The People’s Republic of SF

  • Themes: China, Culture

Life in China increasingly resembles life on another planet – by Beijing’s deliberate design. If the twenty-first century really is the ‘Chinese Century’, as currently forecast, then surely the advance of its native science fiction will follow this same pattern.

Night view of Chengdu.
Night view of Chengdu. Credit: Imaginechina Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2019, the southwestern Chinese mega-city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, was voted China’s ‘most sci-fi city’ in a national poll; perhaps every single one of its 20 million residents loyally cast their vote in its favour.

That same year, Chengdu won a bid to host WorldCon 2023, the world’s biggest science fiction fan convention, representing a concerted attempt to project China’s soft-power across the globe, the Science Fiction equivalent of Beijing’s successful hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008.

In 2017, the Sichuan Science and Technology Association announced they would invest US$1.8 billion to build a self-enclosed ‘sci-fi town’ inside Chengdu, with genre-themed museums, design and tech innovation centres, a ‘writing incubator’, theme park, and film and TV production facilities, intended to make Chengdu ‘the country’s first sci-fi industry incubator’.

The state-of-the-art Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and slated to open just in time to host October’s WorldCon, looks like someone has spilled liquid mercury onto the local Jingrong Lake, although according to PR blurbs, the strange, organic design is ‘emulating an expanding nebula cloud and transforming the museum into a “star cloud” that disperses energy fields into its many different zone’.

Since the triumph of Beijing 2008, China has spent billions polishing its image outside its own borders, but due to a constant string of negative stories, from the first appearance of Covid-19 in Wuhan, to the genocide being perpetrated against the Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, the communist country’s reputation has only declined in recent years, as polls show consistently.

After Chengdu won the WorldCon vote, an open letter was released by human rights groups and science fiction writers from West and East alike, calling for a boycott.

Meanwhile, China’s leading science fiction writer, Cixin Liu, has been employed by the Chinese tech-firm SenseTime, which is using insights from science fiction to inform its research into AI systems. One alleged application of this is to create electronic mass-surveillance systems to monitor Uighurs via facial-recognition technology, leading some to label Chinese sci-fi itself a complicit tool of Chinese Communist oppression.

According to Chinese state media, Liu has been involved in using SenseTime’s AI to develop an ‘immersive offline entertainment experience’ of the universe described in his best-selling Three Body Problem trilogy of novels. Liu is keen on China seizing the reins of global leadership, even advocating quite seriously in 2011 that the Communist Party should develop official protocols for what to do should alien spacecraft ever land on Earth: ‘As a strong country with a long history… China should take up its corresponding responsibilities in interstellar affairs between beings on Earth and other planets.’

A few decades ago, when Chinese-language blockbusters such as 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon first began projecting Chinese soft-power to cinema-goers abroad, characteristically native genres like martial-arts movies were the vehicle of choice. It is significant that under President Xi the favoured genre has now decisively shifted towards science fiction.

The Chinese film industry is centrally planned, with a recent strengthening of party control over all aspects of the business — films are expected to explicitly promote ‘core socialist values’, among other things.

However, if today’s People’s Republic of China is often compared to works of science fiction by those abroad, then, thanks to persistent rumours that Covid-19 perhaps originated in a Wuhan bio-lab and the nightmare of the nation’s online hi-tech social credit system, the specific works invoked tend to be pandemic disasters such as The Andromeda Strain, or Orwellian surveillance-state dystopias such as 1984.

Under social credit, each citizen is awarded a kind of personal behaviour score roughly comparable to personal financial credit ratings in the West. Nationwide electronic spying systems monitor citizens for actions deemed misbehaviour by Beijing – not just paying bills late, smoking in a no-smoking zone or minor traffic offences, but even playing too many videogames or spending your cash on the wrong kind of ‘frivolous’ products.

Proposed punishments range from being banned from flights or using the best hotels to receiving slower internet speeds, and even having your pets taken away from you, or finding your children barred from university attendance.

