Chan Koon Chung’s previous novel, The Fat Years, was set in a gently dystopian Beijing of 2013, when a whole month is missing from the Chinese public’s awareness, and everyone is inexplicably happy.
Since it first appeared in 2009, the novel has enjoyed cult success in both Chinese and English translation, even becoming, as Julia Lovell notes in her preface, a chic take-home gift from society hostesses in mainland China.
It has shades of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although the setting of The Fat Years may not be as brutal as either of those. Certainly, to read it now is eerie, so much has reality caught up with Chan’s fiction.
The novel, which is banned on the mainland, openly questions China’s capacity for selective amnesia, and the moral cost of the nation’s rise. In January, the Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-raised author no doubt ruffled more feathers with the publication in Chinese of his latest novel, which translates as Naked Lives.
It addresses the troubled Tibetan-Han Chinese relationship through the character of Champa, a driver from Lhasa who becomes the kept man of a successful and mature businesswoman in Beijing. He ends up falling in love with her rebellious daughter, an animal activist intent on saving pet dogs from becoming black market meat.
Random House will publish the book in English translation next year, as The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver.
What inspired your new book?
I have always wanted to write about the Tibetan-Han Chinese relationship. It is very complicated, almost like a love-hate affair between two people. The relationship involves all kinds of dependency, manipulation and expectation.
Does it bother you that your books are banned in mainland China?
I know before I write my books that they may not be publishable. If I wanted them to be, I would have to practice self-censorship or ignore certain topics, and I don’t want to do that. My books may not be overtly political or trying to advocate something against the state…
Nonetheless, your last book, The Fat Years, contains some ideas that were no doubt considered subversive. What compelled you to write it?
I was trying to write the “new normal” in China. That is, China as a very strong state, with a big affluent class and a powerful government that has relented relatively in crushing dissent. I think that became the new perception of China after 2008, both by the Chinese themselves and outsiders.
I had been trying to write a novel about China since moving from Hong Kong to Beijing in 2000. I had started many, but they didn't feel right. When I finally wrote The Fat Years in 2009, I wasn't sure people agreed with my idea of China, so I placed the story in 2013 so that I could use fictional events to make my points.
We’re in 2013 now. I think many people have been frightened by China’s rising power.
Yes, exactly. China's ascent has been frightening to [people around the world], because it has come about all of a sudden. If you think about China ten years ago, it was a different country. And it has become so powerful, almost out of nowhere.
China, to me, is like an oversized teenager. It can be quite awkward sometimes, and may hurt those standing nearby without meaning to... China is still figuring out what it should do [about its international image].
The traditional Chinese view of China is that it is the Celestial Kingdom, at the centre of the world. They don't care about countries that are too far away, just about those close to them.
The logic you seem to support in The Fat Years is that China has the government it deserves.
I think China has the system of government it deserves. Most people hope that under the present system, there will be a better kind of governance. That is what we are asking, instead of wanting a big change.
Do you think it would be dangerous to change the system?
Nobody can see what the next step should be. It is a country of 1.3 billion people. Of course, those in power are using this uncertainty to convince the public to stay loyal [to the Chinese Communist Party] or there will be chaos; to say to the people, 'Nobody can handle China better than us.'
In my book I make the point that there is 90% freedom. What more could we want?The state is holding back on political freedom, but there is a lot of personal freedom in China now. Thirty years ago, you couldn't make your own career and move around to different cities; you couldn't even choose your spouse.
Going back to Champa, what about the ethnic conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang?
China has successfully assimilated many of [its minority groups], but regarding Tibet and Xinjiang, the government has done bad things. Their policies are not good, and I can't see an end to it. In a sense, they’re getting stricter and stricter. It is almost as though they have given up trying to appear as the good guy. Before, China tried to at least seem like an egalitarian and respectful nation.
Are you optimistic about China’s future, in that sense?
I think we will see more of the same for the time being. Regardless, China's rise will be unstoppable. Even if its policies are mediocre, it will grow. Whether this giant turns out to be good or bad – that remains to be seen.