“E Pur Si Muove…And Yet It Moves,” by Abiezer Coppe

Read this article by Johann Hari. Just read it, and then reflect on how many Chinese produced electronic goods you have in your life.

I don’t care what you call China: communist, capitalist, socialist or state capitalist. Bugger the terminology. It’s academic. It’s a slave empire in my book. Any country that allows workers to work 24 to 35 hours continuously, until they die of exhaustion, or commit suicide, is a slave empire.

Any country that tolerates workers being banged up in dormitories, not allowed to have sex and fed inadequate food, and then fed to the machine of endless production, is a slave empire. And we in the rich and decadent, declining consumerist West benefit from this state of affairs.

Western corporations like Foxconn are unwilling to see things change. They have their claws sunk deep into the necks of Chinese workers.

No one who has the political interests of the working class at heart can support what goes on in China in the free economic zones.

It’s completely barbaric, and it makes my blood boil.

Fortunately Chinese workers will not lie down and take it any more. As Marx once wrote (I’m paraphrasing):

The liberation of the working class shall be the work of the workers themselves.

And the working class is a power that no state can hold down for ever. Even in China.

The Chinese state is immensely authoritarian. Video surveillance of workers’ lives in the urban centres is ubiquitous. The internet is heavily censored. Penalties for political dissidence are severe. There are 3,000 state executions a year.

One would think that nothing could shift in this uniquely dystopian blend of communism and capitalism, held together by Han Chinese nationalism.

One would think that 1984 has finally arrived, and it speaks Mandarin.

E pur si muove…Orwell was wrong. Marx was right. Thank God.

And now for some good news

Johann Hari

We’ll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours.

At first, this isn’t going to sound like a good news story, never mind one of the most inspiring stories in the world today.

But trust me: it is. Yan Li spent his life tweaking tiny bolts, on a production line, for the gadgets that make our lives zing and bling. He might have pushed a crucial component of the laptop I am writing this article on, or the mobile phone that will interrupt your reading of it.

He was a typical 27-year-old worker at the gigantic Foxconn factory in Shenzen, Southern China, which manufactures i-Pads and Playstations and mobile-phone batteries.Li was known to the company by his ID number: F3839667. He stood at a whirring line all day, every day, making the same tiny mechanical motion with his wrist, for 20p an hour. According to his family, sometimes his shifts lasted for 24 hours; sometimes they stretched to 35. If he had tried to form a free trade union to change these practices, he would have been imprisoned for 12 years.

On the night of 27 May, after yet another marathon-shift, Li dropped dead.

Deaths from overwork are so common in Chinese factories that they have a word for it: guolaosi. China Daily estimates that 600,000 people are killed this way every year, mostly making goods for us. Li had never experienced any health problems, his family says, until he started this work schedule; Foxconn say he died of asthma and his death had nothing to do with them. The night Li died, yet another Foxconn worker committed suicide – the tenth this year.

For two decades now, you and I have shopped until Chinese workers dropped. Business has bragged about the joys of the China Price. They have been less keen for us to see the Human Price.

KYE Systems Corp run a typical factory in Donguan in southern mainland China, and one of their biggest clients is Microsoft – so in 2009 the US National Labour Committee sent Chinese investigators undercover there.

On the first day a teenage worker whispered to them: “We are like prisoners here.” The staff work and live in giant factory-cities that they almost never leave. Each room sleeps 10 workers, and each dorm houses 5,000. There are no showers; they are given a sponge to clean themselves with.

A typical shift begins at 7.45am and ends at 10.55pm. Workers must report to their stations 15 minutes ahead of schedule for a military-style drill: “Everybody, attention! Face left! Face right!” Once they begin, they are strictly forbidden from talking, listening to music, or going to the lavatory. Anybody who breaks this rule is screamed at and made to clean the lavatories as punishment. Then it’s back to the dorm. It’s the human equivalent of battery farming.

One worker said: “My job is to put rubber pads on the base of each computer mouse…This is a mind-numbing job. I am basically repeating the same motion over and over for over 12 hours a day.” At a nearby Meitai factory, which made keyboards for Microsoft, a worker said: “We’re really livestock and shouldn’t be called workers.” They are even banned from making their own food, or having sex. They live off the gruel and slop they are required to buy from the canteen, except on Fridays, when they are given a small chicken leg and foot “to symbolise their improving life.”

