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.