Paul Mason has had a busy year. As well as the day job as economics editor for Newsnight, he brought out not one but two books, Why its Kicking Off Everywhere (Verso 2012) and this, his first novel. Compared to the highly-topical book about the upheavals of 2011, from the revolutions of the Arab Spring to the English riots, Rare Earth risks being known as ‘the other Paul Mason’, but this is not entirely fair to it. It is unlikely to persuade anyone that Mason is a better novelist than he is a journalist, but it has its fascinating moments.
The story starts with a group of British journalists trying to film a report on the Chinese government’s ‘fight against environmental depredation’. Destined for a short slot in a programme sponsored by the government, it is not supposed to be critical. All their employers want is something pointing out the ‘new China’ for their coverage of the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square. The journalists are being carefully escorted by their Chinese minder, Chun-Li, and everything is going to plan, until they end up by accident in the desert town of Tang Lu and get some film of residents complaining about the appalling environmental conditions. From there, it all starts to spiral out of control.
Mason is clearly portraying a world he knows well, but while the western journalists drive the plot, they are not the most interesting aspects of the story. This immediately sets the novel apart from the familiar genre of British journalists in trouble abroad, in which people of exotic lands are just a backdrop for the success or failure of the white central characters. Here, it is the westerners who are the sideshow; the focus is squarely on the Chinese and the Chinese system itself.
The Chinese state here lives up to western fears of its power to out-compete the West: the environmental concerns thrown up by the British journalist’s report give it an excuse to cut production of rare earth and therefore create an artificial shortage to drive up the price. It seems to be based on actual events: while the TV programme may be fictitious, in 2010 rare earth prices rose dramatically as China cut its export quota. The Chinese are also mostly adept at manipulating the westerners. Chun Li, for example, employs various devices out of the textbook for managing western journalists and ends the book with a stratagem from Chapter 20. That this does not become a stereotype of cunning Orientals is testament to the way that Mason presents his Chinese characters from their own point of view, rather than just through Western eyes, so we also see their own struggles to work out exactly what is going on.
As the journalists try to get themselves and their footage back to their bosses in Shanghai, we are introduced to a number of different Chinas, from the corrupt, scheming, backcountry local officials, resting on patronage networks substantially unchanged since the Qing dynasty, to workers in ‘Cancer Village’ struggling for basic rights, to the young people utterly loyal to the government but also utterly committed to capitalism. In one of the more surreal episodes, Brough, the broken-down journalist who is the main western character, is picked up by an all-girl motorcycle gang in the desert in Inner Mongolia, who are enthusiastic in their espousal of capitalism but see it as a direct result of the authoritarian regime. They tell him, with elation, that ‘The CCP is essential to the peaceful transition to a market economy. The CCP will ensure social order from here to eternity’ (pp.103-4).
All these Chinas are in opposition to each other, just as the various characters have to scheme against each other to get through the action. One of the most effective set pieces is the encounter between the capitalist bikers and the striking workers in Cancer Village. Although the strike started over the mistreatment of one young worker, who had been having sex with the foreman’s daughter, it quickly becomes political. Many of the workers, like the strike leaders Frank and Big Wu, are essentially political prisoners – Frank led the architecture students in Tiananmen Square – and their demands are shaped by both their experience and their secret reading. The demands ‘started out from specifics like conditions in the plant, moved in a syndicalist direction – Frank and Big had been clandestinely reading Antonio Gramsci – and then veered, finally and inevitably, to the place everybody knew it would’ (p.172), with a call for rehabilitation of all the political prisoners. The workers even decide to convene a commune rather than a strike committee after Frank reminds the meeting that it was the 138th anniversary of the defeat of the Paris Commune.
The biker leader, Miss Lai, is well educated – she has been to university in the US – but she has no idea what any of this means. When she sees the banner the workers have draped over the fence she dismisses it as ‘Some bad Chinese grammar written by gangsters’ and speculates that it may be ‘some kind of veiled threat to adjust the spot price of Rare Earth for seasonal demand. These people are freakin’ illiterates, y’know, and gangsters always speak in a kind of code’ (p.173). The utter incomprehension is nicely done; it is not just that the westerners do not understand China or the Chinese, but that the Chinese characters frequently do not understand each other, separated as they are by their different experiences of Chinese capitalism.
Rare Earth does not come over as a particularly serious novel, with its steampunkesque sex and violence, and appearances from the ghosts of Chinese ancestors, who float over the heads of the living making caustic comments. However, in places like the passages on the Cancer Village strike, it clearly is making some serious points about China, and about capitalism in general. The climax of the book makes this particularly clear.
Brough and Chun Li have made it to Tiananmen Square for the twentieth anniversary of the uprising. There are no commemoratory demonstrations allowed, but while ‘they’ve got the place locked down for the living… they can’t keep the restless spirits out’ (p.339). These spirits are not just the dead of the massacre but include all the dead of modern China: ‘the dead, scraped up off the floors of unlit factories, the victims of firing squads; workers whose lives had been shortened by cancer and poisoning. A whole delegation of brick-kiln kids, their childhoods stolen by work and physical abuse, skipping along in formation, waving the national flag. Brough watched the coalminers turn their faces skyward and wave, as a bunch of recently killed mates flew in from a mine disaster in Shenyang’ (p.341). These are not just the dead of political repression, but the dead of capitalism in its rawest form. As the girl bikers point out to Brough, China’s lack of democracy means that it can be better at capitalism than the West, and ghosts in Tiananmen Square are the result.
This is not by any means a hopeful message, but while the ghosts seem to be having a better time than many of the living, it is the ancestors who see that there is a possibility of change:
‘“Our intelligentsia compared the dying Qing dynasty to an iron box’ said General Guo. ‘Sealed up, with no means of escape. Inside, people are quietly suffocating. It is cruel to wake them: that was the argument the intelligentsia put to the founders of the Communist Party.”
“Communist Party said – better to die in agony trying to escape!” Grandfather Li shook his ethereal fist.
“What everyone forgot” said General Guo, gesturing to the square below, “is that even suffocating people can dream”.
“Yes, and when they wake up dead, and find out the truth” Grandfather Li exploded, “they think – excuse me, Miss – they think: ‘Fuck!’ and become very, very angry!”’ (p.343).
If the seriousness of these reflections seems to sit oddly with much of the rest of the book, it turns out that this too is deliberate. As one of the officials of Tang Lu points out, they do not need to worry that Brough will write a novel about what happened when he gets home. Even if he did, no one would read it, because ‘“English people will only read novels containing crazy sex or supernatural themes”’ (p.349). If you read only one such novel this year, you could do worse than make it this one.
To order a copy of Rare Earth, visit the OR Books website.
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