To \”rush through the yellow light\” is a reference to a common practice for the more daring Chinese journalists who write about sensitive topics before state officials flash the red light of censorship. That’s what happened to “The Fat Years,” a dystopian thriller by Chan Koon-Chung, which is now officially banned by the Chinese government.
Born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, Koon-Chung was a reporter for an English newspaper before starting the “City” magazine in 1976. The accomplished screenwriter and board member of Greenpeace International (2008-2011) routinely finds his Google account blocked, and as I began researching this column, I was not surprised to find the author’s Wikipedia listing reportedly deleted.
A review in the South China Morning Post called it “1984 with a sense of humor.” Truth be told, The Fat Years sounds like any other political thriller, albeit with a disturbing thought that the events may not be too far from reality. The story unfolds inBeijing in 2013.China is the world’s only super-power after the U.S. dollar dropped 30% in a single day in 2010, an event which sinks the world’s economies into chaos; onlyChina comes out on top. An entire month has gone missing from official records, though- the exact period between the world economic fallout and the start ofChina’s “Golden Age” of prosperity. No one has any memory of it, and, more importantly, no one seems to care. Lao Chen is among those content, being perfectly happy at getting his daily tea at the now Chinese-owned Starbucks.
But that’s when a small group of friends decide to expose the truth behind the cheerful amnesia that grips the Chinese nation. When they kidnap a government official and force him to reveal the secret what they learn about their leaders and their fellow citizens shocks their very sense of self.
The Chinese-language version of The Fat Years was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009, and while only one publisher came forward (who only wanted to contact the author about an earlier work), the book was never officially released in China. Nevertheless, news magazines and mainstream media openly wrote reviews of The Fat Years, prompting readers to search for the novel.
Then something astonishing happened. Someone either scanned the book or typed the text of the entire novel and put it on the internet inside the state-controlled Chinese firewall. Word quickly spread and many read the novel before it was deleted.
International interest has risen, too, and in 2011 rights were purchased to publish the novel in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Catallan, and Hebrew.
Koon-Chung himself, in an article for The Huffington Post, had this to say about the issue: ”So far, the Chinese authorities have not come to me. I don\’t know exactly why, but I think the fact that \”The Fat Years\” is a fiction about the future and was not officially published inChina may have spared me some trouble. InChina, whether you are a dissident or not is ultimately not up to you but up to the state. When the state begins to persecute you, you are labeled a dissident. Until then, you are just someone who is exercising your constitutional rights – yes I mean the current Constitution of the Chinese People\’s Republic – to free expression.”
Again, I am reminded just how thin the line is between fantasy and reality.
While the world continues to push back from the all-too-real economic crisis of 2008, and while the book’s fictional collapse of 2010 never took place, the main themes still reverberate with a shocking truth that it can happen at any moment. Anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant and living in a bubble.
Among the more intriguing ideas presented in the novel is society’s ability to forget brutality in the wake of prosperity- that, as Lu Xun put it, a good hell is better than a false paradise.
At its heart The Fat Years reminds us that we should honor and respect our individuality and think twice about blindly following leaders who promise happiness while they steal our freedoms out from under us. Do we, as this seemingly fictional China does, continue on a path where joy, creature comforts, and the acquisition of wealth shields us within the bubble of self indulgence, blissfully unaware that the cost all along was our personal liberties and our very identities?
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Readingfor Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html
Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post, NPR, LA Times
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/DeepForestProductions