Thursday, 17 November 2011


David Wingrove and I have been friends for more than thirty years, and he's been writing science fiction (which I used to do a lot of; that is how we met) for as long as I've been writing supernatural stuff. He's partly known for his series of Myst fantasy novels, based on the popular game. But what he's best known for is his Chung Kuo series, which depicts a space-age future ruled by the Chinese. And now Corvus books are relaunching the whole saga again in 20 volumes. The first -- Son of Heaven -- is already out in paperback, while the second -- Daylight on Iron Mountain -- has just been released to ecstatic reviews from The Guardian, which called it 'excellent.' In the course of researching this massive set of novels, Dave has become something of an expert on the subject of China, and has been blogging daily about it and other Chung Kuo related matters. So from this point on, I'll let him tell it in his own words.

A Product Of Unnatural Growth

China, in the last thirty years, has undergone the kind of transformational changes that the industrial West took a leisurely century and more to assimilate. It has seen exaggerated, almost unnatural growth.

One of the most common visual symbols of this are the rows of massive tower blocks that seem to be thrown up overnight in response to the twenty million or so Chinese peasants who flood into the cities every year. In our own version of the Industrial revolution, between 1780 say and 1880, we saw people move from the country to the town in large numbers. My own family, on both the Wingrove and the Jackson sides, was part of that. Battersea, in South London, where they settled, went from being a rural area with a population of 5,000 in 1860, to one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the country, with the two biggest engine yards in the country and a population of 170,000 in a mere twenty years. But it was nothing like what is happening in China. What’s different is the sheer scale of things. What the Chinese are experiencing is four or five times as fast and at least ten times the size.

The positives are massive - China has gone from being a third world power to potentially the world’s biggest superpower in one generation, liberating something like a billion people from poverty in the process – but so too are the negatives. Pollution, massive social problems and potential economic instability: these are the Big Three Negatives that face the Chinese people and their government.

Culturally, too, China is changing, though it’s hard to gauge whether such changes are temporary and fleeting. One thing is for certain: China is changing in response to what its people are experiencing, not merely from their increasing travels in the West, but from what they see and hear on their media. There are undoubtedly some parallels to Japan in that regard. But… China is China. And when China does something, it is always “with Chinese characteristics”. Much more than Japan, China hangs on to its traditions and its ways much more stubbornly than its Asian partners.

The Western media pays a lot of attention to censorship in China – to how it affects not merely how people behave socially, but also what they create artistically. I made a slightly humourous mention of China banning Time Travel in yesterday’s blog, but in some ways it’s not so funny. For all that change is in the air, with a centralized Communist government in charge such change is closely monitored and, from time to time, cracked down on. The result of this is that we’ve seen brief flowerings of modern Chinese culture – in art, cinema, music and literature – flowerings that incorporate a strong influence of the West, but the active word there is brief. What would attract debate in the West, in China finds itself banned, just as soon as the authorities manage to work out what’s been happening.

Because art – in all its forms - is an expression of freedom, and what the CCP don’t seem to want is freedom, because freedom is a road that leads away from a centrally-planned economy, and away from CCP control. It’s a road that leads directly to Democracy, and they can’t have that.

Now that’s a separate debate, and I’ll come to that in its turn – maybe in the coming week – but it has to be borne in mind when you’re talking about whether China will go the way of Japan and assimilate Western culture. Because that’s what a lot of people are saying, and they’re missing one huge and obvious point. Japan had no say in it. They had Western culture forced upon them as a result of them losing World War Two and being reduced to the status of supplicant nation. To reject the West wasn’t an option for Japan, and to a great degree (so I believe from what I’ve seen and read) they’ve benefitted, maybe even enjoyed the process, becoming a hybrid nation culturally. Japanese youth look like their Western counterparts and, with a few idiosyncrasies, act like them, and that – on the surface – can be said of the latest generation of rich, middle class Chinese. Only there are big differences. China – as a political entity – can choose what it wants to keep from the Western “package” and reject the rest. It doesn’t have to assimilate. And though that may not be what a lot of the new generation want, that’s what they’re going to get, because what the CCP says goes.

If you’re in any doubt about that, I’d remind you of what recently happened to China’s leading modern painter, Ai Wei Wei, who was feted by the West, and now languishes under house arrest, having had his new studio (valued at something over a million dollars) demolished by the authorities. His crime? To have an opinion on human rights. Now this is one of their most influential artists – he helped create Beijing’s Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium, for god’s sake! And the fact that the Chinese government can adopt such bully-boy tactics and get away with it directly affects what kind of art is subsequently produced. Chinese artists (and musicians and film-makers and writers) learn very quickly these days that they’re not to piss off the authorities. Because bad things will happen if they do. And this is how the CCP ultimately controls the new culture. By stern disapproval, and punishments, and house arrest, and all of those other methods that remind us so clearly in the West of what Stalin and Hitler did.

Now, I’m not making a direct comparison there. China isn’t, thankfully, Stalinist Russia, and it’s not a Nazi state. As I said, there are positives about the new China just as there are negatives. But a certain heavy handedness of the kind that tyrants and repressive governments use, has been very much in evidence since what in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Again, it’s an expression of that governmental fear of losing control that riddles the CCP. If you look at the history of recent Chinese film-making, for instance, you’ll see a direct correlation between freedom of expression pre-Tiananmen, and an absence of the same thereafter. Again, I’ll blog about the details of this sometime soon. But it’s akin to what happened in the USA in the forties and fifties, with ‘the list’ and great film-makers like Frank Capra finding themselves unable any longer to make their movies. [Which is just to say that our hands are far from clean in this respect].

In all of this, it’s important to note that things are far from sewn up in China. Right now the powers that be are still in charge, still capable of exerting such negative influence. But things are changing. China is catching up with the world, and as it does – as the number of millionaires goes through the roof and the success of their economy results in four hundred million new middle class to join the world’s vast pool of purchasers - so the CCP and the Nine Men at its heart, will be forced to take measures to placate their newly-rich citizens. To give them a modicum of the freedom that comes along with the Western economic package.

How much or how little we can’t yet guess; only that the CCP will attempt to control things, to keep the great balancing act going. Because – for right or wrong – these guys are the ultimate control freaks. Modern China was born from a frenzy of social control, from the radical liberation of its people from old ways of behaving. New Sky thinking is what they called it, and, call it what you will, it’s a form of brain washing. But that said… four hundred million people with economic clout. Surely something has to change?

Okay. More tomorrow. Until then…. Tsai chien!

David Wingrove 31st July 2011

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