Want to understand China? Read its best science fiction

Fiction or reality.
Fiction or reality.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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In Amusing Ourselves to Death, American cultural critic Neil Postman contrasted the worlds of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, towering dystopian novels published decades ahead of their time. “Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us,” he wrote.

What are the terrors haunting Chinese authors?

Invisible Planets by Ken Liu
Found in translation.
Image: Fair use/Kenliu.name

Chinese science fiction is enjoying a golden age of sorts, with some writers winning international awards, thanks in part to gifted translator Ken Liu. The portrayal of Orwell’s Big Brother and Huxley’s soma pills might have influenced contemporary Chinese sci-fi writers as much as their Western counterparts, but in their accounts, Chinese authors are also wrestling with problems unique to their own country.

Liu warns Western readers against assuming China is always projected as a dystopia in the works. But if there’s one common theme, he says, it’s imbalance. “The anxiety of careening out of balance, of being torn by parts moving too fast and too slow, is felt everywhere,” he told the Guardian last year.

Here’s a collection of Chinese sci-fi that might tell us about what the country is most afraid of. Links go to the English translations of the stories (or the collections that contain them).

GDP obsession

In 2013 Chinese president Xi Jinping distilled his vision of the “great rejuvenation” of his country into the buzz phrase ”the Chinese dream.” But prior to that, journalist Han Song offered his own dark recipe for China’s rise.

In his 2002 novelette My Homeland Does Not Dream, the 51-year-old reporter at state newswire Xinhua depicts a dystopian China in which a drugged, dream-deprived population is forced to work overnight while sleepwalking to meet the government’s GDP targets. Protagonist Little Ji is among the first to unearth the National Darkness Commission’s evil program—which is slated to expand sneakily across the globe—after being warned by an American agent in Beijing. But Ji is reluctant to fight against the government, thanks to his nationalist ideas and deeply rooted distrust of the West.

A high-ranking official (who regularly has sex with Ji’s somnambulistic wife) talks him out of rebelling. “China has lagged behind Western forces for too long. We can’t catch up with them but not use some unconventional approaches,” he tells Ji. “Chinese people cannot dream.”

Han has said that working as a journalist in today’s China is like “inhabiting a science-fiction world.” Many of his sci-fi stories critical of the government are banned in China, including My Homeland Does Not Dream.

Collective amnesia

The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung
“The Fat Years.”
Image: Fair use/Wikimedia

The Chinese government has whitewashed the history of Tiananmen Square so effectively that a great majority of the nation’s youth has never heard of the killing of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Will those memories disappear?

In the 2009 thriller The Fat Years, Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-educated author Chan Koonchung presents, in his own words, a “logical extension of the present system” in China, which includes a collective amnesia about the past. Chen set the story in the then not-too-distant future of 2013, where China is the world’s only major power to emerge from a global economic crisis, thanks to its strong and ruthless authoritarian leaders. Most Chinese people are engulfed with euphoria, having forgotten about a monthlong crackdown that helped bring on the fat years. But a handful of disparate characters are determined to learn what happened in the lost days.

Chan has said that the major difference between The Fat Years and 1984 is that the China of his novel is blessed with “material abundance” and “consumerist freedom,” as opposed to the scarcity-economy status in the Big Brother state.

Chan says the mentality shift among many Chinese that even a sometimes-repressive system might have merits prompted the creation of The Fat Years, which has never been published in China.

Hukou hell

Internal immigration is strictly limited within China, thanks to the hated household registration, or hukou, system. It has made life miserable for many low-wage migrant workers and their families living in big cities, as they have inferior access to government benefits—including public schools and health care—than locals.

Social inequality is at the center of 2012 novella Folding Beijing (full text available), which won author Hao Jingfang a coveted science-fiction writing distinction, the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. In Hao’s story, Beijing residents are divided into three social classes who each live on a different physical surface of the city. They are also separated by time, and in each 48-hour cycle in this world, the 50 million underclass laborers are only allowed to be awake for eight hours at night. The protagonist is waste worker Lao Dao, who smuggles messages between different classes and layers to earn money for his adopted daughter’s sky-high kindergarten fees.

(Quartz interviewed the author last month.)

Youth unemployment

Chinese colleges mint millions of fresh graduates each year, but many of them can’t find jobs amid an economic slowdown. This concerns Chen Qiufan, a realist sci-fi writer in his thirties who’s often dubbed “China’s William Gibson.”

In his 2009 novelette The Year of the Rat, the former Google and Baidu employee imagines a China where unemployed college graduates are recruited by the military to kill a species of genetically modified rats that stand on two feet. Much like the iPhone, this new kind of rat is designed by the West (for use as a pet) and churned out in Chinese factories. But a batch of unqualified rats escaped into the wild and have begun to breed and mutate. Hastily trained, under-equipped graduates like the protagonist have to kill as many of the creatures as they can, so as to find a decent job after leaving the Chinese army.

Chen wants readers to consider the themes of ”the individual and the collective, freedom and control, [and] choice and obedience.”

Smog society

China’s pollution-stricken population now routinely checks the Air Quality Index and wears face masks. But it wasn’t until the US embassy in Beijing began releasing hourly air-quality readings in 2012 that most people became appropriately alarmed about the problem. The embassy’s act was deemed interference in China’s domestic affairs, but it forced officials to launch their own air-monitoring operations.

The 2006 novelette The Smog Society, also by Chen Qiufan, predicts this contest over the public discourse about air pollution. In the story, a Chinese environmental nonprofit has found that the smog index is correlated with people’s happiness index. For example, investors who lost money in a stock market crash would thicken the smog over the bourses. The organization sought to hand over the report to the government, but was dismissed.