Even as their work has propelled China towards being a super-power, these workers got less and less. Wages as a proportion of GDP fell in China every single year from 1983 to 2005.

They can be treated this way because of a very specific kind of politics that has prevailed in China for two decades now. Very rich people are allowed to form into organisations – corporations – to ruthlessly advance their interests, but the rest of the population is forbidden by the secret police from banding together to create organisations to protect theirs. The political practices of Maoism were neatly transferred from communism to corporations: both regard human beings as dispensable instruments only there to serve economic ends.

We’ll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs, or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours. Here’s just one: think of him as the Unknown Worker, standing for them all. Liu Pan was a 17-year-old operating a machine that made cards and cardboard that were sold on to big-name Western corporations. When he tried to clear its jammed machinery, he got pulled into it. His sister said: “When we got his body, his whole head was crushed. We couldn’t even see his eyes.”

So you might be thinking – was it a cruel joke to bill this as a good news story?

Not at all.

An epic rebellion has now begun in China against this abuse – and it is beginning to succeed. Across 126,000 Chinese factories, workers have refused to live like this any more. Wildcat unions have sprung up, organised by text message, demanding higher wages, a humane work environment, and the right to organise freely. Millions of young workers across the country are blockading their factories and chanting, “There are no human rights here!” and, “We want freedom!” The suicides were a rebellion of despair; this is a rebellion of hope.

Last year, the Chinese dictatorship was so panicked by the widespread uprisings that it prepared an extraordinary step forward. It drafted a new labour law that would allow workers to form and elect their own trade unions. It would plant seeds of democracy across China’s workplaces. Western corporations lobbied very hard against it, saying it would create a “negative investment environment” – by which they mean smaller profits. Western governments obediently backed the corporations and opposed freedom and democracy for Chinese workers. So the law was whittled down and democracy stripped out.

It wasn’t enough. This year Chinese workers have risen even harder to demand a fair share of the prosperity they create. Now company after company is making massive concessions: pay rises of over 60 per cent are being conceded. Even more crucially, officials in Guangdong province, the manufacturing heartland of the country, have announced that they are seriously considering allowing workers to elect their own representatives to carry out collective bargaining after all.

Just like last time, Western corporations and governments are lobbying frantically against this – and to keep the millions of Yan Lis stuck at their assembly lines into the 35th hour.

This isn’t a distant struggle: you are at its heart, whether you like it or not. There is an electrical extension cord running from your laptop and mobile and games console to the people like Yan Li and Liu Pan dying to make them. So you have to make a choice. You can passively let the corporations and governments speak for you in trying to beat these people back into semi-servitude – or you can side with the organisations here that support their cry for freedom, like No Sweat, or the TUC’s international wing, by donating to them, or volunteering for their campaigns.

Yes, if this struggle succeeds, it will mean that we will have to pay a little more for some products, in exchange for the freedom and the lives of people like Yan Li and Liu Pan. But previous generations have made that choice. After slavery was abolished in 1833, Britain’s GDP fell by 10 percent – but they knew that cheap goods and fat profits made from flogging people until they broke were not worth having. Do we?

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34 thoughts on ““E Pur Si Muove…And Yet It Moves,” by Abiezer Coppe”

  1. No pain, no gain. You can’t really expect workers to be treated like kings in the early stages of economic development. Every major industrialized nation had to go through many decades and even centuries of shitty working conditions in exchange for economic development and growth of national power. Also, isn’t it hypocritical that western governments always bash China on “freedom and democracy”, yet they sided with the corporations against the workers? It seems western government lie out of their ass every time they open their mouths.

  2. “Wages as a proportion of GDP fell in China every single year from 1983 to 2005.”

    How can this happen in a socialist economy? Did it happen in Stalin’s Russia? Both Stalin’s Russia and 21st century China have experienced extremely rapid economic growth, but it is China, not Stalin’s Russia, that is producing millionaires on the one hand, and homeless people on the other. China’s Gini coefficient, which at 0.37 is still low compared with that of Indonesia or Malaysia, has gone up, not down since 1980, as socioeconomic inequality grows in the country. Stalin’s Russia accomplished rapid industrialization without an accompanying growth in socioeconomic inequality.

