Is the China Dream Really an Orwellian Nightmare?

Dissident novelist Ma Jian on how 1984's predictions have come true in China

Guard in front a portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square
“Tiananmen Guard” by yuan2003 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

On June 4th, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I was reading a dark political satire called China Dream. The tenth novel by Chinese dissident Ma Jian follows the mental breakdown of a buffoonish, corrupt local official, Ma Daode. Ma’s bureau is developing a neural implant which will erase the memories of the Chinese people, replacing them with “the China Dream”—that is, with President Xi Jinping’s national propaganda campaign.

Director Ma desperately wants the neural implant for himself. He is plagued by memories of the Cultural Revolution which surface inconveniently in the midst of meetings and speeches. He often finds himself confusing the violence enacted today in the name of Xi Jinping with that enacted half a century ago in the name of Chairman Mao. And yet, when he contemplates erasing his memories of his parents, who committed suicide after Ma himself denounced them to Mao’s Red Guards, he falters. He is not sure if he could live without their memories, however painful they are to carry. 

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As I read China Dream, I found myself struggling to gauge the distance between Ma Jian’s dystopian fiction and the dystopian reality he seeks to lay bare. Ma Daode repeatedly encounters frightening instances of cultural amnesia, which I read as satirical exaggeration. “The ‘culture rebellion’, or whatever you call it—we know nothing about that,” a young farmer tells Ma in the village of Yaobang. His daughter texts him about a British protest of “the so-called Tiananmen Square Massacre” which is “full of lies, of course, cooked up by foreign reactionaries seeking to hamper China’s rise.” Surely, I thought, young people are not so easily brainwashed. In fact, Ma Jian insisted when we spoke, “the brainwashing has for the most part succeeded.”  

There are still, of course, those who carry personal memories, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ensured that the Tiananmen Square anniversary passed silently in China. For months prior, Chinese activists were detained, forced into disappearance, questioned, or put under house arrest by government authorities, according to Amnesty International and Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The New York Times reported that censors were more vigorous than usual, quickly removing WeChat posts that mentioned or even cryptically evoked the anniversary, and that many mainland residents had difficulty connecting to virtual private networks, which are often used to access sites and apps that are blocked in China. Police security checkpoints at the entrances to Tiananmen Square made tourists and visitors wait up to an hour in line. 

The CCP’s diligence at suppressing the historic record of the massacre is so effective that, despite the work of local activists, historians, and international human rights groups, the number of deaths and people detained on June 4th of 1989, when the military opened fire on the peaceful, student-led, pro-democracy protests in Beijing and across China, remain unknown. Certainly hundreds were killed in the streets, but many estimate that it was thousands. 

We can attribute my confusion over the line between reality and dystopian satire, in part, to my ignorance; I have never been to China, and I do not know what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime (despite the authoritarian tendencies in the current U.S. administration…!) But the experience of disorientation in China Dream, Ma Jian assures me, is also intentional: “The aim is to show how easy it is for a society to slip into madness, for reality to become absurd. I want the reader to constantly ask themselves what is real and what is fake, then ask the more important moral question of what is good and what is evil.” 

Ma Jian has based himself outside of China—first in Hong Kong and now in London—since he published his first novel, Stick Out Your Tongue, in 1987. The novel cut a stark portrait of Tibet under Chinese occupation, and was immediately denounced by the CCP as “spiritual pollution.” All copies on the mainland were destroyed, and a blanket ban was placed on Ma’s future writing. Ma kept a home in China and often went back to live there until 2011, when the government banned him from returning. “Exile is a cruel punishment,” he writes in the introduction to China Dream, “but living in the West allows me to see through the fog of lies that shrouds my homeland.” Despite the fact that his novels cannot be read in Mainland China, despite the CCP’s recent turn towards its most severely authoritarian rule in decades, “despite everything,” he refuses to surrender to pessimism: “I still believe that truth and beauty are transcendental forces that will outlive man-made tyrannies.” 

I spoke with Ma Jian over email, via his partner and longtime translator, Flora Drew.

Alison Lewis: What was the seed of this novel for you? 

