Chan Koonchung's dystopian vision of China in 2013

By Stephanie Hegarty
BBC World Service

  • Published
Chan Koonchung
Image caption,
The Fat Years is Chan Koonchung's first novel to be translated into English

Amid one of the biggest crackdowns on dissent in years, a dystopian science-fiction novel has become an unlikely rallying point for China's disaffected.

Shanghai-born Chan Koonchung's thriller The Fat Years is a thinly veiled critique of life in modern China.

Set in 2013, its presents a world in which China has taken over as the leading economy, and the people are revelling in their prosperity. A sense of euphoria has descended, and it is coupled with collective amnesia about the past.

However, a disparate group of characters is immune to the tide of cheerfulness. They become obsessed with the idea that a month-long brutal crackdown by security forces has been obliterated from memory.

Themes such as China's excessive use of the death penalty, police surveillance and internet censorship are woven into the book's narrative. The 1989 Tiananmen massacre is mentioned repeatedly. The veil of sci-fi is thin.

Image caption,
The English translation hopes to play upon the book's notoriety in China

"It is a criticism, I am a critic," Chan told the BBC World Service over the phone from Beijing.

"I am trying to create a scenario that is a logical extension of the present system, it's one step ahead. If the present system does not change it may end up looking like this. It's not all positive."

Despite his criticism of the current state of affairs, the authorities have not targeted him in the same way that they have other critics such as the artist Ai Weiwei or writer Liu Xiaobo.

"The authorities have never come to me directly, that is not to say that this will not change tomorrow," he says.

The Fat Years was first published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009 and a number of copies did make their way to the mainland. It was reviewed by newspapers and magazines, and quickly began to create a buzz.

But no mainland Chinese publisher has been willing to publish it.

Dinner party gift

"Many publishers approached me when they heard that I had a book published in Hong Kong. I asked them to read the book first - none of them came back with proposals to publish it," he says.

When it was first released some sellers on the Chinese equivalent of eBay - Tao Bao Wang - stocked the book, but they were closed down in a matter of months.

This, Chan says, is the only indication that the authorities have taken notice of The Fat Years. "I'm not sure how the government feels, they never talk to me," he says.

Although he is explicitly critical in his writing, in his public life Chan is careful not to upset the authorities. In April, when Ai Weiwei was arrested, he refused requests from journalists to discuss it.

Jane Lawson of Transworld, the publishers who bought the international rights to Chan's book, says the authorities probably regard him as "small fry".

"He is part of a very big guerrilla war, but he is not amassing huge support like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo but still he is being careful," she says.

"This book is extremely prescient, which is probably why it's getting so much attention and why it could be a lasting novel. Political historians and cultural commentators will look back on it as a book which held truths that were deemed to be only science fiction at the time."

Two years since the novel was published in Chinese, about 20,000 copies have been sold. But Chan also released the book as a PDF document and made it available to download, so the number of people who have actually read the book is likely to be much higher.

Writer Julia Lovell who wrote the preface to the English edition claims the book has reached such prominence in intellectual circles that one hostess distributed copies at her dinner parties.

But as the book is reproduced across the world in 12 languages, Chan continues to enjoy relative anonymity at home.

"You know in China, until the state intervenes, until the state tries to stop you from giving out dissenting views, you are not considered a dissident until then," he says.

You can hear Chan Koonchung's interview on BBC World Service's The Strand programme via iPlayer or download the podcast.

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