Continent by Han Han,


Han Han attends a press conference for his new film Continent on July 7th, 2014. [Photo/]Han Han attends a press conference for his new film”Continent” on July 7th, 2014. [Photo/]

Chinese professional rally driver, and best-selling author Han Han said his new film “Continent” was just a road movie.

Han added he didn’t think about other things much. All he cared about was the state of completeness and if the film was interesting or not.

He, together with film stars Feng Shaofeng and Chen Bolin from Taiwan attended a press conference for the film in Beijing on July 7.

It’s the first time that Han Han has directed a film. The film also stars Wang Luodan and Wallace Chung. It tells stories of a several friends who grow up together set off for a somewhat reckless journey.

The film “Continent” is set to be released in China on July 24th.


Coming Home by Yan Geling, Wall Street Journal

Born in Shanghai, author Yan Geling has written numerous well-known Chinese novels, among them The Flowers of War and Lost Daughter of Happiness. But it’s her book The Criminal Lu Yanshi that’s lately been caught up in controversy—even though it was published three years ago.

The Criminal Lu Yanshi tells the story of a Chinese professor sent to a labor camp during the country’s “anti-rightist campaign” of the 1950s, a period during which more than a half-million Chinese were persecuted as intellectuals. The story formed the basis for the hit film “Coming Home,” released in May and directed byZhang Yimou.

But there’s one big difference: the movie eliminated references to the campaign, which is seldom publicly discussed in China, though it did preserve the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of political madness and persecution that began in 1966. Instead, it focuses on other aspects of the story and adds new plot lines, including the professor’s struggle on his return from prison to help his wife recover her memory after she suffers the trauma of their separation. Mr. Zhang was widely criticized for his movie’s omissions, in a controversy that fueled debate about censorship in China, as well as renewed attention to Ms. Yan’s book.

China Real Time recently caught up with Ms. Yan, who lives in Berlin, to discuss her thoughts on Mr. Zhang’s adaptation of her work and the background of the controversy. Edited excerpts (translated from the Chinese):

When I saw Coming Home at a movie theater, there were many older people crying, but people born in the 1980s or 1990s didn’t show much emotion. Why do you think that was the case?

Chinese born in the 1980s have some knowledge of the Cultural Revolution, but those born in the 1990s and after generally have little knowledge and interest in it. I think that’s unfortunate. We should remember what has occurred in China. This is why I wrote this book and why writers of my generation keep writing these stories. We want to make great literature out of this [history]. The Cultural Revolution lasted ten years and turned many lives upside down. We have to accept it as part of modern Chinese history.

How did you deal with such ignorance when planning your book?

Any novel that addresses human nature in extreme situations is universally interesting to readers. I remember when we were in China [decades ago], we were introduced to Soviet-era writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak, especially the latter’s novel Doctor Zhivago. We were thrilled to read works by authors who shared life experiences and internal psychological experiences with us. As long as you write a story with enough literary elements — character development, depth of emotion, psychological buildup, internal examination — the story can have universal appeal.

The film version avoids the harsh realities of Lu Yanshi’s time in prison and in a reform-through-labor camp. Why do you think Zhang Yimou left those parts out? 

Zhang Yimou was more interested in the latter part [of the novel], the coming home part. He was fascinated with Lu Yanshi’s efforts to revive his wife’s memory. Considering film censorship in China, he was also limited in his choices and had to make a movie based on the latter half of my novel. In the movie, Zhang makes us realize that some memories have been filtered out and helps us imagine what those memories might be. We imagine how [his wife] entered this state of forgetfulness, what their life must have been like together and what kind of love they shared.


How did you research labor camp life?

In China, I think many people have experience with or know about the reform-through-labor system that was recently abolished. I did research on the topic and talked to former inmates. An older man I regard as a beloved grandpa told me stories of his time in a labor camp in Qinghai Province, and they inspired me. I heard these stories more than 20 years ago. Before I started writing the novel, I traveled to where the prison had been. Although parts of it are already in ruins, most of it was still there. I talked to former guards and their adult children. This way, I was able to learn the story from both sides.

In your earlier books, you used a female point of view to examine the heroine’s destiny. This time, you used a male character. Why the change?

I am generally interested in women’s lives, as I am a woman and have many female friends who tell me stories about themselves or stories they have heard or witnessed. But that does not mean I cannot write from a male character’s viewpoint. I write a character in whatever gender is necessary for the story.

