Saturday, April 16, 2011

“The Fat Years”

Chan Koonchung (陈冠中) author of 2013, The Fat Years (盛世:中国2013年) spoke at the Beijing ex-pat bookstore, The Bookworm recently. The book’s premise of a dystopian near-future where China dominates the world, will be popular in the West when they release it in English sometime soon, but meanwhile I have a few thoughts.

Chan Koonchung

The central idea of the novel is that the people are unhappy and somehow not really free, in spite of their material possessions. One part of the plot revolves around a strange realization that the country has lost a month on the calendar, which nobody can recall.

A few ideas occurred to me while listening to the author:

  • Hong Kong, where the author is originally from, is really a different place. Though dominated by the mainland, its identity is being forced into sharper focus because of the looming merger of political systems set to happen fifty years after 1997.
  • Beijing, which the author describes as his favorite place on earth, is experiencing extremely rapid change, particularly since 2000. The idea of a “lost month” in the novel comes from the experience of living here and regularly realizing that major changes happen all the time and never being able to pinpoint exactly when or how.
  • The author does not believe that the Communist Party is simply another dynasty. The ancient Chinese belief in a cyclical view of history is just not true anymore in the face of the force of modernity. China is just another nation-state that must confront liberalization and democracy just like every other aspiring emerging country.

Just a few new ideas to add to my highly-incomplete picture of China, and a mental note that I must learn more about the Hong Kong (and Taiwan) perception of this place if I really want to understand it.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Anonymous Exchange

Human progress depends on specialization, which in turn requires successful cooperation, often among people far away and unknown to each other, referred to by the economist John Nye and others as anonymous exchange.

This is difficult for many non-Westerners to understand or appreciate. Trust an unknown stranger? in the same way you trust anyone else?  But modern, large societies do it all the time, from accepting green pieces of paper (dollars) as payment for a service, to taking as fact the words in a newspaper column telling us who won the election. Okay, sometimes we don’t completely trust others, but the violations are in the breach, and we feel wronged when the trust is broken.

In China I once needed a taxi from one airport terminal to another. I was in a hurry, didn’t know my directions, and a taxi was there so I hopped in.  The driver suspiciously didn’t turn on the meter, a fact which I interpreted as kindness toward a stranger, until we arrived and he insisted that I pay far, far more than the adequate fare.

Why did he rip me off?  Because he assumed I was leaving the country, would never return, and was to him completely and totally anonymous. If I had been a relative, or a friend of a relative, or a member of a community that he respects or thinks of as related to his, then I'm sure he would have treated me very differently.

We hear about this in China all the time, from businessmen who cheat on their foreign partners, to a trusted Ayi (maid) who steals from her employer. Of course such fraud happens in any society, but I think China particularly sees this through the eyes of a not-quite-ended feudalism, an underdeveloped place where you naturally trust only those to whom you have a family or other strong kinship.