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China’s Orwellian Future

Categories: East Asia, China, Arts & Culture, Citizen Media, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Politics

John Chan (陳冠中), an author from Hong Kong who is currently living in Beijing, has written a novel entitled The Fat Years: China, 2013 [1] (盛世 – 中國, 2013). The story happens in 2013, when China enters a new era of material prosperity and everyone is happy, while the western world enters another financial crisis. The novel is compared with George Orwell’s classical political fable, 1984 [2]. It is already published in Hong Kong and scheduled for publication in Taiwan, but will not be published in mainland China.

China in 2013

How will China look like in 2013? Zhang Tiezhi [3] (张铁志) of Taiwan’s China Times summarizes the social conditions as seen in the novel, which, to certain extents, are what we are witnessing now:


Western countries faced another economic crisis in 2011 and entered a prolonged ‘ice and fire’ period of stagnation.  China, unharmed, becomes even stronger and more confident than today. People are happy, or even ‘high’. The Age of China has arrived.


The main character said: ‘I know China still has a lot of problems. But think about it, the developed capitalist countries, headed by the US, have destroyed themselves. They have only recovered from the 2008 crisis for a few years, and are now in deep troubles again… Only China can spare itself of the crisis… Not only has China rewritten the rules of the global economy, it has also maintained social harmony. You cannot but appreciate this.’


In the year of 2013 described by the book, Beijing’s most important humanities bookshop, Wansheng, has closed down. The important liberal magazine, Southern Weekend, has ceased to exist. You cannot find in any bookstores books about the anti-right campaigns and Cultural Revolution. Newspapers which recorded past periods of social instability are all gone. The few people who insist on having a memory of history are marginalized, or even treated as insane.


In 2013, so the book describes, China will also promote a set of national strategies, summarized in 10 points:

1. 一党领导的民主专政;
2. 稳定第一的依法治国;
3. 执政为民的威权政府;
4. 国家调控的市场经济;
5. 央企主导的公平竞争;
6. 中国特色的科学发展;
7. 以我为主的和谐外交;
8. 单民族主权的多族群共和;
9. 后西方后普世的主体思想;
10. 中华文明举世无双的民族复兴

1. Democratic dictatorship under one-party rule;
2. Rule-of-law with stability as top priority;
3. An authoritarian government which rules for the people;
4. A state-controlled market economy;
5. Fair competition dominated by state-owned enterprises;
6. Scientific development with Chinese characteristics;
7. A self-centered harmonious foreign diplomacy;
8. A single-ethnicity sovereignty with multiple ethnicities;
9. Post-western and post-universal values;
10. Renaissance of the matchless Chinese culture

This is reminiscent of ‘Newspeak [4]’, which Liang Wendao [5] (梁文道) commented:


Seems there is nothing special about them, but on closer look, each point is contradictory with itself. If it is state-owned enterprises dominated, how can it be fair? If it is scientific, how can it be Chinese? But never mind, in time these contradictory words will all be unified. After a while, people will become more familiar with them, wouldn’t they? By that time, the so-called issues of human rights and freedom will become unimportant.

Happiness without freedom?

Will freedom and human rights become irrelevant in China? In a thoughtful twitter broadcast organized by Du Ting [6] (杜婷) this month, the author himself and a Professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Zhou Baosong (周保松), touched upon the issues of freedom:

周保松: 对历史的反思就是深化对问题的理解。盛世到底怎样,这样的盛世是否值得追求?我们需要思考。自由为何对我们重要?自由不是独立在幸福以外,自由就是幸福的一 部分。

Zhou: Reflections on history is essential to deepening our understanding of problems. Is such kind of ‘fat years’ what we are after? We need to think about that. Why is freedom so important to us? Freedom is not independent of happiness, freedom is part of happiness.

陈冠中: 幸福和自由不对等,剩下没有自由的幸福,世界是否可以自然持续?在內地可以看到,官话套话越来越厉害。历史上曾经有过,八十年代进行过反思,认为影响了中国的发展。巴金说了,说真话,但是这些年又回来了,没有了说真话的自由。

Chan: With the inequality between happiness and freedom, resulting in happiness without freedom, could the world sustain itself naturally? In mainland, we can see that official ‘newspeaks’ are becoming more and more common. In the 1980s, the Chinese society went through a period of self-reflections. Ba Jin [7] spoke out, and spoke the truth. But in these years, we have fallen back. We have lost the freedom to speak the truth.

陈冠中: 为何只要用的词、字语不同,就不高兴。我们知道,如果只有正面的反馈,没有负面的反馈,是非常糟糕的。中国只有一个声音,丧失了纠正错误的能力。所以自由非常重要。

Chan: Why does [the government] become unhappy once the words used are inappropriate? We know that it would be terrible if there are only positive, but no negative, feedbacks. If China only has one voice, it will lose the ability to self-correct. Therefore, freedom is very important.

Lord Patten [8], the last governor of Hong Kong, said China promoted the idea that one could get rich without needing democracy. But he did not think that the Chinese model of ‘authoritarian, illiberal, proto-capitalism’ would win out, because it lacked the ‘safety valves’ provided by democracies during tough times. As Winston Churchill famously said, ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.’

[Note: publishingPERSPECTIVES [1] contains more extensive translations of news and commentaries related to the novel.]