    1. I believe China will one day have to go the National Socialist/autarkic route after the “global economy” collapses over its own greed and rapaciousness.

  3. Not if the Chinese working class has anything to do with it fyp3p…remember that fascism always involves the destruction of working class power to the benefit of finance capital. This was the case in Germany (ref Behemoth, by Franz Neumann, a study of fascist Germany to treasure). The opposite is happening in China. The Chinese working class is beginning to self-organise for the first time.

    “There are well-intentioned critics who propagate that Cuba should embrace the free market magic and its propertied social relations from whence it follows that the Chinese model is appropriate. One recalls Deng Xiaoping’s epic outburst. “To be rich is glorious” Deng’s ideas and their reverberations have been discussed in depth for several years in Cuba. But let us be realistic. What is Deng’s rallying cry other than a resounding clamour for the restoration of capitalism? A visit to China’s cities and countryside and the monstrous inequalities between them and within them is amply confirmatory of the workings of the system. Its millionaires have become billionaires. China and Cuba belong to two opposed universes. China’s level of inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, is similar to that of American capitalism.”

    I’ve just looked at the UN index of inequality in Wikipedia. Frederic Clairmont is right. China’s Gini coefficient is higher than 37, the figure I remember. The UN figure for China is 46.9. China has more social inequality than the USA, at 40.8, the UK, at 36, Indonesia, at 34.3, and egalitarian Hungary, Norway, Japan and Denmark, all at 27 or below, but less social inequality than Brazil (57), Columbia (58.6) and South Africa (57.8).

    Since national well-being is directly related to levels of social equality in a given society (ref. the Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson, and http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk) it follows that Maoist China was preferable as a society, and that no amount of Han Chinese chauvinism will make up for the increasing levels of social dislocation.

    It also follows that fascist societies, which increase levels of social inequality, and enrich the few, are only sustainable for very short periods, as in Pinochet’s Chile, because eventually the people demand a return to the historic democratic norms
    of that society.

    China has not experienced the social democratic norms of the relatively small number of capitalist countries in the world that practice them. They may even be irrelevant in China. The reassertion of working class power is however most encouraging.

    1. Pinochet’s Chile was not a fascist state. It was a neoliberal dictatorship. backed by US imperialism and the CIA. You’ve got it backwards, fascism FIGHTS finance capital, look at Hitler when he freed Germany from the grips of the Rothshilds and other Satanaic international (jewish) bankers who were sucking Deutschland dry during the Weimar era.

      1. Yes, OK, I’ll give you that, Pinochet’s Chile is a bad example…it only has SOME of the characteristics of fascism. This is where the Nazi Party got their finance from:
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiibdV28ceM, at 1’23”: Finance Capital. Just not Jewish finance capital. Capitalism under Hitler reappropriated Jewish Finance Capital to the Gentile Capitalist class. There was no change in property relations. There was militarism, and there was a bloodbath. Fascism in ANY form, even non-classical fascism, results in a bloodbath. In the 1930s it resulted in imperial adventures, too. Hitler’s invasion and annexation of the lands to the East was still colonialism, as practised by all the Western European powers in Africa, with all colonialism’s authoritarian, racist practices and genocides (not restricted to European Jews, remember, but involving millions of Slavs, the Roma people and other groups), but INTERNAL TO EUROPE for the first time, the Belgian Congo in Europe, in a sense.

        Check out “Exterminate All The Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide” by Sven Lindqvist. Fascism was (an is) a profoundly reactionary and regressive step, and can only lead to bloodlust, conquest and an auto da fé.

        As I said, European fascism was the Congolese experience of the Belgian colonists brought home to the heartland. In the USA it’ll be Colombian style “democracy” (ha! ha!), with Nordicist racism and eugenics thrown in. Orientals like you won’t have a fucking chance. If you’re very lucky you’ll be racially selected for dangerous manual jobs, and mining. Your women will be forced to breed more manual workers.

        Good luck, fpy3p, if you get that vision materialising in your US of A. Send me a postcard from the forced labour camp for US citizens of Korean parentage. Oh, come to think of it, they won’t allow that….

        1. What’s with the sarcastic and insulting remarks? Frankly, I prefer ANYTHING to the current disgusting Jewish regime. Of course, I could always leave this country.

