The 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China was not a birthday I felt like celebrating. As Dutch historian Frank Dikötter has shown in his searing three-volume history of the Mao Zedong era, the Communist regime claimed the lives of tens of millions of people: 2 million in the revolution between 1949 and 1951, another 3 million by the end of the 1950s, up to 45 million in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward,” and yet more in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s campaign against the intelligentsia, which escalated into a civil war.
Hitler’s Third Reich was obliterated by massive military force in 1945. It lasted just 12 years. Stalin’s Soviet Union bore the brunt of beating Hitler, but later succumbed to economic sclerosis. It fell apart in 1991, after 68 years. The mystery of the People’s Republic of China is that it is still with us.
Two weeks ago, I bet the Chinese economist Justin Yifu Lin 20,000 yuan that China’s economy — defined as gross domestic product in current US dollars—will never overtake that of the United States. Most informed people would expect me to lose that bet.
Now, I could give you a rather boring explanation of why I think China’s bid to “catch up and surpass” (ganchao) the United States will fail. But maybe a more interesting answer can be found in Liu Cixin’s astonishing 2008 novel, “The Three-Body Problem,” which I read for the first time last week.
The problem of the title is introduced to the reader — and to the nanotechnology scientist Wang Miao, one of the central characters — as a virtual reality game, set in a strange, distant world with three suns rather than the familiar one. The mutually perturbing gravitational attractions of the three suns prevent this planet from ever settling into a predictable orbit with regular days, nights, and seasons. It has occasional “stable eras,” during which civilization can advance, but with minimal warning, these give way to “chaotic eras” of intense heat or cold that render the planet uninhabitable.
The central conceit of Liu’s novel is that China’s history has the same pattern as the three-body problem: periods of stability always end with periods of chaos — what the Chinese call dong luan. The other key character in the book is Ye Wenjie, who sees her father, a professor at Tsinghua University, beaten to death by a gang of teenage Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
Banished from Beijing to a labor camp in benighted rural backwater, Ye is rescued when she is given a lowly job in a mysterious observatory known as Red Coast. But nothing can undo the emotional damage of witnessing her father’s murder. Nor can she escape the chaos of Communism. She watches in horror as the entire area around the observatory is deforested. Everything — even astrophysics — is subordinated to Mao’s warped ideology.
Disillusioned completely by the madness of mankind — a sentiment reinforced by a chance meeting with an American environmentalist — Ye stumbles on a way of beaming a message from Earth deep into space by bouncing it off the sun. When, after years of empty noise, a clear message is received in reply, she does not hesitate. Even though the message is a warning not to communicate with Trisolaris — the name of a real planet with three suns — Ye sends another message, ensuring that the Trisolarians can locate Earth, and initiate their long-planned relocation.
Rehabilitated in the political thaw that follows Mao’s death, Ye Wenjie returns to Beijing, following in her father’s footsteps as a physics professor. But she leads a double life, for she also becomes the Commander of the Earth-Trisolaris Movement, a radically misanthropic organization dedicated to helping the Trisolarians conquer earth. Acute readers will notice that this group’s ideology is a subtle parody of Maoism.
“Start a global rebellion!” they shout. “Long live the spirit of Trisolaris! We shall persevere like the stubborn grass that resprouts after every wildfire! . . . Eliminate human tyranny!”
Little do they know that the Trisolarians are even worse than humans. As one of the aliens points out to their leader, because of their world’s utter unpredictability, “Everything is devoted to survival. To permit the survival of the civilization as a whole, there is almost no respect for the individual. Someone who can no longer work is put to death. Trisolarian society exists under a state of extreme authoritarianism.” Life for the individual consists of “monotony and desiccation.” That sounds a lot like Mao’s China.
There is one scene in “The Three-Body Problem” that sticks in the mind. An adult and a child stand looking at the grave of a Red Guard killed during the factional battles that raged during the Cultural Revolution. “Are they heroes?” asks the child. The adult says no. “Are they enemies?” The adult again says no. “Then who are they?” The adult replies: “History.”
True, the hero of the story is the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Beijing cop Shi Qiang. Chinese readers doubtless relish the scene when he lectures a pompous American general about how best to save the world.
But the deeper meaning of the book is surely that Trisolaris is China. The three bodies in contention are not suns but classes: rulers, intellectuals, masses. Right now, China is in one of its stable phases. But, as the contending forces shift, chaos will sooner or later return. Perhaps it already has, in Hong Kong.
If it spreads, I — and history — will win that bet.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.