Gady Epstein

It’s the year 2013: China has emerged triumphant from a second global financial crisis, more confident than ever that the Western model is broken and that its own brand of authoritarian capitalism is superior. Starbucks-Wang Wang cafes (the Seattle company was bought out) are making Chinese-themed drinks popular around the globe. The dollar depreciates 30%, gold skyrockets to $2,000 an ounce and China takes over the world.

This scenario, maybe not so far-fetched, is the theme of a Chinese novel, The Fat Years, now popular among the intellectual and media elite in China, despite the fact that it is not legally sold on the mainland. Downloadable over the Internet and available on request at some highbrow bookstores, The Fat Years has sold some 17,000 official copies in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and has reached thousands more readers online.

The author, Hong Kong citizen Chan Koon Chung, paints a dystopian view of China, tapping into the view that the nation is just a little too proud of itself. In the novel Chan has the government drug the water, making the populace forget a month of chaos and a brutal crackdown that restored order.

Hung Huang, a celebrity magazine publisher, put the Chinese title of the book, Shengshi Zhongguo 2013, on the cover of her February issue of iLook magazine, translating it into English as The Gilded Age, and gave away 200 copies of the book to new subscribers. She said she had to stop the giveaway after getting a warning. (Strictly speaking, the book has not been banned on the mainland because it has not been submitted for publication, but the author delicately reports that no one has offered to publish it.)

Chan was born in Shanghai in 1952, raised in Hong Kong and partly educated in the U.S. Chan says he’s not at all sanguine about China’s economy, thinking a hard landing may be coming (see related story, “Asia’s Doctor Gloom”). In an interview near his Beijing apartment, Chan mentions with dismay the popular notion that the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 and the stability it supposedly brought to China paved the road for the economic boom. “There’s no direct reason why there should be a June 4 incident in order for China to boom,” Chan says.

An English translation is due to be published in Britain and the U.S. early next year.