        2. I’m not insulting you personally fyp3p.

          In fact I like you, apart from your politics. I am just trying to point out to you, in a very blunt way, that in a Nordicist (as it would be) fascist US regime, you would be low in the racial pecking order, possibly above the blacks but below the Chicanos and the whites of European origin.

          Fascism establishes a racial hierarchy. It’s obvious to me. I am trying to make it obvious to you, not trying to insult you. You are evidently an intelligent man. I am trying to hit you in the face with the racial reality of your fascist utopia.

          Someone has to. What about it, Cyrus? Can you land the knockout punch?

        3. Why would we be below Chicanos? Are you kidding me? Not only are Mexicans darker-skinned than East Asians, but they’re also on the same level as the blacks in terms of intelligence and ability.

        4. I agree with this vision of fascism completely, Coppe. A superb summarization of the movement and a good idea of what it might look like in the US.

          True too that Pinochet was not a classic fascist regime. But still nasty.

  4. Wow. Sort of reminds me of the U.S use of immigrant and rural labor in factories in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Me thinks the Chinese are in for a little social-upheaval in the years to come.

    Someone, pass me the popcorn.

  5. Fpy3p…I’m guessing. You’re right. Skin colour would come into it. But wouldn’t you find that depressing?

    1. Not really. It’s human nature to be tribal and look out for your own kind. By the way, from my conversations online, many white nationalists are not hostile to my people. Sure, they would want us to go back to our homeland, but they actually respect us as a people, unlike the jews.

  6. Jews ARE whites. My guess is that US fascism would not target the Jews for removal. I can’t imagine it happening really. Jews are unlikely to back a US fascist movement, reducing its chances of success.

    1. You are obviously unaware of white nationalists in this country. They take an explicitly anti-Jewish stance, and they consider jews Semites (rightfully) not Europeans. Why would they try to get jewish backing when their goal is to fight them? And that is such an arrogant argument, that something has to have kike approval for it to succeed.

  7. No, I know nothing of US White nationalists. No such thing exists in the UK. Until I discovered Robert’s blog, if someone had said White nationalist to me I would have assumed they meant Klu Klux Klan. It seems WNs are rather more diverse than that. Robert considers Jews to be part of the white racial continuum. Do you consider him to be mistaken? Has he he got involved in disputing the rationality of the WNs racial categories with good reason?

    1. There’s a strong national socialist component within white nationalism that is distinct from the Klan, as it is based in more northern states, as opposed to the trash living in the Southern U.S.
      If you look at population genetics, it is clear that jews are not a European people, which most white people think of when they say “white”, but a Near Eastern, Mediterranean people. Even the Ashkenazis, who lived in eastern Europe for several generations are in fact very distant from their Slavic host populations. The closest genetic relatives to even Ashkenazis jews are Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Kurds, and Anatolian Turks.

  8. Of course I know the KKK are anti-semitic and anti-black. Goes with the territory. Looks like I’m not going to win this round. What are doing as a commentator on Robert’s blog when you are so profoundly hostile to liberal, universalist and socialist values? Humanism’s not your bag, is it?

    Wouldn’t you be in more sympathetic company on Stormfront? On tis blog you must expect to be challenged again and again, and to be mocked. Not my cup of tea. Maybe you like the verbal whips and slingshots? It’s ok with me. I’ll bung a few in your direction when the idea appeals to me. So will Cyrus. I’ve seen him doing it already.

    1. I am sympathetic to certain kinds of socialism; universalism and liberalism are anathema to me.
      What do you make of my comments about Ashkenazi genetics. If you’re gonna consider them “white”, you also have to do it for the brown-skinned Syrians, Palestinians and Turks.

  9. The Lebanese, the Syrians, Palestinians and Turks I consider as white Caucasians. Iranians, Iraqis and Pakistanis too. Afghanis are often Caucasian, sometimes with an admixture of Mongoloid, Indians from the North are usually Caucasians. I have a Syrian friend in the Palestine Solidarity movement. He is as white as me. The perception of racial difference among closely related genetic human groups belongs to ideology, not to science.
    Usually to fascist and colonialist ideology. Take your pick.

    It was only in the colonial imagination that Jews were considered as “dark”, and Palestinians are considered as dark skinned today. Zionism is part of the colonial imagination. Not imagination alone, unfortunately.

