Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Modern China is So Crazy It Needs a New Literary Genre

The first thing I should do, of course, is explain what I mean by “chaohuan,” which we are rendering in English as “ultra-unreal.” The literal meaning of “chaohuan” is “surpassing the unreal” or “surpassing the imaginary.” It is a word that a friend and I made up about a year ago during a conversation about contemporary Chinese reality. Not long after, I used the word in remarks I made at a conference in Hainan province. The conference was organized by the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and recently the institute’s journal, the influential Literary Review, published an article that uses our coinage in its title. The word “ultra-unreal” is young; it’s a newborn baby. I confidently submit, however, that it is going to live a long, healthy life. China’s been pregnant with the word for at least 30 years. Maybe 50 years. Maybe even 100 years.

So, what has happened in China over the last 100 years? Well, let’s leave aside the more distant past and limit ourselves to just the last decade, during which much of Chinese reality has seemed like a hallucination. Some of the things that have actually happened have surpassed novels and movies in their inventiveness. Let me give a few minor examples that reveal something of the current Chinese reality.

There is a major anti-corruption campaign underway in China as I speak, and all the examples I am about to give were made public by the official Chinese media. In China, corrupt officials like to keep huge amounts of cash in their homes. In the past, investigators might find a stash of one million or ten million, but these days such an amount would be nothing. Early in 2015, a department head at the National Development and Reform Commission was investigated for corruption. In his apartment they found more cash than they could count by hand. They got currency-counting machines so they could zip right through the counting, but they burned out four of the machines before they got a final tally, which was more than 200 million Renminbi, which is about 31 million US dollars.

Second example. Guo Boxiong is a retired general in the People’s Liberation Army. When Guo was investigated for corruption, they found so much cash in his home that they couldn’t even try to count it with a currency-counting machine. They had to weigh it by the ton. They needed a truck to haul it all away.

Guo was a very high-ranking military official, but my next example of somebody amassing enough ill-gotten cash to fill a truck involves a man who was just a low-ranking, very ordinary government official. When this guy was on the run he pretended to be a farmer going to market with a truck load of vegetables. When inspectors pulled back the canvas cover over the back of his truck, they didn’t find cabbage, they found millions in cash. All this cash comes out of the collection plate that is passed among the congregation of ordinary people who come to worship at the altar of power. The glint from all the gold paid in bribes sheds some light on China’s very peculiar reality.

There is nothing you can’t accomplish if you hold power. A deputy chief justice in the Hebei provincial supreme court met a sudden, unfortunate end in a traffic accident. Four women came forward to argue over his corpse. All four were legally married to the late deputy chief justice; he had secured for himself four different marriage licenses, all perfectly legal. This had been going on for many years, but not one of the four women knew of the others’ existence. How had he managed to keep the fact that he had four wives a secret? I write fiction, and I tell you truthfully, I can’t imagine how this could be done. This man was one of the top judicial officers in a provincial supreme court, but he treated the law like a joke.

When events occur that exceed our imagination, the world can start to seem unreal. The most shocking tale is, of course, that of Wang Lijun. In 2012, Wang Lijun was the vice-mayor of Chongqing and head of the city’s public security bureau. He ran into trouble with his colleague Bo Xilai, the secretary of the Chongqing branch of the Chinese Communist Party. Wang was a man of considerable power, but when he was on the run, he decided that the safest place for him in all of China was in the city of Chengdu in the consulate of the United States. What does it tell us when the director of the public security bureau in one of the most important municipalities in China decides that the safest place for him is inside a foreign consulate? And his decision did, in fact, save his life. Rumor has it that by the time Wang reached the US consulate in Chengdu, armed police from Chongqing had already followed him there and were preparing to storm the consulate and seize him. Wang reportedly had information that would incriminate Bo Xilai, and therefore the Chongqing armed police wanted to stop Wang and protect Bo. But the Sichuan provincial armed police, which was doing the bidding of the Party Central Committee, had also arrived in Chengdu. These entirely separate detachments of armed police were in a very tense standoff that seemed ready to become violent at any moment. Finally, the Sichuan provincial armed police escorted Wang Lijun away from the consulate. It turns out the Party Central Committee was after Bo Xilai, and it wanted Wang Lijun because he could incriminate Bo. Eventually Wang did testify against Bo. Wang was sentenced to 15 years in prison whereas Bo got life. This all really happened. It is not from a novel. It is not from a movie. But it is wilder than any movie.

These examples I’ve mentioned might seem to have nothing to do with ordinary folk, who are just spectators to these goings on, but there is actually a very close connection between these stories about the abuse of power and ordinary people. As you all know, in China food safety is a matter of urgent concern for ordinary people. There are toxins in our rice; there are toxins in our vegetables; there are toxins in our pork. There are toxins in our baby formula. Restaurants cut costs by recovering and reusing cooking oil that has been used and thrown out, and this oil has toxins in it too. Air pollution is out of control; everybody knows about the smog in Beijing. China faces a mountain of such difficulties, an Everest of difficulties, and they are the direct result of the misuse or abuse of power. Yet, despite these difficulties, China has been rising. Over the past 30 years the speed of development in China and the scale of China’s accomplishments have been every bit as extraordinary as the magnitude of the problems China faces. A few years ago China’s GDP surpassed that of Japan to become the second highest in the world, and many people say that before too long China’s GDP will surpass that of the United States, becoming first in the world. No one even remembers when China passed Great Britain, France, or Italy, and when China passed Germany it made only a faint impression. Before we really knew what was happening, China became the world leader in high-speed rail, the world leader in highway construction, the world leader in number of cars on the road, and the world leader in cell phone usage. China now has the world’s largest economy. All this is “ultra-unreal” too. Everything is happening in China at great speed, and this speed brings with it all sorts of problems. This is a phenomenon captured in a very old Chinese saying in the Daodejing: “Good fortune is that wherein disaster lurks. Disaster is that whereon good fortune depends.”* (...)

There are several points that distinguish China’s “ultra-unreal” from the “magical real” of Latin America. First, the history is different. Chinese civilization has an unbroken history of five thousand years. There is no other civilization like it on the planet. This in itself is “ultra-unreal.” At the heart of China’s civilization has always been someone with absolute power. In China, the way in which rulers come to power and wield power ensures that their power reaches everywhere and encompasses everything. In “The Eye of Power,” Foucault discusses the mechanisms by which power surveils and controls. His reference to the “eye” of power is apt. In Chinese history huge eyes of power appear again and again. In some sense, Chinese history is a monster covered with multiple eyes of power. Latin American “magic realism” is concerned with the eye of power too, of course, but it is a much smaller eye.

Second, the sense of time is different. China has changed from being a country that moved too slowly into a country that moves too fast—so fast it’s as if China has escaped gravity. Whether it is the economy, fashion, popular culture, entertainment, or sports, in just thirty years China has gone through what took several hundred years in the West. In a very short time, China has made extraordinary achievements. It is as if time in China has been compressed. This compression not only folds into the current moment a few hundred years of Western history but also several thousand years of Chinese history. Because time is going too fast, China’s cities are now strange things. They all look exactly alike, as if they were a series of exact computer copies. The transformation of China’s villages is equally astounding. Thirty years ago a lot of China’s villages looked pretty much just like they did in antiquity. These days in many of China’s villages there are only old folks and children. Or villages have become ghost towns, which are a little spooky to visit.

by Ning Ken, Literary Hub |  Read more:
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