How quickly can a whole nation forget about a catastrophe? In Chan Koonchung’s 2009 dystopian novel The Fat Years, China endures a huge, fictional crisis. Two years later, nobody seems to remember it. In reality, Chan realised, it took less than two months for many people in China to leave behind their anger and despair over the coronavirus crisis and the government’s bungled response. Today, they believe China triumphed over the outbreak. “It’s like nothing had happened,” Chan said in an interview. “I’m dumbfounded. How could they make a U-turn so fast?” Chan wrote The Fat Years as a cautionary tale. Today, it seems all too real. A disaster brings suffering and death. Collective amnesia sets in. The Communist Party emerges stronger than ever. Outside China, readers are turning to books capturing the mood of the moment, like Albert Camus’s The Plague. The Fat Years hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of resurgence. For starters, it is banned in China. Its pirated version was a sensation, but that was a decade ago. Few young readers know it. Chan, 67, was born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and made his name in journalism, film and literature in the Chinese-speaking world. For decades, he has kept his hair shoulder-length, parted in the middle and now grey. He has lived in Beijing since 2000 — he is too fascinated by its people to leave, he said — but he has been hunkering down in Hong Kong since late March, when his newest novel, Zero Point, Beijing, was published in Hong Kong by Oxford University Press. The Chinese government may not be happy with it: Its main character is the spirit of a boy killed during the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Though quite a few of his books have been banned in China, Chan had never before taken the precaution of leaving.
In The Fat Years, China plunges into anarchy for a month in 2011, during a second global financial crisis. Looting and arson break out. The Communist Party imposes martial law and jails and executes many, including the innocent. The book begins two years later. While the world still wallows in crisis, China’s people are happy and prosperous.
The country is ascendant. Starbucks is a Chinese name. The violence has been mysteriously forgotten. The main characters want to find out what happened. Chan said he wrote The Fat Years after witnessing Beijing’s exuberance in 2008. It was a year of tragedies: a deadly winter, a Tibetan uprising, a devastating earthquake, the global financial crisis and the arrest of the prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo. But many people in China seemed to remember only the Beijing Olympics and how China came out of the financial crisis stronger than Western countries. Even the elite intellectuals enjoyed what they saw as a new openness in business and online. Chan wanted to throw cold water on that wishful thinking. He believed that the party intends to govern forever and will do anything to survive. Since then, as the party under Xi Jinping has tightened its grip on power, Chan has seen his friends detained, jailed and silenced. But nothing prepared him for how quickly many people decided to forget about the suffering during the pandemic. The Chinese internet was filled with grief and outrage when the epidemic first broke out. By the time the virus spread to Europe and the US, Beijing boasted that it had “turned the tide” and urged other countries to learn from its playbook. Public outrage was directed away from the local officials who covered up the outbreak. Instead, it was directed at critics like Fang Fang, the author who kept an online diary about Wuhan under lockdown and demanded accountability. China is a country of bad memories. In the last century it endured civil war, invasion, famine, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Its people have been urged to look to the future. That worked when China was growing and opening up. Now its growth is slowing and its openness is vanishing. Nevertheless, in The Fat Years and in real life, people still choose to forget. But aren’t the Chinese victims of information control themselves? I asked. With more information, they might wake up one day. “Yes, they are victims. But they sometimes play the roles of perpetrator and victim at the same time,” said Chan. He cited the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, who brutalised imagined enemies. Few later apologised to their victims, Chan said. “If the Chinese don’t try to hold the power accountable after waking up,” he said, “the rulers can always change the narratives based on their needs.” As for my question about why The Fat Years didn’t predict China’s darker turn, Chan said he hadn’t imagined it. But I saw a hint of it in the novel, when the party official sneers at the naïveté of his captors.
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