    Ashkenazi genes are rather heterogenous. If the Jewish genetic inheritance is only matrilineal, plenty of dilution has gone on over the past three thousand years. Conversions, husbands who have adopted the faith, “marrying out” etc. I consider genetic Jewishness to be something of a delusion, both for the Jews themselves and the anti-semites who oppose them. Stuff and nonsense, like fascist ideology.

  10. A US fascist regime would probably be Nordicist of some type (but not necessarily, it could be Pan-Europeanist a la Stormfront), and Koreans would not be top dogs. And fascism always establishes a racial pecking order, it is true. And a US Nordicist regime always would.

  11. If you want to know what a US fascist regime WILL look like (because you’ll have it within 2-3 years, maybe months) just look at the Bush and Obama presidencies and Sarah Palin, and add martial law. ‘Nordicist’? Are you fucking serious? The Nords (for short – that will mean something else to 2000 AD fans) are NOWHERE, just a bunch of nerds on the internet, or some motorbike gangs. They don’t own the Fed, the Congress, the banks, the rest of it….

    US fascism will be Judeo-Christian i.e. it will have the solid backing of the 70 million poorly educated country people who think the ‘Left Behind’ books are a genuine prophecy. It will have a military, firmly under the control of a Republican guard (or Cheka if you like), drawn from an ‘unpopular minority’ and therefore bound to the system for their own protection, who will be equipped with ‘next generation’ weapons, and will have full access to all the computer codes for command and control (this is already in place) so rebellion is impossible.
    If you let this happen, the US and the world will NEVER recover, at least not for maybe a thousand years. There are NO ‘iron-clad laws of history’ that make the transition of capitalism to socialism inevitable. A return of feudalism and slavery is far more likely; and it will be a feudalism so brutal it will make the middle ages look like Woodstock. Wake up!

      1. Lafayette, you scared the shit out of me with your post.Don’t you think that without the fundamental economic supports of a dollar as reserve currency and China continuing to buy our Treasuries, the system would (thankfully) collapse rather than going into a high-tech dystopia as you described? High-tech bull shit can only go so far in an age of increasing resource scarcity. I think Russia, China, and other countries are planning ahead just in case Uncle Sam pulls some crazy shit.

        1. “Fascism was (and is) a profoundly reactionary and regressive step, and can only lead to bloodlust, conquest and an auto da fé.”

          I cite a review of the novel by Elias Canetti here:
          (on fascism as mass psychosis)

          Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

          Auto da Fe was published in 1935, at a turbulent time when Canetti was living in Vienna. In 1927 he was caught up in a mob which burned down the Palace of Justice and he has written of how he felt himself swept along as part of it. As a result, the psychology of the masses came to interest him. Auto da Fe, however, does not deal with mass psychosis but rather seeks to understand the masses through a depiction of a complete outsider. The novel deals powerfully with disconnection, reflecting a rupture in society which at the time was profound. Its protagonist, Peter Kien, is an otherworldly figure, quite unable to comprehend or seek compromise with the modern world. He is a sinologist, devoted to his books and to the establishment of his own private library. He lives an ascetic life, poring over his books, buying new ones, seeking through study an understanding of society that is completely beyond his misanthropic nature.

          He is duped by his housekeeper, Therese, who feigns an interest in his books and inveigles her way into his, if not affection, then at least comprehension. They marry and after a series of farcical interludes she robs him of his fortune. She is a seedy character, obsessed with sex and money, and she is drawn by Canetti in grotesque detail. Kien’s next acquaintance, a dwarf called Fischerle, is equally obsessed, this time with becoming a great chess champion. Thus, the novel begins to depict how the self-centredness of society leads to its breakdown. Each character, in want of his or her own gratification, sees others as merely tools, or stepping stones over which to cross in pursuit of a greater goal. This is how society disintegrates. It is easy to understand why the Nazis chose to ban Auto da Fe when it was first published.

