China has a tendency to make prognosticators look foolish. Just ask anyone who confidently forecast in 1990 or early in this century that the country's Communist Party was on its last legs, expressed certainty in 2001 that China's high growth rates couldn't possibly go on for more than another couple of years, or predicted in 2002 that Hu Jintao's decade-long presidency would see dramatic moves toward political liberalization take place. Still, I'll happily make one prediction for 2014: at least one China story will break that has a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction feel to it.
Why does this seem so likely? Because I can think of six things off the top of my head that actually happened during the last three years, but which a reader who didn't follow the news about China might easily assume were all the creations of novelists with overactive imaginations. Pretend, while reading the recap below of two stories apiece from each of the last three years, that you had fallen asleep, a la Rip Van Winkle, in 2010 and, upon finally waking up this week, had to take a true-false test that required checking boxes for things on the following list that you thought were the real deal rather than fabricated stories. Can you honestly say you would mark "true" for more than half of the six?
Nervous about Arab Spring-style protests spreading to China, the government took the control of Internet content to new lengths early that year. First, searches for terms like "demonstration" and "Egypt" were blocked and then, on the date when one website had suggested there be marches, "today" joined the list of censored terms. Since the risings in the Middle East and North Africa were sometimes called the "Jasmine Revolution," efforts were also made to stop people from accessing online material containing the first word in that phrase. This meant that among the many videos banned was one showing President Hu Jintao singing one of his favorite songs, since it had the word for "jasmine" in its title.
Later that year, a railway crash called into question the safety of China's celebrated new Bullet Trains and led to another seemingly hard to believe action. In its rush to limit investigation into the event's causes, lest there be evidence of official failings such as corners being cut in a corrupt ministry, the authorities tried, quite literally, to bury the evidence by piling dirt atop a rail car.
The year's biggest real-story-that-seemed-like-a-novel--or, rather, played out like episodes in a nighttime soap opera like Dallas -- involved the spectacular fall from grace of charismatic political leader Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, his glamorous attorney wife. The most far-fetched plot development came when Gu was accused of poisoning Neil Heywood, a mysterious Briton and former family friend who was described by an associate as resembling a character dreamed up by John le Carré, had actually worked for a time for Aston Martin (James Bond's favorite carmaker), and even drove a Jaguar with the numerals "007" on its license plate.
Later in 2012 came a story involving rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng's odyssey from house arrest in a village to the American Embassy in Beijing that, while again reminiscent of spy fiction, seemed at times most like a tale in a superhero comic. To get to temporary sanctuary in the Embassy, Chen had to evade armed guards on round-the-clock surveillance of his home, and then scale a series of walls that had been put up around the house. A writer might have had a character do that, of course, and perhaps even had him, like Chen, break his foot and continue on his journey anyway. But would an author wanting readers to accept all this as plausible have made the protagonist blind as well?
Early last year, a hard-to-believe story broke that, for a change, didn't seem like something from a novel, but rather was linked to the high sales figures racked up by a novel. The fictional work in question was what made the story seem made-up. The book that flew off Chinese shelves early in 2013 was a translation of a notoriously difficult to understand -- in any language -- James Joyce creation, Finnegans Wake.
Several months later, another story inspiring incredulity broke, this time involving the entwining of two topics, free speech activism and a Big Brother state, that often go together in reporting on China. The twist lay in how the themes combined: via a critic of a surveillance state heading into rather than out of the People's Republic of China -- albeit making for a very unusually administered part of that country. I mean, of course, Edward Snowden's choice of Hong Kong as his initial destination.
What 2014 China story or stories will join these six in the facts-that-read-like-fiction category? I wouldn't dare to get that specific. I am confident for many reasons, though, that the pattern I've been describing is likely to continue.
Perhaps what makes me most certain of this is how 2013 -- a year that, as I noted in the Daily Beast, began with stories about horrific smog levels in Beijing and thousands of dead pigs floating down a river near Shanghai that brought dystopian science fiction to mind -- is coming to a close. To illustrate, here is a final quiz, this time in a multiple choice rather than true-false format. December 26 marked the 120th anniversary of the day Mao Zedong was born, an event that, given Chinese traditions of marking time in 60-year cycles, has the sort of symbolic resonance that the centenary of a birth has in the West. Here's your question: Did commemorations of the occasion include: a) President Xi Jinping calling for "solemn, simple, and pragmatic" activities to honor Mao, which reflected the fact that he had just been a "man" and not a "god"; b) a caravan of 120 camels traveling a thousand miles from Mongolia to the Hunan birthplace of the famous Chinese leader; c) people bowing in front of a giant new gold statue of Mao said to have cost 16 million dollars; or d) all of the above.
The right answer: D.
As the saying goes, you just can't make this stuff up.