotten a whole month (during which something unspeakable seems to have happened), that has put his name firmly on the map.

In a Beijing bookshop and café, still pleasantly surprised by the international enthusiasm his book has generated, Chan looks out the window with a bemused and intent expression that seems the perfect metaphor for his way of observing the country: he is both an insider and an outsider. Chan was born in Shanghai in 1952, raised in Hong Kong, studied briefly in the U.S., spent many years in Taiwan, and moved to Beijing in 2000. Now, although he says “Beijing was never a lovely city,” he has decided to stay there for the foreseeable future. “China’s ascendancy has only started,” he says. “I want to see what happens next, how it will all play out.”

“In my book, I have imagined a pretty good political scenario, all things considered, but of course things can go in many different ways. There are a number of interest groups active today, from the military to the security apparatus, and sometimes the state is hijacked by one or the other. Yet they can also be rather pragmatic,” he says. Even if Chan is not entirely optimistic about the future of China, even though he sees all the downsides of its polluted chaotic capital, right now Beijing is the only place where he feels he can find the inspiration for his new novel.

Given that he is so clear-eyed about the city’s shortcomings, what is the main challenge he sees in Chinese society? “Trust. The lack of trust among people is evident. Now the authorities are trying to revive traditional values but it is being done in a very selective way. It is worrying: trust used to be a big thing in Chinese culture, but there have been so many missed chances for better governance,” says Chan. “Ten years ago, there was a lot of talk about opening the publishing industry to non-state players. Nobody is even discussing this now. Another big topic used to be the possibility of the judiciary’s not being paid by local governments, and judges being paid by the Justice Ministry instead of the local mayors. That, too, is no longer discussed.”

In spite of all this, Chan says, and of the very numerous social and political problems that besiege the country today, the biggest surprise for him has been the way in which those once critical of the government have changed: “In the 80s, people did not buy into the Party. Today, the protests, the angry gatherings, are all one-issue movements against one ministry or the local government. It is so puzzling: in the 80s people were very suspicious, they were regaining some of their skepticism, and the brightest ones were not at all interested in joining the Party. Now, not only do people want to join the Party, but they go to great lengths to prove their loyalty,” he says. Even more puzzling is the relative speed at which all this has happened, and how much the current system has modified people’s behavior. “Communism is very alien to this society, Communist rule has been very disruptive, yet it is still very present: the Leninist structure, the habit of informing on one another … It is heroic, glorious, patriotic to be an informer, even today. It all goes back to the issue of a fundamental lack of trust among people.”

Not that Chan Koonchung is happy just observing all this from the window, with a writer’s eye: for years, he has been very active on the environmental front, sitting on the board of Greenpeace. Recently, he founded a group called Minjian International, an NGO that gathers people from various countries for occasional tea-time seminars. Once a month or so, Chan will gather a bunch of Chinese journalists, businessmen and women, friends, other writers, artists, etc., at a coffee shop to meet with their counterparts, either visiting or residing in China, from a single country at a time. Then, over tea, they will start an informal chat about how the two see each other. “The idea,” he says, “is to alert Chinese intellectuals to what China is doing, in terms of its footprint around the world, in Africa and Southeast Asia, India, Japan … Many Chinese are not concerned about what China is doing outside of its borders, and I would like to open this up for discussion.”