          Indeed, the novel’s most grotesque character, Benedikt Pfaff, the ex-police officer who is concierge of Kien’s block of apartments, is a hideous portrayal of the sort of small-minded, malevolent spirits who flocked to Hitler’s brand of grandiose mythologising. He is one of the most repulsive characters in literature, a man whose mistreatment of his wife precipitates her death and who, after this event, turns his daughter into his personal slave. In the following passage he forces his daughter to recite a perverse catechism which portrays starkly how she has become his “prisoner”:

          “A father has the right to…” “…the love of his child.” Loud and toneless, as though she were at school, she completed his sentences, but she felt very low.
          “For getting married my daughter…” – he held out his arm – “… has no time.”
          “She gets her keep from…” “… her good father.”
          “Other men do do not want…” “… to have her.”
          “What could a man do with…” “… the silly child.”
          “Now her father’s going to…” “… arrest her.”
          “On father’s knee sits…” “… his obedient daughter.”
          “A man gets tired in the…” “… police.”
          “If my daughter isn’t obedient she gets…” “… thrashed.”
          “Her father knows why he…” “… thrashes her.”
          “My daughter isn’t ever…” “… hurt.”
          “She’s got to learn what she…” “… owes to her father.”
          He had gripped her and pulled her on to his knee; with his right hand he pinched her neck, because she was under arrest, with his left he eased the belchings out of his throat. Both sensations pleased him. She summoned her small intelligence to conclude his sentences rightly and took care not to cry. For hours he fondled her. He instructed her in the special holds he had invented himself, pushed her this way and that, and showed her how every criminal could be overpowered by a juicy blow in the stomach, because who wouldn’t feel ill after that?

          This astounding passage works on two levels. Firstly, the depiction of the personal abuse of a child by someone in a position of familial authority is horrifying. That alone would make this a fine piece of writing, but Canetti elevates it above the merely personal by using it to parody the Nazi regime, its abuse of power, the insidious way it justified senseless violence by attesting that it is “good” for the individual, because it “cures” their criminal behaviour. Thus Canetti does begin to explore the mass neurosis that overcame Nazi Germany in that dark period of our history, and by personalising it in this way he makes the horror all the more real. It is a wonderful piece of writing.

          Surrounded by such a cast of cheats and demons, the naive Kien has no chance and the novel spirals towards an inevitable climax. Kien’s brother, George, a psychiatrist who is practically the only sympathetic character in the book, appears and attempts to save him, but it is to no avail, and Kien and his library perish in a conflagration which mirrors the book burnings of the Nazi regime.

          Auto da Fe is most certainly not an easy read. It is very long and, to our modern tastes, rather dense. There is humour, but it is particularly black, and the surreal horror it depicts is largely unleavened. The sort of Hobbesian society that Canetti conjures up is unappealing, but part of that lack of appeal may lie in the uncomfortable mirror it may be holding towards us.

          Still fancy it fpy3p? You’re welcome…if you’re going to found a fascist society with your buddies, I suggest a terra incognita. Antarctica’s perfect.

        2. Fascism is about sacrificing self-gratification for the greater good of nation and race. So you’re wrong on that point. Second, your criticism of fascism sounds a lot more like the evil, filthy kikes who run the media and banks in America than Herr Hitler and his comrades.

  12. Apologies (to all: especially as it is long) to http://www.thechinabeat.org for lifting this, but it seemed so germane to the issues of the Chinese model of development raised in Johann Hari’s article:

    Questioning the “Chinese Model of Development”
    July 28, 2010 in Books by The China Beat | 2 comments
    A Critical Reading of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013

    By Zhansui Yu

    Chinese, following Chairman Mao’s famous phrase, tend to use the expression “like a fire burning in the wilderness” [燎原之火 liaoyuan zhi huo] to describe the unexpected rise and popularity of something marginalized or rebellious. Since the literary explosion in the years immediately after Mao’s death, mainland Chinese literary circles have rarely witnessed such a “wild fire.” Recently, however, a fierce literary “fire” suddenly broke out and shocked the entire Chinese intellectual world. The spark that ignited this fire is Chan Koon-chung’s 陈冠中 political novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 [盛世:中国 2013]. [1]

