An Orwellian criticism against the current Chinese system tends to impress people more with its political posture than its analytical depth--an outspokenness well worth of such adjectives as "brave", "earnest", or "bold", but seldom "intelligent". This is however not true with Chan Koon-Chung's fascinating new novel, "The Fat Years". Though it strikes an unmistakable Orwellian note with a hue of fantasy, Chan's book remains deeply realistic and intellectually gratifying. Interwoven into the main plot (see Product Intro above) are personal stories (often traced back to more than 30 years ago when the reform led by Deng first started) of the ten or so main characters, including a politburo-level official, two princeling business tycoons, an on-line dissident with her neo-con college son and his mentors, a female social climber, a hippie globetrotter, a high-price prostitute, a former slave worker, and "I", a Taiwanese Hong Kong writer living in Beijing who has connections with intellectuals and business tycoons. Many of the political and academic characters are portrayed so close to their prototypes in real life that a well-informed Chinese reader would be able to come up with specific names in mind. Like many sympathetic analyses of Chinese society, and indeed any good analysis of whatever, the book builds a strong case for its opponent, if there is an opponent at all, by setting into dilemma the choice between a "fake paradise" (that is, a strong authoritarian state) and a "good hell" (that is, a would-be democracy) in the mouth of "I", and with the candid revelation by He Dong-Sheng, the hijacked politburo-level official, who earnestly believes that the authoritarian methods are justified through the end they've brought--a miraculous enlargement of Chinese domestic market in the event of a 2011 US financial meltdown to make China the No.1 economy, and China's final reconciliation with Japan to create a lucrative West-Pacific trade-zone. An outcome this "fat" may seem a bit exaggerated, but it helps to bring the underlying arguments and counter-arguments clearer and sharper, arguments which do circulate among business, political, and intellectual circles in China.
In this vein, it is worth highlighting that the novel provides a rare glimpse into the psychology of the so-called "Chinese Straussians". (Evan Osnos in The New Yorker and more recently Mark Lilla in New Republic have coverage on the issue.) I take it as the most intriguing part of the novel. This is when "I" encounter Wei Guo, a "neo-con" college kid who can't wait to tell "me" his political ambition and his plan to work in the--in his view "romantic"--Party Propaganda Ministry. "What is spiritual is romantic," explains Wei Guo to "me", "the Propaganda Ministry controls people's mind and excites their spirits, therefore it is romantic to work for the Propaganda Ministry." Like his definition of "the romantic", Wei Guo's political ambition is not without a theorized Weltanschauung of "the political", however adolescent and misconceived it indeed is. This world view, Wei Guo reveals, has been instilled in him by his college mentors who initiated him into the so-called "SS reading group" in which seminal works of two German political thinkers, Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, are fervently discussed within a cohort of young scholars, business tycoons, Party officials, army generals, and state-own think-tanks members. Deeming themselves to be intellectual elites whose ultimate task is to educate the powerful, Wei Guo's mentors join the Party line in rejecting liberalism together with all its implications. Their "d'accord" with the status quo, however, stops just there. The main problem they find with the Party policy, according to Wei Guo, is that it highlights universal love, not hate. But without enemy and hate, explains Wei Guo, there's no possibility for a nation to have any spirit, and a nation cannot be great, or simply cannot be, without its enemy in antenna and its spirited part on duty. In real life, this apparently Schmitt'ean anthropology is coupled with a Straussian dose of a-historical interpretation and rhetorical elevation (referred to by Wei Guo in an apt metaphor as the "Zauberflöte" which attracts fledgling grad students in the Humanities) of Graeco-Roman classics on the one hand, and Confucian classics on the other. Thus in the novel, Wei Guo confesses, or rather brags, that his initiation into the reading group was facilitated by his informing against a college professor as "black-painting traditional Classics" because the teacher dared to question in class the veracity of "Gong Yang Exegesis", an allegorical and a-historical Confucian interpretive tradition favoured by the Neo-cons. This far, the story sounds pretty much like what's really going on in Chinese academia, what happens next, however, seems more of a fantasy, but as a payoff, also more interesting. At the end of Mr. He's revelation, he curiously mentions a group of "terrorists" who mounted a thwarted attack on a state-secret chemical factory. The factory was at the time producing a kind of "feel-good" drug to be put into public water-supply to make people "high" and less attentive to their daily grievances. These terrorists were students from leading universities in Beijing who belonged, says He, to a "fascist" group, and they knew of the factory through their partisans who had penetrated into high positions in the Party. Their objective, explains He to the perplexed simple-minded rights-activists who hijacked him, was to render people more aggressive by cutting off their supply of dosed happiness. They were diametrically opposed to the government's policy of reconciling with Japan, among others, says He, and their initiative in doing all these was nothing more than their will to power.
Unlike his ambivalent attitude towards most characters in the novel whatever political positions they maintain, the author's dislike of Wei Guo is all but manifest. However disquieting Mr. He's revelation sounds to a sensible person, there's still something charming in his intelligence, consistency, and his passionate way of story-telling, which all but reminds one of Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov. In Wei Guo, however, we find someone who consistently mistakes the romantic for the political; whose position oscillates between conflicting poles: he's even ready to inform against his dissident mother disregarding his outspoken allegiance to the Confucian "Tradition", according to which it is a taboo to disrespect one's teachers, let alone parents. Should Wei Guo remind one of anything "Dostoyevsky", it would be Pyotr Verkhovensky among "The Devils".
As it is easy for people in the West to miss the point of Chan and see in him yet another bold dissident counting down the collapse of the Communist Party, it is also tempting to underrate the likes of Wei Guo simply as stereotype neo-rights, fascists, nationalists, etc. without understanding a deeper fact--according to the Chinese Straussians, it is precisely the West's moralizing stance towards the Chinese as if they were un-cultured barbarians that confirms the presence of "the political". If it is allowed for the West to criticize China purely out of its need to construct its self-consciousness, they reason, it is also right for the Chinese to wage an "ideological counterattack". Indeed, the historically traumatized Chinese ego pumped up by recent patriotic education needs a lot more to satisfy than a merely defensive post-colonialism. The Neo-cons may be mistken if they really take ideologies as causes rather than effects of some underlying mechanism, but their mistake is not without a reason. Things with a persisting reason, be they Neo-conservatism, or Chinese political system, tend not to disappear overnight, and people have to either live with it or start questioning the underlying causes and initiatives and see what they can do about them. Chan's new novel is such a questioning effort, for the west, and more importantly, for the Chinese themselves.