Argument

China 2013

A controversial novel marks the return of politically charged science fiction in China -- and evokes a decidedly mixed vision of the country's future.

In the euphoric Beijing of 2013, Starbucks is Chinese-owned and called "Starbucks Wangwang." Its trademark drink is Longjing Latté, named for a famed Chinese tea. It is a place where Mr. Chen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, feels comfortable escorting a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi, the secret love of his youth. After running into Xiaoxi in a Beijing bookstore, their first encounter in many years, Mr. Chen asks her whether she had gone abroad. "No," she replies.

"No is good," Chen nods. "As everyone says, no place is better than China nowadays."

"You are joking," Xiaoxi says.

Her sullen mood seems at odds with the jubilant crowd around them. As she suddenly departs, he notices two men smoking nearby who have been following her.

So opens an early scene from The Prosperous Time: China 2013, a hotly controversial Chinese science-fiction novel. Written by 58-year-old Hong Kong novelist Chen Guanzhong, who has lived and worked in Beijing for much of his life, China 2013 presents an ambivalent vision of China's near future: outwardly triumphant (a Chinese company has even bought out Starbucks), and yet tightly controlled. There is a mood of mounting tension, here evident as a woman with dissenting thoughts is followed by secret police.

The novel, first published in Hong Kong in late 2009, caused quite a stir on Chinese websites early this year. For instance, Hecaitou, one of the most influential bloggers in the country, wrote in January that the book "once and for fall settles the majority of Internet quarrels" on what China's tomorrow will be like. At the time, the book was only available in Hong Kong. But after interest grew apace in Chinese cyberspace, the author himself "pirated" his rights from his own publisher in Hong Kong to let Chinese mainlanders read it online for free. Since February, numerous digital versions of the novel have circulated and sparked heated discussions on the Chinese Internet.

The significance -- and uniqueness -- of the novel is that it is a work of social science fiction, a subgenre that has become virtually nonexistent since the establishment of the People's Republic. Such keen reader interest in visions of China's political future is remarkable -- and reveals a pent-up appetite among readers. Take a look at recent issues of the popular Chinese Sci-Fi World magazine, published in Chengdu, or at Internet rankings of today's most-read Chinese sci-fi stories, and you'll find every kind of plotline you might find in Western sci-fi literature -- time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it -- but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell's 1984, is almost completely lacking.

That isn't because politically charged science fiction never existed in China. As popular sci-fi writer Ye Yonglie has documented, the history of modern Chinese science fiction goes back to the early 20th century. The genre was catalyzed by the first Chinese translation of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1900. Early Chinese sci-fi works often doubled as political parables and social criticism, starting with 1904's The Moon Colony. Now commonly cited as the first Chinese sci-fi novel, The Moon Colony tells the story of an anti-Qing dynasty revolutionary's life in exile; taking a cue from Jules Vernes' heroes, he travels on a balloon around the world, and eventually migrates to the moon. The book was in part a commentary on corruption in contemporary society.

This politically-charged tradition in Chinese sci-fi continued for more than four decades, epitomized by Lao She's controversial 1932 novel, Cat Country. Lao She, one of the most important Chinese writers of the last century, published his only science-fiction novel as serial installments in a magazine. The story is set on Mars. Although it was published 13 years before Orwell's Animal Farm, the political satire functions in similar fashion, with intrigues among a colony of cats on Mars serving as criticism of  contemporary political reality in China. It was the only Chinese sci-fi novel then translated into foreign languages.

Cat Country was so popular among readers that it was reprinted seven times over the course of 17 years until 1949. Under Communist rule, however, the book disappeared from shelves, and any social or political criticism content in new sci-fi works disappeared along with it. Mao Zedong's official literary policy was that "literature and art serve [his] politics." As a dystopian novel, Cat Country  was politically incorrect, and in August 1966, Lao She was publicly denounced and beaten by the Red Guards. Not long after, he committed suicide.