    The novel is set against the surreal background of the year 2013, when China reaches the peak of its prosperity, and the whole nation’s people—except for a few—suddenly contract “collective amnesia.” That is, a month-long period has been erased from the memory of the entire population, and all are intoxicated with the feeling of happiness. The book is divided into two parts. Part one introduces the main characters, focusing on their personal experiences and fates in the ever-changing political surges. Part two tells the story of how Fang Caodi 方草地, one of several people who inexplicably have memories of the terrifying lost month, and the Taiwanese writer Old Chen 老陈 together cross half of China’s territory to look for Little Xi 小希, who is both a potential witness to the lost month and Old Chen’s true love. During their long journey in search of Little Xi, the true face of a China with astonishing darkness behind its dazzling material prosperity unfolds before the two men. The story culminates with the truth-seekers kidnapping a high-ranking Chinese official named He Dongsheng 何东生, who is forced to tell the truth of the lost month. After learning that the Chinese “golden age” is achieved by cunning, deception, and terror, the characters decide to permanently leave this “prosperous, powerful, and happy” China.

    It has become quite clear that the success of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 lies mainly in its political nature. What makes the novel unique is that it represents the first Chinese political novel which deals with the fundamental principles of the so-called “Chinese model of development” in a critical way. The intellectual strength of the novel can be summarized as follows: It exposes three problems, reveals three reasons, and raises three questions regarding the “Chinese model of development.”

    * * *

    In the novel, Zhuang Zizhong 庄子仲, a founder of the leading Chinese intellectual journal Dushu, lists ten major features of the “Chinese model.” They are: “democratic one-Party dictatorship, rule of law with social stability as its top priority, an authoritarian government for the people, a state-controlled market economy, fair competition dominated by the central government-owned enterprises, scientific development with Chinese characteristics, self-centered harmonious diplomacy, a multi-racial republic with sovereignty of one people, post-Occidental and ‘post-universal’ thought of the subject, and national rejuvenation of the incomparable Chinese civilization.” As readers might easily discern, almost each of the ten qualities is a combination of two incompatible elements such as “democratic” and “one-Party dictatorship,” “authoritarian” and “for the people,” “multi-racial republic” and “the sovereignty of one people,” etc. The novel exposes three major problems inherent in the Chinese model:

    (1) The predatory nature of the model. As demonstrated by the life of Zhang Dou 张逗, a child slave, and the fate of a little village in Hebei province which has been pushed to the brink of extinction by lethal pollution from a nearby chemical factory, as well as many other similar cases, the astonishingly rapid accumulation of wealth on the part of the Party-state and a tiny minority of the privileged is actually achieved by preying on the most vulnerable members of society and by passing on problems to future generations.

    (2) The collusion of varied elite groups in a monopoly of state power and in manipulating the people for their own purposes. The best example of this phenomenon is the “SS reading class” [SS 读书班 SS dushu ban]. The class is an organization composed of elites in every important aspect of society. It not only works as a conduit for information exchange among its members, but more importantly, it also serves as a hub to connect the whole nation’s elites. The primary task of the class is to inculcate in the younger generations its doctrine, which is essentially fascism in the guise of nationalism and patriotism. At the core of the doctrine is a philosophy proposing that hatred is the sole driving force for human activity, and that only after a nation is charged with hatred will it be energized and finally achieve wealth and power.

    (3) Massive abuse of power on the part of the corrupt bureaucracy. The miserable experiences of Little Xi, a victim of and witness to the abuse, illustrate the regime’s surveillance over and persecution of its own people and the astonishing arbitrariness of the judicial system.

    * * *

    Exposure of the Party-state’s manipulation of popular memory and of historical truth and the disastrous consequences this brings to China is another pronounced theme of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013. Taking Little Xi’s only son, Wei Guo 韦国, as an example, the author provides a convincing assessment of how deceptive propaganda, historical misrepresentation, and forced amnesia work together to severely distort the personality and mentality of China’s new generations. In tracing the causes for the distortion, the author points to three factors:

    (1) The Party-state’s dictatorship. In the novel, the Party-state’s manipulation and control of the nation’s mentality are symbolically represented by the government treating China’s drinking water with a chemical which can change people’s moods. This is the secret behind the entire nation’s intoxication with the feeling of happiness.

    (2) Chinese intellectuals’ abandonment of their role as “social conscience” and their complicity with the Party-state. In response to Old Chen’s question of “whether Chinese intellectuals are really willing to reconcile with the Party,” Zhuang Zizhong repudiates this as a pseudo-question. As he argues, “the real question is not whether the intellectuals are willing to reconcile with the Party but whether the Party is willing to forgive the intellectuals [for their trouble-making and disloyalty]” He asserts that “recognition by the Party” is the greatest success and honor possible for Dushu and for himself. It turns out that Chinese intellectuals are bought into the system through the material gains and social status granted to them by the Party.

