Chan Koon-chung says, “The Fat Years is about what happens after the centralization of power in a post modern world; it is a society ruled by those in office, where the people feel “90% free” but their human rights are essentially unprotected; it is a “capitalist China with socialist characteristics, ruled by one party.

Hong Kong cultural figure Chan Koon-chung wrote the book Hong Kong Trilogy in 2004, and hasn’t written anything since. This past November, Hong Kong Oxford University Press published his latest novel The Fat Years—China, 2013, his first novel written about China. The Taiwanese edition of the book will be published by Taiwan’s Rye Field Press in December, with a prologue written by literary critic Professor David Wang.


Chan is known for his urban writing, claiming that he has “moved [himself] around for the last fifty years.” This gave him the perspective he needed as a cultural figure and as a citizen to observe and comment on a city. He thinks that the mind’s “comfort in living” is more important than the body’s “comfort in living.” He now lives in Beijing, but travels often, especially to the mid-west areas in recent years. He sees China’s fat years as a show, and has encountered the backstage story of this performance. On October 29th, he was interviewed by Asia Week, and below are the contents:


When did you start writing this novel?

I started writing January 2009, and finished by September.


During the 2009 Hong Kong Book Fair, we asked you to come over from Beijing to be a guest speaker. You said that you felt that you needed to live in China for ten years before you could write a China story. It has been more than ten years now, hasn’t it?

I lived in Beijing from 1992 to 1994, investing in China for the Hong Kong media, mostly in the cultural industries. Then I went to Taipei, and returned to Beijing in 2000. If you add it up, it is over ten years. I’m happy I can finally write a novel about China, a drama that ponders over China.


How do you explain what you describe as “a drama that ponders over China”?

China’s rise is in itself a drama. I spend so much time in Beijing because I want to witness this drama, because I felt that this drama was about to begin showing. After everything that happened in 2008, with the financial crisis in the western countries, China managed to survive, and the Chinese people’s spirits were lifted. More and more of the youth starting believe that China isn’t that bad, and started doubting their worship of the west. The Beijing Olympics was a great success, and I think the Chinese people’s confidence rose to a record high. It felt like a new prosperous time. Many scholars from the west publicly stated that China was doing very well. The communist government also felt the same, that we were going down a better path than the western countries, and that we will continue to go down this path. How do I treat this drama that is China’s fat years? There is a subtext in my novel The Fat Years: this kind of prosperity is very likely a part of China’s reality, so what should the Chinese people, especially the intellectuals, do with themselves?


A powerful government that controls society


The novel takes place in China 2013, and is called a political fable. Can you describe the background of that time?

With the financial crisis we are in today, the United States could not save the world, and they have left a big black hole. In 2011, the United States is confronted with another meltdown, and it extends globally, causing another international financial crisis. China, however, saw it coming, and had made the proper precautions. When the entire world’s economy was collapsing, China instead became stronger than ever. The RMB was rising, and consumer level was at a high. Chinese scholars and intellectuals are living happy lives, and the western way and their histories that they know have proven to be insufficient. The Chinese way was the right way.  Western values are being challenged, and the attitudes in Chinese youth are shifting. Even though some worry that the government control won’t be any different, it is just a worry, and no actions are taken. In the novel, only two people, Fang Caodi and Xiao Xi, fight the government. At that time, it is still a powerful government who uses well-practiced and strict methods keep society’s problems under control. No one mentions political revolution anymore, and there aren’t even traces of liberals or their discussions. Southern Weekly has disappeared, so has All Sages Bookstore. The problem with the farming community still exists, but it is not as severe as before. Even though societal problems still exist, the government uses a “soft hand” to solve them.


What do you mean by “the government uses ‘a soft hand’ to solve these problems?

The Chinese government is entering an era of confidence, in a time “after the centralization of power in a post modern world,” where the people feel “90% free” but their human rights are essentially unprotected; it is a “capitalist China with socialist characteristics, ruled by one party. A lot of people think that this is “the best option in the real world,” and the supposed “three-power split”, or “multi-party rule” is not realistic. In my novel, some people think that the political policy should not be changed. If there is change, it can only be “minor steps in revolution, gradually pushing towards improvement.” I also write in the novel, “With so many intellectuals and elite members of society, all with different agendas, but all looking happy, even ecstatic, must be a sure sign of the fat years.” Everything is controlled by the central communist government, under one party, their methods can be very versatile. When a cat retracts her claws, she is tame, but you never know when or towards whom she will draw out her claws.


Using a soft hand to severely keep order


How do you explain the one-party policy under China’s fat years?

In my book, I used the words of the deputy chief: “What is called one-party policy? It means the ruling party has absolute power, and in extreme times, the country’s political machine can enact restrictions on the people without the people’s consent. And when the party is not causing suffering on the people, they will do everything in their might to take care of the people and the country. We are currently in a suffer-free period, but as soon as the communist party believes something is in conflict with the wellbeing of the core of this party, they are flexible and versatile in their methods of control.” This refers to the communist party’s control over the media, and over the internet. The method is soft, but severe, and it is extremely effective.


Over the years, you have written a lot of commentaries and essays about the problems inherent in China’s society, which have been praised by readers. Why did you choose to write a novel about the fat years?

A novel can encompasses different voices, and can express the different complexities from these inner voices. What the novel can achieve, a commentary and essay may not be able to. When I moved to Beijing in 2000, I wanted to write such a novel. In the first couple of years, I couldn’t find a way to include everything I wanted to express. In 2005, I wrote a long essay for Taiwan’s Think magazine, talking about a lot of what is expressed in this novel, about the complexities and contradictions in China, how the society keeps changing, and how to evaluate this change. I received a lot of feedback on that piece, and now I’ve written a novel about it, and pushed the timeline a little. This is because what happens today becomes much clearer if we look at it a few years from now. I am also able to write in different voices, so the readers can find their own sympathies and make their own judgments. I hope to start a discussion, to include everyone, so I purposely put a lot of voices into the work.