Orwell's heirs in Hong Kong fiction and film yield insight into western surveillance society.
George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four recently shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, crowning a sudden rebirth of interest in the cautionary tale that has been brewing over the past few months. As many commentators noted, sales were particularly high in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia—western nations currently riven by divisive social politics—suggesting that this renewed interest in a novel about a charismatic demagogue spouting misleading evidence and trafficking in xenophobia arises because Orwell’s fiction may help us to understand the contemporary world.
Perhaps one reason in particular that the novel is gaining renewed influence now is that Nineteen Eighty-Four explicitly portrays Asia as a bogeyman and a pawn in the militarized rhetoric of fear in which Big Brother traffics. Throughout Orwell’s novel the declining white empire of “Oceania” is always at war with East Asia or Eurasia—in fact, a particularly macabre moment in the novel occurs when a professional orator charged with inciting crowds abruptly changes mid-harangue from vilifying one enemy to the other. As Orwell describes it, “it was almost impossible to listen … without being first convinced and then maddened.” As a description of political rhetoric and its use in manufacturing consent, Nineteen Eighty-Four thus presages the ever shifting, fill-in-the-blank scapegoating of ethnic, racial, and religious others that fuels so much of our post-9/11, anti-immigration and anti-China hysteria. As the novel furthermore notes, “Hate continued exactly as before, except that the target had changed.”
Perhaps one reason in particular that the novel is gaining renewed influence now is that Nineteen Eighty-Four explicitly portrays Asia as a bogeyman and a pawn in the militarized rhetoric of fear in which Big Brother traffics.
Though little of the recent commentary on Nineteen Eighty-Four’s current popularity among western nations has yet to acknowledge this China connection, three decades of relentless Chinese growth has engendered widespread anxiety regarding an imminent Chinese eclipse of the West’s once unchallenged supremacy. Contemporary Sinophobia highlights western insecurities regarding its declining power in the world. We are all aware of China’s extraordinary political and economic power; further astonishing is the fact that the country has achieved this ascendancy while maintaining Communist practices of party privilege, informational opacity, and repressive tactics of eliciting compliance—domestic policies that now jar westerners as uncannily similar to rapidly unfolding developments at home. This belligerent fear mongering associated with the East Asian Communist state is precisely what western powers have historically defined themselves against.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Sinophone world has its own canon of dystopian narratives.
Although Orwell developed his fictional projections of socialist excesses on Russia, and the 1949 novel only makes specific mention of China a handful of times, its vision of mass labor organization, uniformed anonymity, group persecution and self-critique proved prophetic of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While prosperous postmillennial China has moved far beyond that terrible history, any Chinese citizen or China watcher today is cognizant of the government’s continued and active role in censoring facts and manipulating the free flow of opinion. The widespread ignorance among contemporary Chinese youth of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square events are two glaring examples of the country’s efficacy in implementing Orwellian Ministry of Truth-like information distortion.
Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Sinophone world has its own canon of dystopian narratives. Hong Kong author Chan Koonchung’s superb 2013 novel, The Fat Years, offers a compelling glimpse of a modern China where problematic history has successfully been erased from common knowledge. In a similar vein, the 2015 Hong Kong film, Ten Years, consists of five self-contained stories that each imagine what life might be like in Hong Kong a decade into the future. The film was produced at a time when the Chinese government’s strengthening crackdown on dissent—evident in such recent events as the abduction of dissident booksellers and the unilateral divesting of elected legislators critical of the government—continues to mount and entrench government power.
Not surprisingly, the film was the object of direct attack by the Chinese government, which was widely thought to be the reason for the film’s quick disappearance from Hong Kong theaters (despite sell-out audiences). The Global Times, a party instrument, dubbed Ten Years a “thought virus” and later cut mainland broadcast of the Hong Kong Film Awards during the climactic moment when Ten Years was named Best Picture. Movingly though, in organized backlash by civic culture against this authoritarian censorship, Ten Years then precipitated an equally politicized counter-surveillance response, as the filmmakers worked with activists, educators and civic and community leaders to screen the film for free at various locations throughout the city, and frequently appeared to lead post-screening discussions.
Ten Years was in production when the Umbrella Movement—a series of pro-democracy protests against Chinese government control—erupted in Hong Kong in late 2014. At a time in world history when anger is so rampant that communities from the First to the Third World are constantly spilling into streets in organized civic protest, films like Ten Years attest to the continuing power of literary and visual art to offer cautionary tales about our changing world.
The high-water marks of western dystopian fiction, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as its notable precursor, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, understand and underscore this dimension of art. Both novels portray literature as possessing a volatile, powerful agency, equally capable of subversion and indoctrination: Shakespeare is banned in both novels, and both works’ protagonists are knowledge workers employed in propaganda who suspect that an alternate literary production can be the means of undermining entrenched power.
Current popular interest in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a resounding affirmation of this humanist claim, but as The Fat Years and Ten Years show, global culture is rich with diverse other works that may illuminate Orwellian insights far beyond surveillance society’s canonical western texts. Cinema in particular should be recognized as a vital resource within this archive. Although the telescreens and “feelies” in Orwell and Huxley’s respective novels suggest ambivalent or critical positions regarding the moving image, Huxley’s more stylistically experimental narrative novel also includes moments of impressionistic stream-of-consciousness, the montage-like imagery of which also suggests a traditional medium reinventing itself in search of ever more powerful ways of soliciting affective response in order to incite political change.
More than a half century after Orwell’s original vision, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the canonical source text of global meditations upon surveillance society (it has even has been translated into Chinese!). The recent return to this classic bespeaks a heartening resurgence of art and literature in an austere and repressive time where such engagements seem increasingly less possible. Yet with the economic and technological shifts transforming politics and popular culture since the mid-twentieth century, even if western readers are right at sensing a tightening of government power and freezing of individual agency, it is shortsighted to limit that inquiry to only the western canon. As Ten Years and The Fat Years show, new works and media from outside the Global North offer valuable insights into contemporary society, comparable to or even exceeding longstanding western surveillance classics like Huxley’s and Orwell’s. At this juncture it is critical that the West cast its gaze beyond its own navel to consider how others have grappled with authoritarian conditions, both within the West and within the rising powers with which the West increasingly must now contend.