Obedient citizens with good credit scores, meanwhile, may get handy discounts on goods and services, or access to better interest-rates on their savings in banks. The system is not yet fully operational nationwide, but it is intended to become so, as soon as is practically possible – at which point the Chinese people really will be living in 1984, just as George Orwell had once predicted.

Accordingly, perhaps the best way to counter the increasing foreign perception of Big Brother China as a totalitarian science fiction dystopia would be for Beijing to seize control of the genre itself, making the country as big a name in the field of science fiction as it now is in the Olympics.

China once treated the genre with official suspicion, but today it is legitimately funded by the state, and is an industry involving the mass-production of ideas. One Beijing-based start-up, the highly Orwellian-sounding Future Affairs Administration, acts as a testing-centre for hundreds of aspiring science fiction writers, trialling their inventions to see which are most likely to fly. A bewildering array of similar bodies have emerged in China over recent decades too.

Fan conventions are state-sponsored, and a regular, Chengdu-based short story magazine, Science-Fiction World, enjoys around a million readers per issue. Yet according to British Army Chief of Defence staff scholar Lieutenant Colonel Dave Calder, the true purpose of this push toward science fiction is to drive real-world scientific innovation, seen by Beijing as being built initially upon pure inspiration.

Several historical inventions, including the geostationary satellite and moon-rockets, were conceived of by Western science-fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and Jules Verne. By this logic, the Mao-era bans on the genre were self-defeating acts, which only allowed the West to push further ahead.

During its ‘Century of Humiliation’ between around 1839 and 1949 (the year Mao won his civil war and the nation officially turned Red), China was dominated by foreign imperialists, opium-traders, and conquerors from comparatively tiny, but industrially more advanced lands. This was done primarily through technology; China had no Victorian-era weapons such as iron-clad gunboats (the Death-Stars of their day) to defend itself from foreign aggressors, so had to submit to outside conquest.

The nation that once gifted humanity the ‘Four Great Inventions’ of compass, paper, gunpowder, and printing, had long since turned in on itself, valuing rigid internal stability over external expansion, under the influence of traditionalist-minded Confucian doctrine. It stagnated to the point where those from tiny islands like Britain could lord it over the world’s most populous nation.

The initial flourishing of science fiction (or ‘scientific romance’ as it was then known) in Britain came during the late nineteenth century, when the country’s Industrial Revolution, scientific research, military and Empire were without global parallel. Likewise, the ‘golden age’ of science fiction in Britain’s immediate successor as global hegemon, the United States, came between the 1930s and the early 1960s, when its living standards, armed forces and technology were far more advanced than the rest of the planet’s. If the twenty-first century really is the ‘Chinese Century’, as currently forecast, then surely the advance of its native science fiction will follow this same pattern.

One acknowledged motivation for Beijing’s official promotion of the genre today is to inspire young people to become scientists and engineers, thus to make the scenarios they encounter on-screen reality.

According to Calder, Chinese science fiction has now been ‘entirely appropriated as a means to help address [China’s] technical creativity deficit and drive the economy from being one characterised by replication [of Western technology] to one that innovates’. Science fiction will help Chinese industry evolve from a derivative, West-following mode of plagiarism, to one of triumphant, West-leading invention, or so it is hoped.

The Chinese Communist Party have an official geopolitical doctrine of tianxia, or ‘All-Under-Heaven,’ meaning they and they alone should enjoy the position of dominating that sublunary realm we call ‘Planet Earth’. Under the desired permanent illiberal world-order of tianxia, China will become a ‘civilisation state’ — a gigantic, universal empire setting global standards for the rest of the world.

A January 2023 study from the London School of Economics, China’s Global Strategy as Science-Fiction, draws an interesting contrast between American and Chinese depictions of future models of globalisation in their most popular science fiction franchises.

In US shows such as Star Trek, a deliberate decision was made to depict a cosmopolitan off-Earth future for humankind, with the crew of the spaceship Starship Enterprise featuring people of all races working together in perfect harmony, not to mention an American (Captain Kirk) and a Russian (Lieutenant Chekov) doing likewise, predicting all Cold War rivalries would one day conclude in final pan-species unity. Chinese science fiction is very different to this optimistic 1960s dream.

