By Hsiao-Hung Pai
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Rare Earth: Truth in disguise

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Writers in China often have to fictionalise their work in order to be heard. "Write it into a novel to get through the censors," publishers will tell you.
Issue 2286

Writers in China often have to fictionalise their work in order to be heard. “Write it into a novel to get through the censors,” publishers will tell you.

So fiction can become truth in disguise. Newsnight’s Paul Mason’s powerful new novel is like these Chinese books in presenting truth in disguise.

Rare Earth is a comic tragedy. It is the tragedy of a society swallowed up by the anarchy of the market. And it is comic because the characters have developed their own ways to make the most of their circumstances.

David Brough, a British television journalist, is searching for stories to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre—or “events” as they are called here.

“Let’s do the issues that matter today—not 20 years ago,” Twyla, his boss, tells him and his naive colleagues. That means everything except torture, democracy and human rights.

During their epic journey through western China in search of “positive” material, the journalists stumble into a scandal of environmental destruction in Ningxia, a region in the deep interior of China.

But the authorities are desperate to defend the reputation of the Nickel Metal Hydride factory of Tang Lu, which “has a bad name for pollution but a good name for social order”.

The journalists face harassment and even death at the hands of the authorities.

Brough discovers illegal “rare earth” mines in the resource-rich desert of Inner Mongolia. He also finds a village stricken by cancer because of the use of acids in extracting the metals.

Rare earth, most of which sits under Inner Mongolian mountains, is used in green technologies such as wind turbines, and China is the world’s largest producer.

The privatisation of state-owned mining enterprises has created rich, profit-hungry bosses.

In his travels Brough encounters people trafficking, prostitution, corruption, striking miners and Tiananmen survivors.

Meanwhile, the media aren’t expected to go near the facts. Here “journalists go to the coal mine by taxi and return by Mercedes-Benz”.

Brough is used to being “near enough to the action to work up a thirst” but “far enough away from moral commitment that it was no great wrench to leave the victim bleeding in the street and head for the hotel bar”.

But this time he gets far too close to turn away.

Rare Earth by Paul Mason is out now


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