    (3) Acquiescence and indifference on the part of ordinary Chinese people. As the national leader He Dongsheng points out, though the Central Propaganda Department does indeed do a lot of work to cover up the truth of the lost month, it is the Chinese people themselves who choose to forget in the first place. As he argues, “If it were not that the Chinese people want to forget, it would be not possible for us to force them to do so.” He concludes that “it is the ordinary Chinese people themselves who voluntarily take the drug which causes the amnesia.”

    * * *

    Apart from exposing the pathology of the Chinese model and tracing the reasons for the historical and mental distortion in China, the novel also raises three philosophical questions regarding the Chinese model in particular and, more broadly, the modern nation-state:

    (1) The first question targets the moral and political legitimacy of the regime’s rule in China. As confessed by He Dongsheng, the Party-state, in order to carry out its grand economic rescue plan, adopts Machiavellian-style strategies to rule the country, and treats its people as an uncivilized and irrational mob in the Hobbesian sense. It turns out that the Chinese “golden age” is actually achieved by cunning, deception, bloodshed, and terror. This is the very reason why the Party-state works so painstakingly to erase the people’s memory of the violence, cruelty, and horror of the missing month. The question is: Is it morally and politically legitimate for a nation-state which defines itself as founded on “people’s sovereignty” or “people’s democracy,” and whose constitution presents workers and peasants as its leading classes, to treat its people merely as slaves or mobs in the Hobbesian sense? Is a political system is a good one if it values only economic success and national interests while ignoring human rights and individual freedoms?

    (2) A second question raised in the novel concerns international relations. He Dongsheng explains, and Fang Caodi sees firsthand, that the Chinese government adopts sheer utilitarianism, vulgar materialism, and the notion of the absolute superiority of China’s national interests as its guiding principles in its international relations. When the Chinese government deals with African countries, for example, it is only interested in those countries’ natural resources; it never cares whether or not those countries’ governments commit genocide or other human rights violations. As Fang Caodi states, “Chinese are not different from those old European colonists; they both collude with the corrupt local elite ruling groups to extort natural resources from the locality.” The question is: If a party-state which builds its moral superiority and political legitimacy on the discourse of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism behaves exactly like the old imperialists and colonialists, how can it maintain both the credibility of its ideology as well as the source for its moral superiority and political legitimacy?

    (3) Toward the end of the novel, in response to the truth-seekers’ accusation that the Chinese regime behaves like Fascists, He Dongsheng tells them that even if the current Chinese system can be considered fascism, it is merely at its primary stage. It could be upgraded to a much more advanced and therefore much more horrible form. At this point, we actually reach the most profound question posed in the novel: What are the consequences if a superpower is completely out of its people’s control? In some sense, we might say that all the descriptions in the novel actually aim at this single question.

    * * *

    A novel which has changed the way that Chinese define political fiction, Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 is a groundbreaking work. It presents a truly critical and in-depth reflection on the Chinese model of development, especially concerning the real and potential negative consequences that it could bring about.

    The novel can be read, from a social-political perspective, as a realistic presentation of the shocking darkness behind the dazzling economic miracle created by the Chinese model. It also proposes that China’s younger generations suffer from the consequences of collective amnesia and historical half-truths imposed by the Party-state. The book can also be read, from a philosophical perspective, as an allegory of the modern nation-state. Taking China as a case study, by questioning the morality and political legitimacy of the Chinese model of development, the novel is intended to lead us to the potential catastrophes that a modern nation-state may bring about if it is out of its people’s control. In this sense, this novel also represents a philosophical reflection on the fundamental principles of the modern nation-state and a warning against the blind belief in its absolute superiority.

    [1] The title of the novel now has several translations. The author himself translated it as The Fat Years: China 2013. Paul Mooney, in an essay for the South China Morning Post, rendered it as The Golden Age: China 2013. Linda Jaivin, in a recent article for China Heritage Quarterly, translated it as In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013.

    Zhansui Yu is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He will teach Chinese as visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University starting September 2010. He conducts research on modern Chinese literature and thought.

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