Vintage (2009), 200 pages
Guo’s satire takes the form of intelligence files prepared during the interview of rural peasants following a UFO sighting in the village of Silver Hill in 2012. Guo exposes the fault lines in a supposedly classless society. Although China is ruled by a totalitarian government my impression is that many Chinese people are not afraid of speaking their minds (I spent seven weeks in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet a few years ago). Their speech is not quite as rigorously suppressed as we are sometimes led to believe in the West. Rural Chinese are increasingly speaking their minds as they realise that they have been left lagging behind in China’s economic boom. They no longer receive the benefits of communism, such as free education, but still must suffer under the rule of a corrupt, and sometimes violent, bureaucracy and police state. The right to universal rights such as freedom of speech are increasingly finding voice in a society that can, despite the Great Firewall, find information on the internet regarding basic rights. Chinese peasants are increasingly standing up for their legal rights too and challenging, in some cases by force, blatant examples of government abuse. Government abuse has taken the shape of blatant land grabs or the building of factories that pollute farming land and cause health problems.
Even the idea of a UFO is a Western one, a modern version of a religious vision which can grant meaning to the life of someone overlooked by society. Unmarried, thirty seven year old Kwok Yun, lives with her father and is the only person who sees the UFO. She is suffering from menstruation pains and is dizzy shortly before she sees, “…a large silver plate appeared in the sky and flew towards the Hundred Arm tree. At first I thought it must be a daydream. But then I realised that the noise was coming from the enormous metal plate. I stared at it terrified. It was as if I was a tiny insect, exposed on the soil, about to be eaten by a big bird.” (p. 21) Immediately after seeing the UFO she finds an injured foreigner who she helps. Kwok Yun, although initially disparaged for being unmarried and plain looking proves herself to be kind and intelligent, with a poetic streak. In contrast the investigative agents sent from the city clearly regard the peasants as beneath them. Beijing Agent 1919 complains that the locals can’t understand him (he blames this on the peasants as he doesn’t feel that part of the problem might lie with him) and says the local policemen, “aren’t the brightest of people” (p. 25). The peasants make repeated references to the disaster of the Cultural Revolution which resulted in famine (with some being forced to resort to cannibalism to survive). It’s clear that their suspicions of central government are in part based on an unofficial history based on folk-tales, family experience, and gossip. The peasants are quite conservative in their approach to life and this can have an unpleasant side in their suspicions of the migrant bicycle mender. Kwok Yun is the only one who strives to understand him as a person. But the peasant’s xenophobia is mirrored by the Chinese government which sees foreigners as a potential threat.
Xiaolu Guo’s tale highlights the challenges faced by the Chinese government and its agents as they attempt to keep the Chinese population compliant through coercion and promises of economic rewards. Xiaolu’s book pokes fun at a Chinese regime that is not known for its sense of humour. The Chinese regime are portrayed as lacking in creativity and imagination and is unable to cope with the quick witted maneuverings of its citizens. Historically the Chinese regime has faced down the threat posed by challengers with violence. It will be interesting to see if the violence that Chinese rulers have unleashed on their own people in the 20th century will be repeated in the 21st.