China Dream by Ma Jian
Chinese dissident author Ma Jian’s latest novel is a scathing satire panning Xi Jinping, but it will be tough for people living under Xi’s regime to get a copy of the book. Ma’s work—his past novels have been critical of the one-child policy and the occupation of Tibet—has been banned in China for three decades, and he lives in exile in London. But if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on China Dream, snag a copy and revel in that feeling of laughing at the absurdity so you don’t cry.
The central character of China Dream is Ma Daode, a mid-level bureaucrat who is a hotshot politico in his city. His star has been rising over the years, but he might have finally been promoted into his level of incompetence. Ma Daode is now in charge of the China Dream, a microchip that will be implanted in everyone in China to give the masses a steady drip of propaganda and wash away any thoughts that aren’t Party-approved. The bureau he runs doesn’t seem to have anyone working on the technology, though, and Ma’s penchant for propaganda poetry, which had made him the perfect man to worm Party ideals into people’s heads, is failing him. He’s not blocked so much as he is distracted—by disturbing memories of his own despicable actions during the Cultural Revolution.
But our antihero has another problem: His corruption is finally catching up to him. His mistresses (more than he can count) are demanding more and more, even extorting him. His wife, no fool, badgers him about them while skillfully stashing away the expensive thank-yous that arrive at their door, so that her gossipy friends don’t see the corrupt results of the favors he’s granted. The farmers in a nearby village are refusing to be relocated to make way for a new building (progress!), and it’s his job to talk them into moving peacefully … so no one has to die, or be beaten, or go to prison. Well. Surely some people will be beaten and go to prison.
Ma Daode is fictional, as is the microchip, but China Dream takes its name from a real snippet of propaganda from Xi, adopted by the Party. The BBC reported that schools were putting up “dream walls” for vision-boarding students, and that the slogan had made it into hit songs, presumably unironically. If it’s a real earworm of a tune, maybe Ma Jian’s microchip isn’t as far-fetched as he intended?
If you’ve made it around the firewall and are reading this review, you probably also have the means to download a copy of China Dream—which I recommend. Ma Daode is on a disastrous path, and he begins to seek relief from the violent nightmares intruding on his thoughts through increasingly Dionysian and eccentric means. It’s a page-turning character arc that’s equalled by Ma Jian’s compelling commentary on China’s current leadership and the legacy, 50 years on, of political turmoil that is still locked away in a censored history.