Chan Koonchung on The Fat Years

First aired on The Current (10/4/12)

In Chinese writer Chan Koonchung's novel The Fat Years, it is 2013. The Western economy has collapsed and China is the new global power. Criticism of the state has melted away. In fact, they are living in a "Golden Age of Ascendancy." But there are problems; to start with, an entire month -- February 2011 -- is missing from everyone's memories. When writer Lu Xun decides to find out why, he unravels a complicated and unbelievable conspiracy that may be closer to the truth than we realize.

While The Fat Years is set in the very near future (it was originally published in Mandarin in 2009 and was translated into English in 2011), it's not about where China is headed. Instead, it's about China right now, and it's highly critical of the country. So critical, in fact, that it was banned by the Chinese government. "I wasn't sure if the readers would agree with how I see China," Koonchung, the founder of Hong Kong's influential City magazine, told The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti in a recent interview. "I put the backdrop in 2013 so that I could come up with fictional events to explain how I feel about China. But it's all about China now."

Koonchung is concerned about China's increasing confidence in its global power. "China has been getting stronger, wealthier, it's becoming more confident" and many citizens -- especially the country's elite -- see overtaking the United States as a global power to be a real possibility. "It's a very common storyline now," he said, adding that they don't regard the change as a friendly passing of the torch. "They see it as a head-on confrontation.They see it as a zero-sum game."

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The Fat Years also warns the Chinese about their lack of regard for and understanding of their own history. In the book, those who live in China simply don't care about what happened in the forgotten month or how China emerged as the global superpower simply because they've never had it so good. In both the book, and in real life, many citizens don't remember events such as the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, and young people never learn that this event even happened, thanks to the government's censorship and control of information. It sounds like fiction, but Koonchung, who currently lives in Beijing, assured Tremonti that it is the truth. "The absolute majority of the young people would not know about it and the elderly were afraid to talk to the young people about it."

Even in the process of writing The Fat Years, Koonchung was aware that it would be banned in China. But he felt it was important that the story be told. "I'm trying to tell what I feel is the truth about China as truthful, as literary as possible," he said. He calls the Chinese, himself included, "all reluctant conformers" who "didn't see an alternative to the present system." Instead, "we are all buying into a big scheme that the regime is trying to promote, which is if the economy keeps moving, we should all be happy and don't review the past."

Despite the ban, the book has taken off. It's the first of Koonchung's novels (he's written more than a dozen) to be translated into English. Even in China, eager readers are getting their hands on it, through pirated copies online. Koonchung doesn't make a cent for any of the pirated editions of his book that are bought and borrowed, but he doesn't mind. He'd rather that his ideas and critiques be read and discussed by his fellow citizens at his expense than not at all. "I was quite pleased. I know it's not publishable [in China] anyway," he said. And he doesn't expect that to change any time soon. He sees China's rise to power as unstoppable.

"The drama has only begun."



Chan Koonchung was also interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel for the April 1, 2012, episode of Writers & Company. You can listen to that episode here.