Professor Jing Tsu writes about Chinese science fiction in Financial Times

Illustration from Liu Cixin’s graphic novel ‘The Wandering Earth’ © ComicChina 2019
May 29, 2020

Why sci-fi could be the secret weapon in China’s soft-power arsenal

First came Beijing’s ‘panda diplomacy’. Now there’s a fan-backed drive to host the ‘Olympics of SF’

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
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.

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 onechild
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
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. Chengdubased
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.

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
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
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