I grew up in the western city of Chongqing in the 1960s and 1970s, an avid fan of Lao She's less controversial works. I had never heard of Cat Country until years after the Cultural Revolution. Following Mao's death, much Western literature and philosophy were introduced in China for the first time. I still vividly remember the excitement among my friends in 1980s as we vied with each other for copies of translated books such as William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Dennis Meadows et al.'s The Limits to Growth and Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave. In 1985, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World first became widely available to Chinese readers. (Reportedly, the earliest Chinese translation of 1984 was published in 1979 in a limited-circulation Communist Party magazine to provide "references for the leadership comrades.")

It was around the late 1970s and early 1980s that some Chinese sci-fi writers became bold enough to embed reflections on domestic events such as the Cultural Revolution in their stories. For a while, it seemed that social sci-fi might reestablish itself as a literary subgenre in China. That hope, however, was extinguished in 1983, when Deng Xiaoping launched a "clean up spiritual pollution" campaign against writers, in effect clamping down again on freedom of thought.

Economically and culturally, the China of today looks entirely unrecognizable from that of previous decades -- with new skyscrapers, shopping malls, and airports. Still, political censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech continue. "Newspeak" style journalism is far more common than independent voices. Writers are still being indicted for their words. In February, a Chengdu writer, Tan Zuoren, was sentenced to five years in prison for an essay about his personal experience during the June 4 massacre. China 2013 was fortunate to be published in Hong Kong, where the press enjoys greater freedom than in mainland China, due to the "one country, two systems" policy.

Modern China is a paradox. Its coexistence of economic prosperity and political autocracy is baffling. Chen Guanzhong's China 2013 presents a fairly Orwellian view of China's future. Although Chen has said he does not think his novel is like 1984, certain parallels between the two are pretty obvious. Key Orwellian concepts such as a "memory hole," "doublethink," and "newspeak" find echoes in Chen's novel, and the antagonist is a party official reminiscent of O'Brien, a character in 1984.

As the novel's plot unfolds, on the day that marks the beginning of an unprecedented world-wide economic crisis, the U.S. dollar falls by one-third. The same day, China officially enters what its leaders call "the prosperous time." Every Chinese person accepts this happy coincidence, except for two men and a woman. The three remember events differently:  They believe that a month, somehow been lost from public memory, separates these two events. And they set out to recover memories of that lost month.

The three truth-seekers are led by Fang Chaodi, a man in his mid-60s who immigrated to the United States in 1972 after Richard Nixon's Beijing visit but returned to China in late 1990s. He is accompanied by a young rural man named Zhang Dou, as well as Xiaoxi, a woman who distrusts the government and whose 24-year-old son is a party informant attempting to send her to prison.

Unable at first to unravel how an entire month has disappeared, they eventually kidnap a member of the Politburo, He Dongsheng, who confesses that between the start of global economic meltdown and the advent of China's prosperous time, there was in fact a chaotic period -- mysteriously now largely forgotten. The first week of that period is filled with public disquiet, panic buying, and looting. Initially the government takes little action to prevent the nation from falling into a state of anarchy, other than instituting strict curfews in Tibet and Xinjiang.

But in the second lost week, the People's Liberation Army suddenly marches through streets everywhere in a dramatic crackdown against alleged criminals. The crackdown eerily mirrors certain real-life precedents in China; in reality, as in the novel, the party presumes itself to be above the law. For three subsequent weeks, the country is engulfed in a rampage of military and police violence, in which both guilty and innocent blood is spilled. (At one point, Fang is nearly executed on the spot simply for carrying an American passport.)

On the last day of the crackdown, the government adds a drug to the nation's water supply. It works its magic and turns almost everyone in China into a more jovial and complacent person. The day after, the government announces that the country has formally entered "the prosperous time." New economic policies are implemented; national GDP continues to grow, and the party's hold on power grows ever more secure.

The most surprising turn in the plot is that, as the reader eventually discovers, the public's selective memory loss turns out not to have been induced by the government. It is a voluntary memory loss. This unexpected twist is a brilliant stroke from the author; it provokes hard questions not only about the government but about popular complacency in China. Equally sharp and biting is the author's portrait of China's intellectual elite indulging in the carefree "prosperous time," willingly letting go of the unpleasant past and their critical spirit.

