Why sci-fi could be the secret weapon in China’s soft-power arsenal
Jing Tsu May 29 2020 14 Print this page Last November, thousands of diehard Chinese science-fiction fans thronged to Chengdu for the first ever AsiaCon, a high-profile convention that drew in writers and film-makers from Asia, Europe, the US and the Middle East. The mayor of the capital of Sichuan province gave his blessing against a digitised backdrop of a blue galaxy, space ships and distant planets. Other speeches celebrated how science and the future could be brought together in such a compelling genre. All in all, the world seemed a less apocalyptic place back then. The Chengdu event marked a breakthrough moment for Chinese science fiction in what had already become a golden year for the genre. After years of suspicion and vilification, sci-fi has established itself as a rare focus of creative expression within the country, while also becoming something of a cultural calling card outside it. Last year saw the release of The Wandering Earth, China’s highest-grossing science-fiction film ever, in which the tale is told of a global catastrophe that brings nations together in an effort to save humanity. Meanwhile, even as they opened their doors, the organisers of the Chengdu gathering were also thinking on a more global scale, eyeing a bid to host the World Science Fiction Convention in 2023. For those outside the sci-fi world, playing host to “WorldCon” — an annual affair that has been running for over 80 years and draws from a mainly North American and European fan base of sci-fi enthusiasts — might not mean very much. But for those in the know, it is, according to Yao Haijun, editor of Chengdu-based magazine Science Fiction World, which helped organise AsiaCon, like bidding to host the Olympics. Landing WorldCon would confirm China’s position as a global centre in sci-fi, not just an ordinary participant. “It would be a true landmark,” says Han Song, a widely respected voice in the Chinese science- fiction world, “to bring writers and fans from disparate worlds together to learn and share one another’s visions for the future.” A concerted effort is now under way to secure the necessary support among the 6,000 or so WorldCon fan members who will vote on the location for the 2023 event. The Chinese sci-fi community has been diligently lobbying for the idea, dispatching representatives to staff booths at recent world conventions in London, Helsinki, San Jose and Dublin to spread the slogan of Chengdu — “Panda Wants a WorldCon.” As such, China’s sci-fi scene is emerging as an unexpected element in a broader initiative of cultural diplomacy aimed at projecting a positive and engaging impression of the country abroad. Yet unlike Beijing’s “panda” or “ping-pong” initiatives of the past, it is driven by popular grassroots enthusiasm — which has made Chinese officials sit up and take notice. Government attempts at developing Chinese cultural soft power have not always gone to plan. Beijing has spent, according to one study, an estimated $6bn since 2009 revamping and shaping its image abroad. Yet from building a global network of hundreds of Confucius Institutes to “Learning from Xi” apps, China’s leaders have struggled to popularise their message as fast as negative memes about them go viral. The hopes and expectations for the country’s sci-fi scene are higher, something that has not gone unnoticed internationally. Bill Lawhorn, co-chair of WorldCon 2021, attended the Chengdu conference, where he says he found a city “pushing to be on the cutting edge”. As well as high-level official support, science fiction has found a hearing with the country’s tech giants such as Tencent, which has opened its own department on sci-fi animation. In the 1970s, a story about a millennia-old dinosaur egg landed a pioneering sci-fi writer in trouble This is a welcome development for those responsible for the creative output. For decades Chinese writers have navigated a political and social landscape that has been far more complex than most outsiders can imagine. Science fiction lends itself to alternative imaginings and parallel universes. Writers recognise that the stars have never been better aligned for science fiction to shine. They are in a unique position to do something for their country — a heartfelt motivation, for some — while also fulfilling their creative and personal ambitions. Wu Yan, founder of a Shenzhen-based think-tank that publishes an annual report on the industry of science fiction, says “it is very rare for a work of fiction to win the support of three major constituencies: the government, popular readers and intellectuals.” Chinese sci-fi currently enjoys all three. As long as China’s economy is driven by science and tech, edging ever forward in areas such as 5G and AI, the symbiotic relationship will continue to grow. That has not always been the case. In the recent past, scientific fiction often conflicted with the state’s desire to define the correct path for the promotion of scientific