Ma Jian: It was a visit Xi Jinping made to an exhibition on modern China in Beijing’s National Museum [in November of 2012, shortly before being appointed President]. He wandered through the vast halls with his fellow Politburo members—a throng of blank-faced apparatchiks with dyed-black hair. The exhibition charted China’s modern history from the humiliation of the Opium War to the “spectacular rise” under Communist rule, but there was no mention of the catastrophes inflicted by Chairman Mao and his successors—the Great Famine, for example, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Massacre. After viewing this whitewashing of the past, Xi Jinping announced his vision of the future: the “China Dream of national rejuvenation.” He promised that continued rule by the Communist Party would lead the country to even greater prosperity and restore it to its former central place in the world. This vision struck me as another beautiful lie dreamed up by the CCP in order to remove dark memories from Chinese brains and replace them with a false utopia. 

Orwell’s predictions have come true. Big Brother, Doublethink, Newspeak, the erasure of the past—this is the reality of China today.

Since then, the China Dream has become the leitmotif of President Xi’s rule. The slogan is everywhere, inescapable. I wanted to write about the truth behind this beautiful lie—the totalitarian drive to control not just the past and the future, but every aspect of human life, including the most intimate regions of the human mind. Orwell was of course a deep inspiration. 1984 is his warning to the world. He was saying: this is what happens if tyranny is given free rein. In China Dream, I wanted to show that Orwell’s predictions have come true. His dystopian script is being played out right now in China: Big Brother, Doublethink, Newspeak, the erasure of the past—this is the reality of China today. And with the rise of fake news, surveillance and official lies in the West, truth has become under threat everywhere. Orwell’s warnings went unheeded, and now all of us are paying the price. 

AL: Ma Daode is a despicably self-serving protagonist in a position of relative power—but he is also a character who suffered enormously throughout the Cultural Revolution, and still suffers from his memories. As you say in your introduction, “in evil dictatorships, most people are both oppressor and oppressed.” But I’m curious to know what it felt like to spend so long inside Ma Daode’s head? Were you often angry with him? Were the contradictions in his character a source of solace or of frustration? 

MJ: I see each novel as a chance to become someone I could never be in real life. In The Dark Road, I became a pregnant woman on the run from China’s family planning police. I sympathized with her plight and admired her courage, humor and grit. In Beijing Coma, I inhabited the body of a Tiananmen Democracy protester, who lies in a coma for ten years after being shot in the head by a soldier. He is an “everyman” who, in his coma, becomes a seer, a prophet. 

For China Dream, though, I had to become a person I despised: a corrupt, womanizing Party leader. It’s true that in China, everyone is a victim of the regime. From the top leader to the lowliest vagabond, everyone is both oppressor and oppressed. Disconnected from their past, they have had to learn to survive in a country where there is no security, no humanity, no morals. Xi Jinping himself, despite his absolute power, lives in constant fear that some enemy or other will one day stab him in the back. 

As a writer, I spend my days reflecting on the past, analyzing my every thought and action, so at night I sleep relatively easily. After living inside Ma Daode’s head for a year, I at least understood him. He has to repress his traumatic past while peddling the Party’s promises of a happy future. The contradictions become too much for him to bear. His mind explodes into fragments, like the tree on the cover of the book. But his breakdown leads to insight. He is forced to confront his past crimes, and is able, eventually, to feel shame. 

AL: Ma Daode’s memories from the Cultural Revolution are almost unspeakable in their horror—hundreds of swollen corpses rotting in the Fenshui River; we see the deaths of friends, lovers, neighbors, parents from violence, starvation, suicide. On a craft level, how did you approach depicting violence on such a vast scale—so many deaths piled up on one another? 

MJ: My approach in China Dream was: economy, concision. You’ll notice it’s a short book! Only about 170 pages. I wanted, as succinctly as possible and with the light-hearted tone of a fable, to capture the last seven decades of Communist rule and show the thread that runs through them, from Mao to Xi Jinping. That thread is what Orwell described as “a boot stamping on the human face—forever.” It is autocracy’s crushing of truth, memory and human dignity. 

My humor is often described as black, but I see it as blood-red: the red of Communist oppression, of China’s blood-drenched history. 

When it came to the death of Ma Daode’s parents, my mind filled with all the artists and writers throughout Chinese history who have been driven to take their lives in the same way. For a few days, I felt paralyzed and didn’t know where to begin. In the end, I kept the scene very simple: just an image of the mother and father lying dead, side by side, on the attic floor, their two hands clutched tightly together, the mother’s hand stained purple from the lotion she had used to clean the father’s wounds. I wanted that purple hand, the tight grip that doesn’t loosen even in death, to stand as a symbol for the pain and suffering of all of China’s persecuted intellectuals. 