The book's author has said that the novel is essentially more "realism" than science fiction. Its ending is pessimistic.

When the truth seekers interrogate He Dongsheng, the Politburo member, they lose control of the conversation, which effectively becomes a monologue by the official. The interrogators can muster only feeble rebuttals to his claim that "the one-party capitalist-socialist autocracy is today's China's best option." The novel evokes the dark side of the one-party autocracy, yet its heroes seem to be overwhelmed by He's eloquent policy speech.

This might well be the novel's message: Paradoxically, it's the Chinese public's aversion to political upheavals and desire for a better economic life that enables the government to operate with impunity.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Argument

Afghans Can Win This War

The fight in Afghanistan is difficult, but with a strategy that fully empowers the Afghan people to defeat the Taliban, it is still winnable.

It was the spring of 2001. I was in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, together with my brother Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban, and Bismullah Khan, who currently serves as Afghanistan's interior minister. One of our commanders, Commandant Momin, wanted us to see 30 Taliban fighters who had been taken hostage after a gun battle. My brother agreed to meet them.

I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, "There are still many sun- worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?"

Indeed, the Taliban are prepared to go very far in their jihad. They will spare no human life or piece of their country's history in their attempt to remake Afghanistan in their image. If it were within their powers, they would not even stop with the sun.

I was thinking about this episode recently when, at the July 20 conference in Kabul, international powerbrokers rededicated themselves to seeing the mission in Afghanistan through to the end. "We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Too many nations … have suffered too many losses to see this country slide backward."

It will be no small feat to match the Taliban's commitment. Over the duration of this nine-year conflict, U.S. and European leaders have discovered that it will take more than the same old methods to fix Afghanistan. Rather, what is needed is a new understanding of the complex dynamics of the current war and of Afghan society as a whole.

NATO members are increasingly showing concern over the lack of progress in the counterinsurgency campaign, which has concentrated on the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. So far, the results have been mixed: Although the 15,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops who participated in the military operation in Helmand's Marja district largely managed to clear the area of insurgents, the process of establishing legitimate and trusted institutions and security forces in the region will remain on the agenda for a long time.

The military operation in Kandahar will likely experience similarly inconclusive results if NATO and Afghan forces fail to counter the Taliban strategy in the area. To lay the groundwork for the Kandahar operation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled twice to the province; he was followed by a joint Afghan-U.S. delegation led by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These officials were right to make Kandahar the centerpiece of their efforts to combat the insurgency. Along with Helmand, this area forms the core of the Taliban's stronghold in Afghanistan; it is the source of the group's most ideologically committed fighters and also the home of most of its leadership. Helmand in particular is also an important source of revenue for the Taliban: The province accounts for nearly 50 percent of the world's opium production, and profits from the drug trade are funneled back into the insurgency.

Kandahar and Helmand are also important geographic links connecting the Taliban's insurgent network in Pakistan to the rest of Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura, the council of Taliban leaders that includes Mullah Omar, reportedly resides on the other side of the Pakistani border in Baluchistan. Quetta and the neighboring areas play a crucial role in the supply, finance, and management of the insurgency. From these safe havens, militants now have easy access to Helmand and Kandahar -- and from there can spread out across Afghanistan.

Helmand and Kandahar are not only top priorities for the Afghan government and NATO forces -- the region is a top priority for the Taliban as well. The insurgency has exploited its enemies' mistakes, conducting a war of attrition in the region that is designed to sap the American and European will to fight.

The Taliban's strategy has so far met with success. It has succeeded in expanding the insurgency from its southern heartland all the way to northern Afghanistan. In the process, it has recruited a large number of new Taliban fighters to its cause: NATO officials estimate that the number of Taliban fighters grew from 400 in 2004 to approximately 30,000 today.

To reverse the Taliban's gains, the international community and the Afghan government must recognize that, in addition to following basic tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine, there are a number of unique aspects of Helmand and Kandahar that will affect the potential success or failure of their mission.