You wrote the screenplays for the film version of your books Siao Yu and Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Which do you prefer writing—screenplays or books?  

I have written many scripts, some better than others, but I don’t love the job. I love the freedom of writing novels, the ability to work alone, think alone and make the whole production of a novel alone. I love this freedom and this power.

Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, New Focus

The sources in North Korea that provided us with details of events leading up to Jang Song-thaek’s purge in November 2013 have now given us information that provides crucial insight into the events leading up to his execution and the current configuration of power in the nation.

It has been revealed that in early 2013, Jang Song-thaek dispatched a letter to the Chinese leadership, explaining that he desired to instigate changes to the North Korean system such that its pivot of power would move away from the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and towards the DPRK government, as overseen by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

This letter and its contents is said to have served as the decisive evidence that led to the removal of Jang Song-thaek from his post in the enlarged Politburo meeting, called by the KWP Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) in early December of last year.

In the course of the four days of investigations and interrogations by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) that followed, details regarding the intent behind the dispatch, the date and method of its initial delivery, and Jang Song-thaek’s subsequent confidential exchanges with China are said to have been established.

Moreover, the judgement that Jang Song-thaek committed “anti-Party and anti-revolutionary acts” is said to have been passed on the basis of his intent to serve as the Prime Minister of the DPRK government. He was consequently sent for immediate execution.

The proceedings of the Ministry of State Security investigation were circulated among those who attended the enlarged Politburo meeting that removed Jang Song-thaek from his post.

Jang Song-thaek’s letter, the contents of which were disclosed in the enlarged Politburo meeting, reportedly claimed that ‘The greatest achievement of Comrade Kim Il-sung was that he established and developed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into a nation more wealthy and powerful than southern Chosun [South Korea]’.

The letter reasoned that ‘Comrade Kim Il-sung ruled through a government overseen by the Prime Minister and Cabinet in order to develop the nation’s light industry and agriculture, while maintaining the military industry as top priority’. It went on to assert that ‘In our current Party-pivoted system, the structures of the state are organised in such a way that everything must work at a lower priority than the Party’s ideological efforts.’

At the founding and in the early days of North Korea, the KWP was more akin to a “regional branch” that received absolute guidance and supervision from the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During those years, the Cabinet and government was the main power, with Kim Il-sung’s associates in key government positions; but following Kim Jong-il’s rise to power through the Party since the 80s, the country has functioned as a KWP-pivoted system.

In the statement of the enlarged Politburo meeting, it was concluded that Jang Song-thaek’s intent had been to challenge Kim Jong-un’s rule by means of his plan to become Prime Minister; in the letter, Jang Song-thaek had explained that he wanted to develop the North Korean economy using the Cabinet and government as a pivot, in order to stabilise Kim Jong-un’s rule and maintain the current regime.

Jang Song-thaek had stated that his intention was to improve the independent strength and sustainability of the current regime through economic reforms, within the status quo of a division between north and south; and not to pursue unification that would lead to absorption by a foreign democracy.

He expressed the calculation and confidence that ultimately, this vision of north-south competition and co-existence would be well received by the Chinese leadership; therefore, Jang Song-thaek had asserted, Kim Jong-un himself had given permission for him to compose this letter in confidence.

The ‘Jang Song-thaek letter initiative’ said to have been approved by Kim Jong-un, and the details of the MSS investigation that were subsequently circulated, have already leaked beyond the participants of the enlarged Politburo meeting, with knowledge of it now established among most cadres belonging to the central institutions.

Pak Pong-ju speaking at the enlarged Poliburo meeting.

Pak Pong-ju speaking at the enlarged Poliburo meeting.

The reason why Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju spoke in tears in the enlarged Politburo meeting is said to have been in direct response to the description in Jang Song-thaek’s letter of a ‘Cabinet and government that has been stripped of power’. Pak expounded the view that under the great guidance of the KWP, his Cabinet and government had in fact been able to thrive victoriously. Pak’s voice reportedly broke with emotion as he provided his statement justifying the centrality of the KWP over the Cabinet and government.

KWP’s secretary for Propaganda and Agitation Kim Ki-nam, who spoke from the same platform, provided explanations of how the very history of the KWP was the history of the great Supreme Leader himself; Ri Man-keon, KWP secretary for North Pyongan Province, testified that Jang Song-thaek had tried to hand over Sinuiju to China as a development zone.

