It’s a sign of the times that this novel about Hong Kong’s June 4th vigils, Chinese dissidents, and village protests seems almost quaint compared with recent real-life events. In the same way, Chinese Spring is an apt story. While Hong Kong has endured weekly protests, police clashes and mass triad attacks over the past two months, the underlying reason is fear of the Chinese authorities and their legal system. This is also what the protagonists in Christopher’s new novel confront.
Dimitri Johnson is a longtime Hong Kong resident who finds out he is dying from cancer. This forces him to contemplate his life, which is suddenly interrupted by the news that an old friend, Yu Guodong, living in the mainland has been arrested for an online petition protesting land grabs in his home village. Meanwhile, Dimitri and his wife Mila, a Chinese-born former dancer who was almost killed in the Cultural Revolution, make the acquaintance of a mysterious Chinese woman who might be an activist but whose determination is unnerving. Dimitri must also contend with memories of the tragic death of his first wife, the mother of his children, decades ago which has something to do with Mila.
The book—part-mystery, part-family drama, and part-suspense—features several different strands, not all of which are smoothly resolved. The prose is eloquent; the plot can however at times be slowed by an excess of detail and the conclusion is subdued. Guodong’s trouble in China seems secondary to Dimitri’s family drama in Hong Kong. Dimitri, Guodong and the other characters take some time to hit their stride; towards the end, however, the story picks up and becomes more engaging.
What the book gets right is conveying the sheer helplessness and fearful uncertainty ordinary individuals feel when faced with the pervasive might of the world’s strongest and largest authoritarian regime. From secret detentions to constant 24-hour monitoring to “labour camps”, which were officially abolished in 2013, Chinese Spring makes clear the many ways how the Chinese state keeps its citizens under control.
This is exactly why in real life since June, at least two million Hong Kongers have been on the streets protesting. In the story, Dimitri’s pensiveness as he ponders his impending end extends from the contemporary setting (2012) all the way back to the Cultural Revolution, contrasting the restrictions on the mainland with the freedoms of Hong Kong (at least for now).
While Chinese Spring might not be the most exciting novel, it is very fitting for the times.
Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.