AL: This history could be played for straight horror, but you approach it with satire and dark humor as well. Is humor necessary in the face of such devastation of minds and bodies? 

MJ: The only way I could write about such trauma was to approach the material from an angle. Satire gives a writer some distance from the horror, a sense of perspective. I’ve always admired the satire of Swift, Gogol, Bulgakov, Pynchon. Humor allows readers to enter places that would otherwise repel them. My type of humor is often described as black, but I see it as blood-red: the red of Communist oppression, of China’s blood-drenched history. 

AL: I was shocked to go back to the introduction and read that Red Guard-themed nightclubs actually exist; I thought you’d invented them. In the novel, the nightclub seems to fetishize the revolutionary fervor the period, but strip it of all its specific details and context, including the mass violence. I wondered if—and how—you think sexuality played into Mao’s mobilization of the Red Guards, and if and how sexuality plays into the cultural memory of this history? 

MJ: Yes, these nightclubs exist. When Mao incited young Red Guards to cause “chaos under heaven,” he brought out the worst aspects of human nature: a lust for power and violence. It crippled the psyches of a generation. Sex was taboo, real love became impossible. Today, these former Red Guards have reached middle age. Ma Daode, and leaders like him, must remain loyal to the Party, but are free to acquire as much money and as many mistresses as they want. Women are reduced to commodities; relationships become artificial powerplays. So, China Dream, among other things, is about the impossibility of authentic human emotions in a morally warped, repressive state. 

AL: The chapter set in Yaobang Village is truly stunning and horrifying. When the government seizes and demolishes the village to build an industrial park, the scene gets mixed up, in Director Ma’s mind, with the mass violence he saw (and participated in) in the same village during the Cultural Revolution, in a clash between two factions, the Million Bold Warriors and East is Red. I wondered if you could explain the context in which history is repeating itself in this chapter?  

MJ: The saddest aspect for me is that the young villagers in the book who are fighting the authorities have no knowledge of the ferocious battles that took place on their land just fifty years before. No lessons are learned, so history repeats itself. Just as in the Cultural Revolution, two members of opposing factions would try to kill each other while both shouting “Long live Chairman Mao,” now villagers and government officials attack each other, both swearing allegiance to Xi Jinping. The Chinese people fail to understand that the real enemy is not the opposing faction or gang of corrupt local officials, but the Communist Party itself, the tyrants who rule from Beijing. 

AL: Another element that we see historically repeated here is local culture being overrun by the state. The people of Yaobang protest that the location of their city, next to the river, enables their livelihood, but even more crucially, that they want to protect their heritage and ancestral graves—to which Director Ma cries “Don’t cling to your petty clanship dreams! Embrace the China Dream, then the Global Dream, and the world will be your oyster.” Could you comment on that clash between “clanship” and nationalism, even globalism, as an obliterating force? 

In China, everyone is a victim of the regime. Everyone is both oppressor and oppressed.

MJ: Dictators demand absolute devotion. Loyalty to clans, family, religion, ethnic groups, are viewed as a threat. When Mao came to power, he broke up families and villages and turned them into communes. Today, the government is continuing to destroy ancient communities, selling the land to corrupt developers, then rebuilding a few of the most beautiful villages to become theme parks for paying tourists. The authorities are terrified of authenticity. They hate what they can’t control: that’s why they’ve crushed Tibet and Xinjiang, and are trying to crush Hong Kong. The Party has always sought to homogenize and globalize. Under Mao, it wanted to liberate the oppressed workers of the world. Under Xi, it wants to export its brand of capitalist authoritarianism, so that every leader, every citizen of the world, becomes as terrified of contesting its rule as the people of China. 

AL: This isn’t addressed in the novel explicitly, but given these themes, do you feel comfortable commenting on the CCP’s internment of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang? 

MJ: Not only do I feel no discomfort commenting on CCP’s internment of Muslims in Xinjiang, I feel an urgency to denounce it at every possible opportunity. What is happening in Xinjiang now is an atrocious, horrific crime against humanity. Over a million Muslims have been arbitrarily imprisoned purely because of their ethnic identity. The authorities are imprisoning them, not because of “subversive” thoughts they have expressed, but because of ones they have yet to form. And the corridors of these camps are plastered with posters urging inmates to embrace Xi Jinping’s China Dream. This truly is an Orwellian nightmare. The CCP is carrying out cultural genocide. It is trying to erase an entire people’s culture, language, beliefs. It is deeply shameful that the West hasn’t learned the lessons of history, and is turning a blind eye to these internment camps, out of fear of losing trade deals with China. 

