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Hundreds of millions lifted from poverty and vast empty ghost cities—so much about China’s social and economic miracle is extraordinary and strangely hard to believe. Explanations of this miracle, given by economists and political analysts, do not much help—they skirt a reality that lies beyond their terms of reference. Something so vast and so strange as China needs an artist’s interpretation.

Superficially, Yu Hua sees modern China as quite different from the China of his youth. When he was at school in the sixties and early seventies, party doctrine discouraged girls and boys from speaking to one another. That has…

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