Book review: ‘Beijing Smog’ by Ian Williams
China expert’s debut novel captures the madness and intensity of life within a highly censored 21st century society.
Social media is a powerful thing, even in a world where government-sanctioned firewalling attempts to keep it under wraps. In a place where public opinion is learned, not formed, and freedom of expression is non-existent, innocent Tweets, shares and updates can be taken all too seriously. Even the smallest of jokes can end up spiralling out of control.
So goes the story in ‘Beijing Smog’ (Matador, £9.99, ISBN 9781788037372), the debut novel from Ian Williams, former correspondent for Channel 4 News and the Sunday Times newspaper, who spent more than two decades living, working and reporting on China. Dark, cynical and somewhat satirical, Williams presents a modern Chinese society that is suffocating and depressing, and might prove for hard reading were it not for an entourage of well-rounded, relatable characters, and, what I hope will prove to be, Williams’ signature satirical humour.
A book of multiple pathways, ‘Beijing Smog’ centres first and foremost on the life of Wang Chu, a video-game-addicted computer science student and the unexpected father of revolution, who hides behind the screen of his smartphone, in a world inhabited by crazed monkeys, brain-hungry zombies, and poorly drawn aliens.
Wang’s devil-may-care attitude to social media has a far more prominent effect on his followers than he could have ever imagined. How could anyone have foreseen that an innocuous Tweet, subtly poking fun at the modern Chinese government, could start a revolution? That all it would take to undermine the ruling Communist Party is a simple, crudely draw stick alien with a wide bulbous head and round, sloping eyes? It started life as a joke, but the Party are not laughing.
As he wanders blindly into the heart of the storm, Wang’s story intertwines with that of two others: Chuck Drayton, an American diplomat, sucked into the world of cyber security not by desire, or ability on his part, but apathy and incompetence of everyone else; and Anthony Morgan, a listless British businessman, striving to keep his Chinese partners on track while revealing his true feelings via VPN with gloomy predictions published under the Twitter tagline @Beijing_Smog. As their stories collide, the alien revolution set in motion by Wang takes on an unpredictable life of its own, threatening all those involved, none more so than the Party itself.
This is a book about espionage, corruption, censorship and alienation. Cyberspace and the choking Chinese smog form a striking metaphor of the disorientation that clouds the main characters’ brains and the wider Chinese public. As government sensors work tirelessly to conceal, delete and mould online opinion, businesses boom with the sale of inadequate gas masks and smog apps and university students hide within a world far more palatable than reality. It may seem apathetic; a generation of students unable to look up from their phones and at a total loss when the internet goes down, but it is online that revolution is brewing.
This is not an historical novel, nor an exact representation of life in the People’s Republic, but rather a book which seeks to capture the madness and intensity of life within a highly censored society. This is something that Williams achieves without a doubt, his sparky style and dark satirical humour creates a world where student sinks overflowing with ramen dishware, shabby coffee shops with more tab than substance, and cracked smartphone screens, sit alongside bloated, machete-mutilated corpses, hungry Siberian tigers, and invitations to ‘tea’ with the university authorities. A world where a single slipped word could see a person disappear.