Hot Dystopic: Orwell and Huxley at the Shanghai World’s Fair

For the Los Angeles Times Review of Books, Jeffrey Wasserstrom reflects on analogies regularly employed between Orwell’s 1984 and political control in China, and asks whether the ideas of Aldous Huxley might make a more apt comparison:

1984 remains a common reference point in discussions of contemporary China. This is true even though the PRC has become, as Cold War era Soviet bloc countries never were (except right before their periods of Communist rule ended), a place where translations of the book can be purchased openly and dramatizations of ’s shorter fictional critique of totalitarianism, Animal Farm, can even be staged. The clearest sign of the continued hold of the PRC-as-Big-Brother-state line of thinking is what happens annually when the anniversary of the June 4th Massacre arrives: the international press can be counted on to bring up — and no wonder, since Beijing’s denial that soldiers killed large numbers of civilians in 1989 is a classic illustration of “2 + 2 = 5” style Newspeak.

Similarly, the adjective “Orwellian” is used regularly in stories about Beijing’s efforts to control the kinds of information people can access online in the PRC and monitor what people do in Internet cafés. Allusions to 1984 also appear regularly when the authorities get tough with dissenters. Recently, for example, when the Chinese authorities, made skittish in part no doubt by the specter of events in the Middle East, launched a crackdown on political gadfly figures, this was described as a turn toward Big Brother modes of control. And a contributor to the Guardian called the April arrest of iconoclastic artist Ai Weiwei a reminder that Chinese dissidents can still find themselves “blackguarded and bullied with total impunity by a system that takes Orwell’s 1984 as a handbook.”

[…] Even though ruminations on China’s Orwellian features have not gone away, a countervailing trend toward looking at the PRC through the lens provided by Brave New World has gained steam in recent years. For example, Rana Mitter, an Oxford don, ends Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007) with a nod to Huxley. And in a 2009 assessment of the Chinese Internet (published at the invaluable Danwei.org website he runs), media analyst Jeremy Goldkorn pointed out that most “Chinese net users, who go online primarily for entertainment, don’t notice and don’t particularly care about censorship, as long as they can chat to their friends, play games, listen to music and watch videos.” He then concluded: “Their dystopia is more Brave New World than 1984.”

I first became interested in Brave New World’s relevance for China almost ten years ago, when asked to give a talk about the June 4th Massacre to a group of college freshmen who had all just read Huxley’s famous novel. Later, I highlighted the idea that Huxley might be as good a guide or better to the PRC as Orwell in my book China’s Brave New World: –And Other Tales for Global Times, which came out in 2007. I’ve returned to the subject a couple of times since, exploring from different angles the question of whether the PRC is best seen as a “Big Brother” state or, instead, a country of “vulgar materialism” like the one Huxley imagined.

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