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In China Dream, a dissident writer takes aim at Xi Jinping's vision

Ma Jian: his focus on China’s big issues has seen him blacklisted by authorities. Photo/Supplied

Ma Jian’s latest book is an Animal Farm-like satire on modern China and its determination to become a global power.

Ma Daode is a senior official in a provincial Chinese city. He has everything he could desire. Wealth: he is happily corrupt; gifts pour in from fawning speculators, at one point mooncakes with gold bars inside. Sex: he has 12 mistresses, whom he nicknames the 12 Golden Hairpins from the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. And power: he heads the China Dream Bureau, charged with ensuring public allegiance to Xi Jinping’s vision of a resurgent China. Except that Ma Daode’s mind is unravelling. Memories of the Cultural Revolution and his own misdeeds keep intruding on the present.

This is the premise of Ma Jian’s latest book, a short satire on modern China and its determination to become a power in the world while the ghosts of its past remain restless.

When Ma Daode dozes off, he wakes up to find his adolescent Red Guard self there watching him. When he gives speeches, he finds himself going off track, mixing his messages, suddenly jumping from leading the charge for Xi to uttering Cultural Revolution slogans. And worse, there are moments when the past so intrudes that he believes he is still a Red Guard fighting the rightists and the old China that Mao so despised.

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Eventually, his own misdeeds – he denounced his father, who killed himself – emerge to stalk the present.

Ma Jian has been a relentless critic of China. His books have been banned there since the late 1980s, after he wrote about his travels through a Tibet under Chinese control. He took part in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and, when his books were blacklisted, went to live in Hong Kong, Germany and now London.

Nobel Literature laureate Gao Xingjian called him “one of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature”.

Ma Jian focuses on the biggest issues facing China. Beijing Coma was his Tiananmen Square book, told from the viewpoint of a critically injured student. It, and 2013’s The Dark Road, are arguably his masterpieces.

Certainly, The Dark Road is his grimmest. Written after he travelled undercover down the Yangtze River, it is about the effects of the one-child policy, pollution and a peasant family’s struggle with and the state.

If The Dark Road is Ma Jian’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, China Dream is like his Animal Farm. It is a short, sharp political fable with dashes of the humour that had been buried under the horrors of The Dark Road.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has pursued the idea of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. China, says Xi, must continue to develop until it has taken its place as a Great Power.

The problem, Ma Jian says in China Dreams, is that much of the political rhetoric is a fantasy. It was fantasy when factions of Red Guards fought battles over tiny points of Maoist rhetoric, and it is fantasy now, as the state tries to impose a national dream on the populace.

By the end, Ma Daode is unhinged. He sees not a united populace pursuing Xi’s China dream but a “chaotic scrum of people and ghosts”: dead Red Guards, Xi Jinping followers, Ma’s lovers, corrupt bureaucrats all crazily arguing over what is the China dream.

CHINA DREAM, by Ma Jian (Vintage, $21.95)

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.