Cultural Exchange: Chinese science fiction’s subversive politics


Han Song predicted the destruction of the Twin Towers a year before 9/11.

In his novel “2066: Red Star Over America,” Han, China’s premier science-fiction writer, depicts a disturbing future. It is the year 2066. China rules the world while the U.S. festers in financial decline and civil war. A team has been sent to America to disseminate civilization through the traditional Chinese board game Go. But during the critical Go match held at the World Trade Center, terrorists strike. The seas around New York rise, the Twin Towers crumble and the U.S. is plunged into pandemonium.

“Red Star Over America” may seem morbid, but the novel was published a year before Sept. 11. (A revised edition was published this January). Like much of China’s most daring political science fiction, it deals with a hot topic: the unstoppable rise of China and the end of the American empire.

Next month, Chinese writers will be under the spotlight as 2012’s Market Focus country for the London Book Fair. It is a prime opportunity for China to push its cultural clout abroad (a top priority for the Communist Party), with dozens of authors traveling to the U.K. But political science fiction — long suppressed during the Cultural Revolution and afterward — is unlikely to be at the top of the agenda. Relations with the state remain fraught. (Last March, China all but banned popular “time travel” television dramas for promoting “feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”)

Despite this, science fiction is having a comeback in the country. Thriving online fan sites host legions of amateur sci-fi writers. China’s leading sci-fi magazine, Science Fiction World, boasts a circulation figure of 100,000. (American writers such as George R.R. Martin are also in demand in translation.)

Above all, insecurity over China’s meteoric economic growth coupled with an authoritarian leadership has produced ripe pickings for the genre’s top writers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chan Koonchung’s “The Fat Years,” recently published in the U.S., which has heralded a return of Chinese political science fiction in the vein of “1984” and “Brave New World.” Both Han and Chan disguise politically subversive messages in fantastical plot lines.

“Red Star Over America” “is about the collapse of the United States,” Han, 46, explains in a dingy coffee shop in central Beijing. Han speaks in bashful spurts and is dressed in an extra-large anorak, glasses and baseball cap. He comes across every inch the sci-fi fanatic.

“I went to America to present my ideas, but they thought that the portrayal of China’s superpower status was an exaggeration. Americans think that America cannot be destroyed. They laughed at this idea. They didn’t believe in me.”

Han’s prolific body of work deals largely with the clash between the U.S. and the Middle Kingdom. But if the author is critical of a cocky America, he is also unafraid to ruthlessly satirize an overreaching China. Examples include the banned “My Homeland Does Not Dream,” in which a drugged population is forced to toil away in its sleep to meet gross domestic product targets. Despite his ranking as the six-time recipient of China’s Galaxy Award for fiction, the majority of Han’s novels are banned.

Like Han, the Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-educated Chan is concerned with China’s rapid rise and a dwindling America. “The Fat Years” is set in the year 2013. China is enjoying its “Golden Age of Ascendancy,” and its people voluntarily transfer personal freedom for surging wealth. But while most are delirious with happiness (the drinking water has allegedly been laced with Ecstasy by the government), a handful have memories of a missing 28 days of crackdowns. This new China, Chan seems to be saying, may be rich, but it is also corpulent, complacent and dangerous.

“On the one hand, China will grow. It’s getting more powerful today,” says Chan, who, with shoulder-length hair and snazzy clothes, cuts a svelte 60-year-old figure. “On the other hand, there will be restrictions and the state is sometimes ruthless still. This kind of situation will go on I think.”

The novel was heralded by many Web readers for getting to the crux of what it means to be living in China today. (Although the book was too sensitive to print on the mainland, the author published a free version online.)

“Everybody [in “The Fat Years”] is happy, but this happiness is out of a kind of numbness and indifference, which is more horrible than Fascism.... China, oh China, is leaning this way more and more,” wrote one user on

For the politically aware, the novel’s “missing month” provides an uncanny resemblance to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. “Almost everything the Communist Party does, it does without informing people.... We have eyes and ears everywhere,” comments one key Communist Party official in the book.

Above all, “The Fat Years” lays down the cost of continual frenzied development. In a final twist, it becomes apparent that the population has willingly plumped for “collective amnesia,” sacrificing human rights in the name of progress.

“Everybody is happy with the story, a ‘new history of China.’ That’s exactly what authorities are trying to do. They have their own version of what happened in these past years. And many young people believe that,” Chan says. His novel is asking them to think again.