Kim Ki-nam speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Kim Ki-nam speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Subsequently, on the orders of deputy director Cho Yeon-jun of the OGD, which had called the enlarged Politburo meeting, MSS guards who had been on standby were called and Jang Song-thaek was dragged away from the meeting hall.

Cho Yeon-jun speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Cho Yeon-jun speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Jang Song-thaek’s repeated assertion during the MSS investigation process – that the contents of the letter had not only had the approval of Kim Jong-un himself but his active support – was established as an even graver problem, and led to his immediate execution after just four days.

The scale and significance of this incident is perceived to be so great among cadres with membership in the central institutions that it is being referred to as the second “Hague emissary incident”.

In 1907, at the International Peace Conference held in The Hague, Kojong of Korea’s Chosun Dynasty had sent an emissary to assert that the Eulsa Treaty (Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty of 1905) was not valid. North Korea maintains that emissary Yi Jun committed suicide by disembowelment, protesting how the conference maintained silence regarding Japan’s invasion of Korea.

At present, the Ministry of State Security is conducting an extensive investigation, in order to establish who is responsible for leaking details that should have been restricted to those who attended the enlarged Politburo meeting. But it is thought that it is only a matter of time before the full account reaches the larger North Korean populace.

According to sources in situ, if it gets to the point where the news reaches the ordinary populace, ‘The number of people who sympathise with Jang Song-thaek because he attempted economic reform may increase’; moreover, ‘Feelings of disdain will likely grow regarding a Kim Jong-un who had supported the initiative, yet abandoned his uncle when the man was faced with purging and execution.’

In the statement issued by the MSS special military tribunal and published by North Korea’s state news agency KCNA on 13 December 2013, it was reported that ‘Jang Song-thaek had intended to concentrate his department and all relevant economic institutions into the Cabinet and government, serving as Prime Minister once the economy has crumbled into ruin and the state is on the verge of collapse.’

It was also claimed that Jang Song-thaek’s plan had been to seize control over the military to bring about a coup; and after the establishment of a new administration, he would have sought legitimacy for the coup by appealing to foreign powers and for international recognition.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung, Pen

What’s the story behind the romance and propaganda surrounding Tibet? Chinese author Chan Koonchung writes for PEN Atlas on how his new novel and its Tibetan protagonist are an attempt to humanise the conflict, using fiction to transcend ideology

The main protagonist of my new novel, Champa, is a young, modern, Chinese-speaking Tibetan man. He grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The novel in this sense is about Tibetan and Han relationships, but it will defy easy stereotyping. It is one of the intentions of the novel to be as uncompromisingly realistic and anti-romantic as possible. 

Aside from the Han Chinese, the only Chinese ethnic group that I have some familiarity with is the Tibetans. I knew very little about Tibet until 1989, when I was commissioned by an American company to produce a movie based on the life of the 13th Dalai Lama and an Englishman called Charles Bell. The movie never got to production stage, but during pre-production, I met my Buddhist teacher Dzongsar Rinpoche, and that led me to visit different diasporic Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Europe and North America. Since 1992 I also started visiting Lhasa and other Tibetan areas in China and over the years developed friendships with Tibetans in Lhasa and Beijing. I always wanted to write about Tibet and the Tibetan-Han relationship – a poignant and sometimes difficult co-dependent relationship seldom reflected realistically in literature.

My last novel, The Fat Years, was a dystopian political novel about present-day China, a genre that allows discussion of big issues. But I didn’t touch the ethnic issue in China at all in The Fat Years, because I wanted to save it for another novel. Right after I finishedThe Fat Years, I started working on a saga entitled The Conformist. It was about an idealist-turned-cynic Han Chinese cadre stationed in Tibet for 30 years who witnessed all the vicissitudes of relationships there.

I dropped The Conformist and by 2012, I started to work on a new story, Luo Ming or ‘Naked Life’, renamed for its English edition as The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver. The year 2012 was difficult for Tibetans in China, and I wanted a raw and pungent way to express my feelings, and the main protagonist needed to be a Tibetan.

Champa, the main protagonist, has two very different but equally bumpy relationships with Han women (over 90% of Chinese are Hans; Tibetans belong to one of the 55 official minority groups in China). He was a tourist driver before he became the ‘kept man’ of an attractive, affluent middle-aged Han businesswoman in Lhasa. Life was good for Champa until he fell for an enigmatic young woman, an event which made him give up on his cushy Lhasa life and drive to Beijing, his dream city. Nothing in Beijing turned out as expected.