AL: Are there protestors, writers, or public intellectuals resisting the physical and intellectual oppression of the CCP today who give you hope? Or is there any room for hope? 

MJ: Most public intellectuals and writers enjoy their privileges too much, and have become apologists for the regime. They say things like: democracy would bring chaos to China, or censorship is good for creativity. But still a few brave individuals continue to resist, even though they risk imprisonment or exile. I have profound respect for the journalists, academics, lawyers, human rights activists in China who fight for freedom of expression and civil liberties, especially the ones who forgo the privileges of Party membership and refuse to couch their criticisms in euphemisms. They face great dangers and deserve the support of the international community. 

AL: With apologies to readers for the spoiler… the novel ends with Ma Daode’s suicide, freeing himself from his memories once and for all. It’s a glorious scene, as he jumps from the water tower “and soars upward and onward, towards a beautiful and radiant future.” But it’s a horrifying scene too, of course; it would seem to suggest that the only escape from the trauma of China’s history, and present, is death. Did you intend for it to be understood so grimly? 

MJ: Every day, there is news of a corrupt Chinese leader jumping off the top of a building. So it seemed natural that Ma Daode would meet the same end. In 1984, Winston Smith is executed. But in China Dream, Ma Daode chooses to end his life. He soars into the beautiful lie of Xi Jinping’s fictitious utopia. I hope the reader sees that his flight transcends physical suicide. It is the disappearance of the self. Because in my view, a person whose memories have been erased is dead, whether they jump off a building or not. Ma Daode’s flight represents not just the voluntary dissolution of an individual, but the spiritual suicide of an entire nation. 

AL: Where do you find the energy or courage to continue to criticize the regime—even as your works are banned in China, even as change feels so far off? Do you ever feel the impulse, like Ma Daode, to forget? 

The ‘China Dream’ is another beautiful lie dreamed up to remove dark memories from Chinese brains and replace them with a false utopia.

MJ: I don’t see myself as courageous. It’s the writer’s job to tell the truth. With every bone of my body, I despise efforts to crush independent thought and free expression. I write in order to nail down outlawed memories so that I, at least, will never forget. When the Chinese government condemned my first novel in 1987 and placed a permanent ban on my books, it made me more determined than ever to continue writing.

Sometimes, it is a struggle, though. Hong Kong publishers are now too afraid to publish my books in Chinese, so for my voice to be heard, I have to rely solely on foreign translations. [Writer’s note: Underground copies of Ma’s previous novels do circulate in China, but outside of Taiwan, no Chinese edition of China Dream exists; it was the first of Ma’s novels to be turned down by publishers in Hong Kong. One publisher said that no Hong Kong bookstore would dare to sell it—likely evidence of the CCP’s strengthening grip over the region.]  Foreign publishers have their own commercial, and perhaps political, agendas. My former US publisher, Penguin Press, dumped me when I submitted China Dream. They said they didn’t “get” the irony. It was a huge blow, and for several months I lost heart. But whether I am published or not, I will never stop writing, or attempting to tell the truth as I see it. I will keep my eyes fixed on the times that I live in, searching for the characters of my next book. 

AL: In your introduction, you write that you “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…” I’d like to ask Flora: what were the greatest challenges in translating this novel into English, a remarkably different language—not to mention cultural and historical context—from the Chinese? 

Flora Drew: I have translated Ma Jian’s books for many years. I agonize over each word, and how one sentence flows into the next. Of course, there are matters of cultural and historical context that sometimes need subtle clarification. But the biggest difficulty is finding a rhythm that corresponds with the Chinese, so that the words can come alive. And there is something else just as important, which is tone, the seamless shifts from the poetic to the darkly humourous, the tragic to the surreal. Ma Jian hates sentimentality, but with minimal strokes, he creates scenes that are deeply moving. Even after examining them in fine detail, I often can’t work out how he does it. But if I manage to replicate the voice, the underlying emotions and meaning seem to find their way onto the page. The parents’ suicide in China Dream, for example, is particularly poignant. I’ve read the passage hundreds of times, but when I reread it recently in translation, I was still moved – not by my English words, but by the spirit of the original text. That’s always the challenge: to capture that elusive spirit, so that readers have the same emotional response to the book as I do when I read it in Chinese. 

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