The Dark Side of the
Ma Jian on the Short Path from Utopia to Dystopia
In November 2012, two weeks after being crowned General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and a few months before being appointed President, Xi Jinping visited the lavishly refurbished National Museum of China, a vast Stalinist structure on the eastern edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square directly opposite the Mao Mausoleum. With six other black-suited, blank-faced members of the Politbureau Standing Committee, he wandered through “The Road to Rejuvenation,” a huge exhibition that charts China’s modern history from the First Opium War of 1839 to the present day. In room after room, photographs and artefacts chronicle China’s humiliation at the hands of colonial powers, the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 and the nation’s subsequent rise under Communist Party rule.
But nowhere in this cavernous exhibition space is there any mention of the catastrophes inflicted by Chairman Mao and his successors, such as the Great Leap Forward, a reckless campaign to transform China into a Communist utopia, which caused a famine that claimed over twenty million lives; the mass psychosis of the Cultural Revolution that plunged China into a decade of mob violence, chaos and stagnation; and the 1989 massacre of peaceful pro-democracy protestors in the streets around Tiananmen Square. In this museum, and in the bookshops and classrooms outside it, China’s post-1949 history is cleansed of darkness and reduced to an anodyne, joyful fairy tale.
At the end of his visit, Xi Jinping announced his “China Dream of national rejuvenation,” promising that continued Communist rule would lead to even greater economic wealth and restore China to its past glory. Since then, this vague and nebulous slogan has formed the bedrock of his administration. Like the despots who preceded him, he has strengthened his grip on power by suppressing information about the hell that Communism has caused and promising a future paradise. But utopias always lead to dystopias, and dictators invariably become gods who demand daily worship. As I write, China’s rubber-stamp parliament has abolished limits on presidential terms, allowing Xi Jinping to remain president for life. The clumsily titled “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has been enshrined in the constitution. And recently, the education minister pledged that “Xi Jinping Thought” will go into textbooks, classrooms and “the brains of students.”
China’s tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people’s lives: they have always sought to enter people’s brains and remold them from the inside. In fact, it was the Chinese Communists in the 1950s who coined the term “brainwashing” (“xinao”). The China Dream is another beautiful lie concocted by the state to remove dark memories from Chinese brains and replace them with happy thoughts. Decades of indoctrination, propaganda, violence and untruths have left the Chinese people so numb and confused, they have lost the ability to tell fact from fiction. They have swallowed the lie that the Party leaders are responsible for the country’s economic miracle, rather than the vast army of low-paid workers. The rabid consumerism encouraged in the last thirty years and which, along with inflated nationalism, lies at the heart of the China Dream is turning the Chinese into overgrown children who are fed, clothed and entertained, but have no right to remember the past or ask questions.
But a writer’s job is to probe the darkness and, above all, to tell the truth. I wrote China Dream out of rage against the false utopias that have enslaved and infantilized China since 1949, and to reclaim the most brutal period of its recent history—the “violent struggle” phase of the Cultural Revolution—from a regime that continues to repress it. The book is filled with absurdities, both real and invented. The China Dream Bureaus, Red Guard Nightclubs and mass wedding anniversary ceremonies for octogenarian couples, for example, really do exist in today’s China. The China Dream Soup and neural implant are of course products of my imagination. In my effort to express a higher literary truth, my novels have always melded fact with fiction.
Thirty years ago, I wrote my first book, a fictional meditation on Tibet called Stick Out Your Tongue. A few weeks after it was published, the government condemned it as “spiritual pollution” and ordered all copies to be rounded up and destroyed. Since then, every novel I have written has been banned in the mainland. My name is excluded from official lists of Chinese writers and compendiums of Chinese fiction; it can’t even be mentioned in the press. And worse still, for the last six years, the government has denied me the right to return.
But I continue to “write, write, write,” like the father of China Dream’s protagonist. I continue to take refuge in the beauty of the Chinese language and use it to drag memories out from the fog of state-imposed amnesia, to deride and mock China’s despots and sympathize with their victims, while remaining conscious that in evil dictatorships, most people are both oppressor and oppressed. Exile is a cruel punishment. But living in the West allows me to see through the fog of lies that shrouds my homeland, and produce the only kind of writing I care about: the full, truthful, untrammeled expression of an author’s vision of the world.
And despite everything, I have not surrendered completely to pessimism. I still believe that truth and beauty are transcendental forces that will outlive man-made tyrannies. I hope that perhaps by the time my children reach my age, one or two of my novels might be found in a bookshop in China. More importantly, I hope that the Chinese Communist Party, that has imprisoned the minds and brutalized the bodies of the Chinese people for almost seventy years, and whose growing influence is beginning to corrupt democracies around the world, will be consigned to dusty exhibition rooms of the National Museum. When that day arrives, I hope the Chinese people will be able to confront the nightmares of the past, speak the truth as they see it without fear of reprisal and follow dreams of their own making, their minds and hearts unchained.
–Ma Jian, London, March 2018; translated by Flora Drew
From the afterword to China Dream, by Ma Jian, courtesy Counterpoint. Copyright 2019 Ma Jian.