In China’s own highest-grossing cinematic science-fiction franchise, The Wandering Earth, based on a novella by Cixin Liu, the overarching plot sees our planet transformed into a gigantic movable spaceship, allowing it to be steered away from our dangerously expanding sun. Here, the main protagonists piloting our planet are all ethnic Chinese people.

Other races and nationalities do appear, but their minor roles are akin to those of the British in a bombastic Hollywood Second World War movie: subordinate, compliant, passive assistants. This is supposed to reflect the forthcoming era of tianxia, where China dominates, just like America did after winning the Cold War.

Back in 1998 when Hollywood sci-fi disaster flick Armageddon hit cinemas, if a deadly asteroid really had hurtled towards Earth, most people would have assumed Americans would come to humanity’s aid. Chinese film-makers want it to seem just as natural that, should a similar crisis strike in 2075 when The Wandering Earth is set, it would be the Chinese who avert disaster – 2075 being just close enough to lie within younger viewers’ own likely lifetimes.

When the first film in the series reached Chinese screens in 2019, images of a (possibly doctored) cinema ticket went viral on social media site SinaWeibo, bearing the message ‘Only the [Chinese] Communist Party can save Earth.’ Whether or not the ticket itself was genuine, state newspapers published similar headlines in the aftermath. China’s much-touted ‘Socialism With Chinese Characteristics’ thus becomes, on-screen, the purported scientific means by which the planetary catastrophes of tomorrow will be averted.

In reality, the Chinese Communist Party might be more likely to destroy the planet than save it. Chinese industry today is the world’s largest polluter, with over fifty per cent of the world’s new coal-fired power stations. Cinematic misdirection becomes a diversion away from the less comfortable truth.

In January 2023 The Wandering Earth II was released, receiving a glowing review in the English-language version of Chinese propaganda newspaper Global Times. The reviewer, Ai Pang, is sure to emphasise that this time there is a rare rival to Chinese global leadership: the declining United States. The majority of its weakling population, however, no longer have the strength for major undertakings such as space travel, so argue for uploading humankind’s brains into computers to escape the sun’s expansion instead.

Only China can successfully resist what becomes a terrorist plot to turn the human race into disembodied electronic data, and it is clear which side the rest of the world come to back. Earth’s immediate danger this time is the moon, due to crash into our planet at any moment.

In true Orwellian style, if the future is to be rewritten in this fashion, then so too must the present and the past  – to China’s inevitable benefit. Pang’s review continues:

It is even truer today after humanity’s three-year war against the Covid-19 pandemic [that] only courage and unity can win over crisis, in science-fiction or in reality. Ever since the outbreak of [the] pandemic in early 2020, thousands of [Chinese] medical workers were deployed to combat the deadly virus without even sufficient personal protection equipment, as were volunteers and community workers. Their collective efforts are remembered in the movie as thousands of volunteers just like them scramble to the frontline to maintain the order and rescue the people when the lunar crisis approaches. All are wearing red vests with the eye-catching ‘CCP’ [Chinese Communist Party] written on the back. Unity is the spirit that flows through the blood of Chinese people, something that can be shared with the rest of the world and inspire more for the humanity’s resilience.

Most viewers might have presumed China’s dubious conduct during the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan caused the subsequent global pandemic, killing millions and trashing economies worldwide, but science fiction allows CCP scriptwriters to imagine an alternative world.

Yet could the transparent nature of this propaganda backfire? A recent Radio Free Asia article reported how the 2023 film garnered negative reviews in Western media such as the New York Times, causing a pro-Chinese counter-backlash on SinaWeibo.

Hubristic action-films such as Armageddon have long faced ridicule outside the US for their comically sincere insistence that only Americans could save the world; what makes the Chinese think foreign audiences won’t react similarly to their own, even more blatantly nationalistically biased, products?

