Fragile China: The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

What becomes of a nation when it attains its long-harbored goal of surpassing the world’s longtime economic leader?

Recent history offers two imperfect but instructive examples. In the early 20th century, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany interpreted its sprint past Britain as license to reshape the world in its image—by force.

Several decades later Japan began conquering the world with its goods, briefly surpassing the U.S., at least in per capita nominal GDP. This prompted much hand-wringing in the West about how to keep up with this new economic juggernaut and its rapidly acquired wealth. Almost as quickly as it had risen, though, in the 1990s Japan embarked on an extended navel-gazing walkabout from which it has never really returned.

Both of these episodes have been explored thoroughly in literature. But “The Fat Years,” an inventive and highly topical novel by Chan Koonchung, is among the first to explore a scenario that much of the world is speculating about today: What happens once China can boast having the world’s top economy? His descriptions of the excesses of contemporary China—the book is set in the very near future of 2013—are so vivid that the book was banned in China when it was first published in 2009, and the background of world economic crisis has the immediacy of journalism, a setup to which Mr. Chan adds a speculative dystopian twist.

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