The Fat Years
Translation copyright © 2011 by Michael S. Duke
Preface copyright © 2011 by Julia Lovell
Zhongguancun, China’s Silicon Valley in northwest Beijing, is a fine place to visit these days. In the thirty-odd years since China abandoned Maoism for market reforms, glass- and marble-fronted malls and five-star hotels, brimful of balloons, promotions, and the promise of the good life, have sprung up all over the capital; and Zhongguancun has its fair share of such high-rent establishments. The district’s grand shopping plaza sprawls across two hundred thousand square meters packed with boutiques, supermarkets, cinemas, eateries, and eager consumers. The area happens also to be the center of China’s elite institutions of higher education, home to China’s most privileged scholars and students. With its glittering temples to self-gratification and to state-approved academic endeavor, Zhongguancun is one of the flagships of the contemporary Chinese dream.
On December 23, 2010, at one of Zhongguancun’s police stations, a less harmonious episode was taking place. That evening, a Beijing law professor called Teng Biao decided to pay a visit to the mother of a friend. The friend, it so happened, was a human rights lawyer called Fan Yafeng, currently being held under house arrest by the authorities. Since Fan’s mother was at home on her own, Teng thought it would be courteous to look in on her. As soon as he entered the apartment, however, a plainclothes police officer stormed in and loudly demanded his ID, pushing him for good measure. Not long after, a gang of Public Security reinforcements arrived and dragged Teng back down the stairs (confiscating his glasses in the process, leaving him extremely shortsighted) and into a police van, and drove him to a nearby police station. There, more violence ensued-in which Teng’s hand was injured, his tie was violently yanked off, his legs were kicked, and he was sworn at-while he vainly quoted his citizen’s constitutional rights. “Why waste words on this sort of person?” one police officer asked in front of him. “Let’s beat him to death, dig a hole to bury him in, and be done with it.” Eventually they let him go but only, Teng suspected, because they were a little intimidated by his academic status and, more importantly perhaps, because a timely tweet-before the police tried to remove his mobile phone-had gathered some of his supporters outside the police station. Teng was lucky: one of his peers, the lawyer Gao Zhisheng, has been imprisoned for years, multiply beaten, burnt with cigarettes, and tortured with electric shocks on account of his advocacy on behalf of groups persecuted by the regime; another human rights advocate, Ni Yulan, has been crippled by her police interrogators and is currently under house arrest in a Beijing hotel lacking electricity and running water.
A short walk from Zhongguancun’s glass and neon palaces, another face of the contemporary Chinese miracle was showing itself. Welcome to the world of
In early 2011, two years before the novel begins, the world is rocked by a second financial crisis that makes the shock of 2008 resemble a mere wobble, and during which the dollar loses a third of its value in a single day. Somehow sidestepping the economic Armageddon that hits the West, the People’s Republic of China instead immediately enters what its communist government officially names a “Golden Age” of prosperity and contentment. No one in a placid Beijing of 2013 seems to have anything negative to say about the country; all unhappy memories have been erased, as urbanites busy themselves with self-gratification. Our guide to this paradise on earth is Chen, a Taiwanese-Hong Kong writer who has over the past few years made China his new home. He spends his time socializing, going to literary events and parties, browsing in bookshops, or sipping Lychee Black Dragon Latte in Beijing’s Starbucks (which, following the collapse of the dollar, has had to sell out to a Taiwanese snacks consortium). “I felt so spiritually and materially satisfied,” he summarizes, “and my life was so incomparably blessed, that I began to experience an overwhelming feeling of good fortune such as I never had before.” China’s awkward squad-the minority of critics who have poked and jibed at the regime since public opposition became possible again after Mao’s death-has been intimidated, isolated, or mainstreamed into silence, leaving an intellectual establishment dominated by complacent national treasures, trendy young things, or fascistic Party ideologues. The novel’s atmosphere of overwhelming self-congratulation is resisted only by a handful of individuals determined to remember less happy times and to ask why everyone else has forgotten them. We meet an old flame of Chen’s, Little Xi, a drop-out lawyer-turned-democratic-protestor of the 1980s; Fang Caodi, a hippie globetrotter who is looking for China’s “lost month”-the four hellish weeks of martial law imposed after the economic collapse of 2011 in which countless civilians died, and which is now mysteriously wiped from public memory; and Zhang Dou, a former victim of government-condoned slave labor.
It was, Chan Koonchung has observed, China’s current situation that inspired the novel. “I got the idea for the book from responses to the financial crisis of 2008-I’d been plotting a novel about China for some time, but that gave me a moment, a focus. That year, as the West reeled from the financial mess while China escaped unscathed, it seemed that everyone-from officials down to ordinary urbanites-began to feel that China was doing well for itself, that there was nothing more to learn from the West, that China can argue back… The public have now bought enthusiastically into China’s authoritarian model.” The construction of an authoritarian harmony has always been implicit in communist theory and practice, but this became official policy after 2007, when President Hu Jintao exhorted “all people [to] coexist harmoniously, love and help each other, encourage each other, and make an effort to contribute to the building of a harmonious society.”
In recent years, China’s communist government has indeed succeeded-perhaps beyond its wildest dreams-in muffling critical voices. The 1980s were choppy times for the regime, as China’s chattering classes debated the disasters of Maoism, and whether there was any place for Marxism in economic and political liberalization. As China stumbled toward a market economy and as inflation rocketed throughout the decade, the conviction grew that the government’s reforms weren’t working and the leadership had not persuaded the populace that they could lead. The most avant-garde rebels-such as the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo-speculated that China could experience “great historical change” only if it had been colonized like Hong Kong was after the Opium War of 1839-42. (“China is so big,” he added as a provocative after-thought, “that naturally it would need three hundred years of colonization to become like Hong Kong.”) From the middecade onward, urban China was given pause, every year, by student protests-over the lack of government transparency; over the rising cost of food; over the rats in their dorms- culminating in the two-month occupation of Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989. The demonstrations’ bloody denouement was an international and domestic PR disaster for China’s communist government: while Western politicians and overseas Chinese called for economic and political sanctions, hundreds of thousands of sobbing Chinese people came out in protest in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Western cities, comparing the People’s Republic to Nazi Germany and spray-painting the national flag with swastikas.
Fast-forward to the present day, and China’s communist rulers have effectively neutralized many of their former opponents. “For years,” as one analyst has observed, “the Beijing regime has stayed in power using a basic bargain with its citizens-tolerate our authoritarian rule and we’ll make you rich.” Confounding Western prophets of communist apocalypse, China’s post-1989 leaders accelerated economic reforms, while backpedaling on political