I intended to capture at least a fraction of the complicated relationships between the Han Chinese and Tibetans and cut across five kinds of stereotypes when it comes to Tibet and Tibetans:

The romantic stereotype –Tibet as Shangri La, an exotic, timeless touristy region of simple, peaceful folks.

The spiritual stereotype – Tibet as the spiritual Buddhist holy land. Tibetan Buddhist gurus have many followers in other parts of China.

The patronising stereotype – Tibet is pre-modern, China is modern. The Communist Party liberated Tibet from medieval backwardness. Tibet depends on aid from the Chinese state. China’s affirmative action policies are beneficial to the Tibetans, maybe too generously so.

The statist stereotype – Tibet has always been a part of China from time immemorial. Foreign imperialists are always there trying to encourage Tibetan separatists to divide the Chinese motherland.

The victim stereotype – Tibetan culture is under threat, all because of the Chinese rule: non-Tibetan migrants, ‘Han-ification’, assimilation policies, bureaucratic nepotism and state violence. But traditional culture is also changing inside Tibet because many Tibetans want modernisation and welcome economic growth. Many Tibetan families urge their children to learn Chinese and young Tibetans love hybridised popular culture. (Though, of course, I am not unsympathetic to this victim stereotyping because Tibetans are now indeed a minority culture under stress.)

It was one of my wishes to write a novel that defies and examines stereotyping about Tibet, Tibetans and Tibetan-Han relationship and I hope that through Champa and his complicated adventures, I managed to shed some light on this difficult issue.

About the author

Chan Koonchung was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong. He was a reporter at an English newspaper in Hong Kong before he founded the influential magazine ‘City’ in 1976, where he was the chief editor and then publisher for 23 years. He is also a screenwriter and film producer of both Chinese and English-language films. Chung is a co-founder of the Hong Kong environmental group Green Power and was a board member of Greenpeace International from 2008 to 2011. He recently founded the NGO, Minjian International, which connects Chinese public intellectuals with their counterparts in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. His google account is often blocked. He is fluent in English, and now lives in Beijing. Chan Koonchung’s novelThe Fat Years, set in a China of the near-future where a dark moment of history has been erased from public memory, has never been published on the mainland. The book released in 2009 presents a dystopian vision of 2013 in which China’s rise coincides with the economic weakening of the West.  The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver has just been published in the UK by Doubleday.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa is translated by Nicky Harman.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, New Statesman

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes under the table.


Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters
Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters

When I was a child, I didn’t read. In all honesty, no story was as exciting as the fairy tales my mother told my siblings and me. A story that captivated my childhood imagination more than anything else was about a magic cudgel that granted any wish, as long as you wished with a good heart; I could daydream about holding that omni­potent object in my hand and forget about everything else. The early years of school in North Korea could offer nothing but the narrative of the Supreme Leader’s childhood, which all North Korean children learned according to their age group, growing up alongside him. The Revolutionary History of the Leader Kim Il-sung did not captivate me as the magic cudgel did, and I performed poorly at school.

However, as I progressed through school, the demands of achieving good grades grew stronger and I had no choice but to immerse myself, like everyone else, in the Supreme Leader. My mother tongue – the one that I learned to read write, think in and understand the world through – was the language of our Revolutionary History. Even when I turned to novels or poetry, whatever book I opened, it was the same: the Korean language served to tell the story of two protagonists alone, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even “everyday heroes” were unrealistic people, swearing absolute loyalty only to the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party, and they were not people I wanted ever to resemble.

I had the rare privilege to study western music from the age of seven – cassettes of Dvorák were smuggled in from China by my piano teacher – and I could not find any literature that spoke to me in a way that approached what I experienced through this thrilling and complex music. But what gave me aspirations to become a writer was the poetry of Byron. In North Korea, gaining access to any foreign culture is a crime of “revisionism”, but there is a “hundred copy collection” (each book limited to a hundred copies) available to the elite, so that they might receive a cultural grounding to help them carry out their jobs as leaders, diplomats and propagandists. I don’t know how one of these limited editions of Byron’s works ended up in my father’s personal bookcase, but that is where, aged 15, I found it. For the first time in my life, tears welled in my eyes as I read a book. The words contained emotion as a melody and the plots of the poems were like the resonance of an orchestra in a hall. I was relearning my own language from a foreign book.