Most importantly, controlling the Pakistani border, which abuts long sections of Kandahar and Helmand, must be a top priority for international forces. The interlinking network of insurgent groups, from Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura to the forces led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, sponsor attacks within Afghanistan and also play an important role linking al Qaeda to the Taliban. Diminishing their capabilities is a precondition for success in Afghanistan.

Striking a crucial blow against the insurgents can only take place with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. The international community must pressure Pakistan to deploy enough force on its side of the border to stop further cross-border movement of insurgents. Our sad experience over the last nine years has demonstrated how the Taliban used the undefended border with Pakistan to strike the Afghan people and international forces. Some pessimists have argued that securing the frontier with Pakistan is impossible, due to the mountainous terrain and vast 2,430-kilometer border. They cite the failures of the Soviet Army and previous Afghan governments, which were unable to exercise effective control of the region.

However, given the current cooperation between the Afghan government and NATO forces, these arguments should not hold. Proper monitoring of the border will require hard work by the Afghan government and ISAF, utilizing both hard and soft power. For its part, ISAF must commit the manpower and resources to strictly monitor and control the movement of goods and people. Meanwhile, the Afghan government should strive to develop efficient and scrupulous institutions in these long-neglected areas, in order to convince the Afghan people that they have a stake in stemming the flow of insurgents coming across the Pakistani border.

This may seem a daunting task. But Afghans, Americans, and Europeans alike should realize that, even if the war effort succeeds on all other fronts but fails to protect the border, the struggle against the insurgents will be lost.

ISAF and the Afghan security forces must also work to prevent the creation of new Taliban supporters inside the country. The government has so far tried to achieve this result through a top-down approach, flooding regions with international aid and attempting to impose solutions by bringing in greater numbers of troops. But recruiting and training more Afghan police and Army units will not be enough to win the support of the population. The solution must form through a bottom-up approach that provides locals with ownership over their own communities and encourages efforts to challenge the Taliban's authority.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is virtually no popular enthusiasm for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, the support is not genuine and largely comes from lack of a better option. The Afghan people have suffered at the Taliban's hands for more than 16 years. Afghans generally consider the Taliban as a foreign force, sponsored by Pakistan, which imposes its will through violence, terror, and fear. The Afghan government and its allies should exploit the Taliban's dismal reputation to their own advantage.

So far, the government has missed an opportunity to use the media to advertise the Taliban's shortcomings and rally its supporters in popular protests against the insurgency. The voice of the people must be heard on this matter. Media, civil society, and local leaders should open channels to express popular resentment against the Taliban -- and ISAF and the Afghan security forces should publicly commit to ensuring their safety when they undertake these efforts.

There is a great potential in local, bottom-up action: No one should underestimate the commitment and power of ordinary Afghans. It was ordinary Afghans who successfully resisted 150,000 Soviet soldiers and won the war with far less international backing than the Afghan government receives today.

The impact of these missed opportunities is beginning to be felt by the Afghan government's international partners. War fatigue is beginning to grip Europe and the United States. Under public pressure, Canada has already announced its withdrawal from Kandahar, and the Netherlands is very likely to follow suit in the wake of the collapse of its cabinet over the issue of extending its mission in Uruzgan. Obama has also announced that the United States will commence a gradual troop withdrawal in 2011. It is clear that Afghanistan's allies face serious economic and political limitations at home and cannot function as an unending source of support.

The outcome of the operations in Kandahar and Helmand has the potential to reverse this gloomy state of affairs. A victory would be a boon to the counterinsurgency campaign, possibly even leading some governments to reconsider their planned troop withdrawals. Discernible progress would also allow NATO forces to begin the important task of transferring responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Army, a crucial step for the Afghan government in reassuming control over its own security.

For these reasons, much hinges on the campaign currently being waged in Afghanistan's southern provinces. The Afghan government and its international partners must act jointly and swiftly for these operations to succeed. Only then can Afghans finally achieve the peace they have long strived for, and will U.S. and European leaders rest assured that this country will no longer act as an incubator for extremists who threaten not only Afghanistan's population, but the entire world. This war is tiresome, but it can be won.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images