China has changed dramatically since the mid-1980’s. It’s not just the increase in the number of freeways, billboards, and skyscrapers that disorient long-time visitors. Even a visit to a bookstore can shock anyone who first came to know China decades ago, when it seemed inconceivable that works by non-Marxist theorists would ever outnumber those by Marxists. A theatre company has even been allowed to stage “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s famous anti-authoritarian allegory, once known to socialist-bloc readers only via underground editions.
The changes run deeper, of course. In the 1980’s, there were no beggars on city streets, and the main social cleavage divided the small number of politically well-connected people, who enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, from everyone else. Now, there are both beggars and a burgeoning middle class. It used to be difficult to find anything to do on a Saturday night in Shanghai. Now, Time magazine calls the city the “most happening” place on earth.
While preparing for my first trip to China twenty years ago, George Orwell’s dark masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, seemed a useful lens through which to view this “people’s republic.” Control in China was not nearly rigid enough to make it the embodiment of an all-embracing, authoritarian Big Brother state, but there were parallels, from the disparagement of many forms of “bourgeois” enjoyment and entertainment to periodic propaganda campaigns insisting that two plus two equaled five.
Still, despite all the changes, when foreign commentators nowadays want to spice up a China piece with a literary allusion, Orwell remains the seasoning of choice. Big Brother is invoked in stories about Internet censorship. When the authorities issue a White Paper on human rights, references are made to Newspeak.