In the strict apartheid of North Korea, the use of language is tightly controlled across different classes of people. Above all, the language used for reference to the Supreme Leader is set apart in its grammar and vocabulary. Kim Il-sung is always “great”, and “greatness” must always belong to the Supreme Leader alone; but Byron taught me that the word could be used to describe any one of us, and that every one of us could dare to partake in such qualities. I wanted to become Byron, not only as a writer, but also as a man who might consider risking his life for an ordinary beloved – and not just for the Supreme Leader. I grew self-righteous, gloating at the thought that all the North Korean writers before me who had no access to Byron were like frogs in a well.

There could exist no such novel, poetry or story created by a North Korean writer. All forms of culture remain under the law of Kim Jong-il’s “Juche Art Theory”, which dictates that all North Korean literature must be in the style of “socialist realism”, with “socialist” denoting not an ideology, but an interpretation of “reality” dictated by the regime: a reality in which the Supreme Leader’s Revolutionary History must be the only truth. The world may talk about the counterfeiting of dollar bills by the regime for the sake of maintaining its grip on power, but this regime has set up a more invidious system for the purpose of counterfeiting the thoughts of its people. This not merely influences or interferes with their most intimate thoughts, but enforces a state policy to fabricate them from conception to expression, from each individual to the consciousness of the nation.

As an employee of the United Front Department (UFD), I witnessed this project at first hand. The UFD is a hybrid entity for policymaking, espionage and “engagement” with the outside world that functions as a controlling body to project and reflect perceptions of North Korea. I worked in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101. Despite the uncanny and unintended echo of Orwell’s Room 101, this office was, ironically, so named precisely in order to avoid any hint of the nature of our work. When it was first set up, the department specialised in conducting psychological warfare operations against the South through cultural media such as the press, literary arts, music and film. After the 1970s, it strove particularly to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance movements that had risen against the then military dictatorship.

My task, like all other writers in the system, was to express an institutional line, not an individual message. No writer in North Korea is permitted to act beyond a bureaucratic affiliation that controls the process – from the setting of the initial guidelines for each work to the granting of permission for publication – through strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance. Our main task was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets who supported Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. This is the only way to earn recognition as a writer in North Korea: under a name that is not your own.

Elsewhere in the world and throughout history, the subject of literature has included the human condition. But under the suffocating constraints of North Korean surveillance, where the only concerns permitted in artistic expression are those of the Supreme Leader, I could not produce any writing that allowed me to feel I was accomplishing anything other than a bureaucratic task. Despite this, my colleagues in the propaganda departments envied me. Because I worked under an assumed South Korean identity, I did have some licence to experiment with straying from the legal bounds of North Korean art – at least in the exercise of style. This provided the “freedom” in which I composed my work; which, paradoxically, stood out from writing by my more careful and devout peers and led to my being admitted into Kim Jong-il’s inner circle.

In December 1998 I was given the job of writing an epic poem that would promote the notion that the North Korean policy of songun – the project to unify the entire Korean Peninsula through the superior might of our military force – had been formulated to protect South Korea. My poem, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, was written in the voice of a South Korean poet who, recalling a massacre of activists in his own country, visits Pyongyang and finds protection and peace there. It so pleased the Supreme Leader that it was distributed throughout the nation and, in 1999, aged 28, I was made one of his six poet laureates.

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes (high-heeled, with an inner platform at least six centimetres high) under the table. That night changed the course of my life in a way that winning the lottery might do in a capitalist nation; but, more importantly, it granted me immunity. Not even the highest authorities in the DPRK could investigate, prosecute or harm one of the Admitted.

Unless, that is, they committed treason – which I did. I lent a friend a restricted book, the contents of which included a biography of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il written by a South Korean academic. In discussing the infidelity and violent purges in the Kim family, this book starkly contradicted the official Revolutionary History. When the authorities found out about my transgression I had no choice but to escape to South Korea.

I know that no dictatorship can be successful merely by force. A dictator may use a form of religious cult to demand an unquestioning and heartfelt obedience from each individual, or a myth of racial superiority to bind the loyalty of many to one selfish cause. North Korea is no exception in the modern history of totalitarianism. There are the brutal political camps that physically shut away the lives of North Korean people; but there is also a dictatorship of the mind, the political prison where thought and expression are stifled. North Korea’s dictatorship of force over its people – its police-state system, the inescapable surveillance, the party’s invocation of the “Supreme Leader’s will”, overruling even the national constitution – cannot end while the dictatorship of the mind prevails.