China’s increased central planning of science-fiction movies, it has been argued, may result in faceless CCP bureaucrats strangling all life from the genre. While a mega-success domestically, The Wandering Earth series has not yet achieved brand-recognition on a par with Star Wars or Star Trek in the West.

Another recent Global Times story promoting The Wandering Earth II reveals a further element to the geopolitical PR scheme, claiming the various futuristic ‘engineering vehicles, drones [and] exoskeletons seen on the screen are all products that have been mass-produced or developed by [Chinese] industry’s leading companies for the movie’.

For journalist Xu Keyue, ‘It is China’s strong scientific and technological strength that makes the hard technological elements in the science fiction blockbuster so convincing.’ Audiences can see with their own eyes that China is already busily building the world of tomorrow – today.

Director Guo Fan is on-board with this PR line, telling interviewers that ‘The improvement of the country’s scientific and technological strength is the biggest foundation for us to make science-fiction films.’ In the Chinese film industry, it is not just the actors who read their words straight from scripts.

According to the Global Times, ‘careful audiences’ have even observed fleeting cameos of ‘many prototypes of China’s [real-life current and upcoming] military and aerospace products, such as the J-20 stealth fighter-jet’. Stealth-fighters are not much use if it’s easy to spot them, though, meaning they must have been intentionally made visible to the eyes of global film-goers — just like that alarming Chinese ‘weather-balloon’ recently seen floating through US airspace.

One real technological wonder, however, is China’s rapidly growing space programme. China’s current space station is called Tiangong, or ‘Heavenly Palace’. From here, Chinese taikonauts are intended to rule over ‘All-Under-Heaven’, with Tiangong being the traditional residence of the ruling deity Tian Di who held supreme authority over the entire universe in ancient Chinese myth — his current incarnation perhaps being President Xi Jinping, some critics may say.

Control of space will prove pivotal to wars of the future, and China intends to dominate above, thereby to dominate below, too. Yet the celestial sphere can also be dominated imaginatively, not just physically.

China’s lunar exploration modules are named after Chang’e, a legendary Chinese moon-goddess said to live on the lunar surface together with her companion, a ‘Jade Rabbit’ named Yutu. This may seem a trivial matter of nomenclature, but it can be viewed as an attempt to rewrite our very perceptions of the night skies. Writing in 2021, Molly Silk, then a PhD candidate studying Chinese space policy at the University of Manchester, argued that:

The linking of China’s traditional past to its forward-looking space activities serves to strengthen the identity of these space programmes as distinctly Chinese. In connecting these achievements to the country’s cultural heritage, they are presented not as mere copies of their space-power predecessors [the US and USSR], but as having developed from national talents and progress. They also serve as a reminder that while the programmes aim for the furthest reaches of space, China’s future will never be disconnected from its national and cultural roots. Furthermore, these legendary names are a signal to the international community that space is not the exclusive domain of historical Western figures such as Apollo or Artemis, but that it also belongs to the lineage of the Chinese people.

The centuries-old Western domination of the world can be seen in the night sky, with planets like Mars and Jupiter named after Roman gods. But, when future planets continue to be discovered outside our solar system, it’s possible they will soon be named after Chinese deities rather than Roman or Greek ones.

Military analysts term such apparently non-military realms of combat ‘cognitive domains’, the true battle going on within them being for people’s minds, particularly those of coming generations. At present, Westerners have been psychologically conditioned since early childhood to see the face of a non-existent ‘man in the moon’ via the process of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of seeing faces in unusual places. In China, infants are primed from birth to see Yutu, a ‘rabbit in the moon’ instead .

Imagine if, through its coming domination of outer space, China manages to condition Western children to see a rabbit in the moon, too, thanks to constant media attention being given to successful lunar rovers named after the creature’s moon-mistress. Insignificant in itself, but another small brick in the future wall of envisioned Chinese domination.

One day, it is intended, the CCP will rule not only All-Under-Heaven but All-Within-Heaven too. Science fiction is but one small tool designed to help enable it to do so.


Steven Tucker