When my novel, "The Fat Years," was published in Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009, some publishers in the mainland China approached me. I told them to read the novel first and then we would talk. None of them came back. Well, one did come back, but for the rights to an earlier novel of mine - a novella about Hong Kong. So officially, "The Fat Years" was not published in China.
Then two interesting things happened. One was several daring mainstream dailies and news magazines in China openly wrote about "The Fat Years," though it was not available inside China. That means some members of the press chose to "rush through the yellow light" - a common practice for the more intrepid Chinese journalists to write about sensitive topics before the censors put up a red light. They must have alerted many readers to search for "The Fat Years."
Then someone promptly scanned or typed the entire novel and put it on the Internet within the Chinese firewall. That is how it got spread around. Most of my readers in China read "The Fat Years" by downloading it as free content before it was deleted.
I moved from Hong Kong to Beijing in 2000, with the idea of writing a novel about China. I had several false starts until 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics and global economic crisis. I sensed the mentality of many Chinese shifting in that eventful year. They would argue China was doing alright after all and even its sometimes repressive system might have merits, while the West was definitely not as attractive as it used to be. Hard-line loyalists became more assertive, trumpeting the achievements of the Communist Party, while those in the know saw no alternative but to become reluctant conformists. I told myself I had to write about this new reality.
But when I was writing it in early 2009, I was not sure readers would agree to what I saw around me. So I set the story in the not-too-distant future of 2013 to allow me to come up with some fictional events that would help me to make my points.
In the novel, another economic crisis, a double-dip, hits the world in 2011. The West is in big trouble again, while China, again, manages to come out of it unscathed through some very bold moves that only a strong and ruthless authoritarian state can hope to pull off. As a result, in the 2013 of my novel, China becomes stronger and wealthier than now and its people are in a euphoric, happy mood, to the extent that most of them have genuinely forgotten about what happened during several terrible weeks of 2011. A month - a week of anarchy and three weeks of reign of terror through emergency martial rule -- has disappeared in the collective memory of all Chinese except for a few recalcitrant individuals.
Because of this futuristic conceit, many international reviewers have called "The Fat Years" a dystopian novel, and compared it to George Orwell's "1984" -- "1984" is still seriously read by intellectuals in China. While the novel "1984" depicts a bleak totalitarian society of scarcity (the protagonist can't even find a razor blade), the China of my novel, with its material abundance and consumerist freedom, seems to be a world apart. But many features of the Big Brother state -- thought control, double-think, newspeak, fact distortion, memory mutability, wanton state repression and infallibility of the Party -- still ring true in present-day China.
So far, the Chinese authorities have not come to me. I don't know exactly why, but I think the fact that "The Fat Years" is a fiction about the future and was not officially published in China may have spared me some trouble. In China, whether you are a dissident or not is ultimately not up to you but up to the state. When the state begins to persecute you, you are labeled a dissident. Until then, you are just someone who is exercising your constitutional rights - yes I mean the current Constitution of the Chinese People's Republic - to free expression.