knowledge. In the 1970s, a row over whether a millennia-old dinosaur egg could logically still hatch in a story by the pioneering sci-fi writer Ye Yonglie landed him in trouble for smearing real science. In the early 1980s, during Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, the genre was banned under suspicion of spiritual pollution in a general backlash against westernisation. Despite past tensions between writers and Beijing, the genre’s global visibility is coinciding with the visions of the Chinese state, which has enlisted the popular dissemination of science and technology in the 13th Five-Year Plan, 2016-20. While dystopian novels such as Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung’s Fat Years — which makes a veiled reference to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — and Yan Lianke’s explicit political satires have been banned, science fiction as a genre has the versatility of not being tied to any side of history or its interpretation; it offers instead multiple departures for the future. China needs these storytellers to connect the now to the not-yet, satisfying a popular need to express their hopes for the future in a country that continues to face political headwind in the world. The results are works that draw heavily on elements of current and recent experience, and which have also captured the attention of readers elsewhere. For example, Liu Cixin’s award-winning 2006 novel The Three Body Problem, whose fans include Barack Obama, narrates a story about a China-led planetary resistance against a pending alien takeover in a post-Cultural Revolution reckoning. In the short story “Folding Beijing”, Hao Jingfang addresses urban inequities by dividing Beijing into three different zones for the right to daylight. China’s sci-fi writers are as diverse in background as they are in style. Chen Qiufan, author of Waste Tide and winner of multiple awards, writes about environmental catastrophes on the Silicon Isle, modelled on the garbage recycling centres near where the author grew up in Guangdong, China’s economic powerhouse. Distinct from Liu’s generation, which lived through the Mao era, Chen is of the one-child policy generation whose themes of automatons and experimentation with algorithmically generated dialogues speak to an entirely different experience of China — its explosive growth and prosperity, as well as its untold social and ecological toll. Chen and his peers ruminate on AI, technology, environmental collapse and other problems that used to be seen as the exclusive discursive domain of a western worldview. But as Ken Liu, translator of The Three Body Problem, notes, some writers think the bar is now higher. “When you go into space, you become part of this overall collective called ‘humanity’. You’re no longer Chinese, American, Russian or whatever. Your culture is left behind,” he says. Chinese science fiction wants to be more about science fiction than China. At least, that is the aspiration. Away from the keyboard, more ambitious plans are under way: to build an entire cultural industry surrounding Chinese science fiction, replete with start-up companies. Future Affairs Administration, a Beijing start-up, is cultivating and testing hundreds of writers through workshops and early career management. Chengdu-based Eight Light Minutes, a consultancy, develops fiction into films, comics and other outlets. Academic research centres are springing up across China, along with think-tanks, film, media, online gaming and related merchandising. Best books of the week The FT’s pick of the most essential recent reading But ultimately what will drive all this is the grassroots fan base, the vast majority of whom developed their enthusiasm young. Science fiction has always been inspired and sustained by fandom, especially in its darkest hours. Regina Kanyu Wang, a writer at Storycom, a film-oriented sci-fi start-up in Beijing, hopes that “whatever becomes of Chinese sci-fi, it does not forget its fan-based roots”. Although science-fiction writers themselves are not always sure how to deal with all the official attention, they are happy to go along with it. During the past months of quarantine under Covid-19, plans were inevitably on hold. But the overall sentiment within the community remains undeterred. The bid for WorldCon 2023 is still on. When I spoke with Yao over WeChat video a few weeks ago, his phone buzzed every few seconds. He had attended a planning meeting the day before. He reminded me that Chengdu, according to a new survey, is now officially the “most sci-fi city” in China — edging out Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. As far as insiders are concerned, the future remains bright. Under the current atmosphere of mutual blame and the battle of words between China and the west, the soft power of storytelling may play its most important role yet. Jing Tsu is John M Schiff professor of East Asian languages and literatures at Yale University Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.