The only power that will undermine the dictatorship of the mind is the realisation that it is possible not only for the regime to lie to its people, but that it has done so, deliberately and constantly. My people cannot be free until each of us acknowledges that the Revolutionary History of the Leader is not the true reality of North Korea.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, by Chan Koonchung, AFP

Hong Kong (AFP) – Chan Koonchung’s novel “The Fat Years”, set in a China of the near-future where a dark moment of history has been erased from public memory, has never been published on the mainland.

The book released in 2009 presents a dystopian vision of 2013 in which China’s rise coincides with the economic weakening of the West. Fiction chimed with reality when it was first released at the height of the financial crisis.

But its chances of being published in China were always going to be slim, given its allusions to the Communist Party’s censorship machine and the way events such as the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago this week have been virtually deleted from official history.

“My novels are unpublishable (in China),” said Chan in an interview in Hong Kong.

“When I wrote ‘The Fat Years’ in 2009, many mainland publishers came to me. But after they read the book they never came back.”

The English translation of Chan’s latest novel, “The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver”, was released in May.

It is an explicit and frequently coarse look at ethnic relations through the eyes of an urbanised, sex-obsessed Tibetan who makes his way from Lhasa to Beijing via complicated affairs with Han Chinese women.

It also has not found a mainland publisher.

“It’s very anti-romantic,” said Chan of the novel. “We all have a very romantic notion about Tibet but this novel is really anti-romantic. It’s very direct.”

Shanghai-born Chan nevertheless continues to live in Beijing, having moved there in 2000 to focus on writing about China after stints in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States. The 61-year-old says he has not faced interference and has had non-fiction works published in the mainland.

He says “enterprising” readers were able to access electronic copies of “The Fat Years” before they were removed from the Internet, while hard copies were briefly sold under-the-counter in some Beijing bookstores.

- ‘The new normal’ -

Both “Champa” and “The Fat Years” explore material obsessions in modern China, with Champa coveting his domineering Chinese boss’s Toyota while she brings him back designer goods from Beijing.

“Young Tibetans are urbanised, educated, they listen to the same music, wear the same designer jeans and have the same aspirations as their counterparts elsewhere in urban China,” said Chan.

“But they face subtle exclusions elsewhere. Landlords in Beijing for example will try to find a reason to turn them away — not because they want to discriminate but because of the trouble involved. If you rent a house to an ethnic person from Tibet, you have to apply with the security bureau first for approval.”

The self-congratulatory protagonist in “The Fat Years” meanwhile sips a Lychee Black Dragon Latte in Starbucks (which in the book has been bought out by a Chinese company) and is overcome by emotion when describing life in a placid Beijing — where there are seemingly no unhappy memories.

“Every day I congratulated myself on living in China,” says ‘Chen’ in the book. “Sometimes I was moved to tears I felt so blessed.”

- Self-satisfied amnesia -

One of Chen’s counterparts — among the few characters determined to challenge the self-satisfied amnesia — is searching for the entire month of February 2011, whose disappearance coincided with China’s economic and cultural rise in the story.

A third of China’s current population was born after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, and a huge swathe of those under 25 are ignorant of the event.

Online, hundreds of millions of Chinese now have unprecedented access to information but an army of censors deletes topics deemed sensitive, even the most oblique references to Tiananmen.

A Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia maintained by domestic Internet giant Baidu has no entry for the year 1989, let alone anything more specific.

In the book’s preface Chan is quoted as saying he sought to show a regime that has silenced or absorbed its opponents and “how the public have bought into China?s authoritarian model”.

“The mentality of many Chinese has changed to wonder if maybe our government is doing something right — it’s more confident of its own system,” said Chan, referring to China’s increasing assertiveness in international relations.

While he is willing to write “unpublishable” books that confront problems in modern China, Chan has nevertheless made Beijing his home and sees nothing changing there for the forseeable future.

“I would think this is the new normal for China now and it’s going to last at least 10, 15 years,” he added — shrugging off concerns over a slowing property market and rising debt levels.

“The economy will have hiccups, ups and downs, maybe a serious crisis. But even if it slows down, China will still be rising. This is something the world will have to accept — that China’s rise may be unstoppable.”