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Dark tale of China’s sci-fi industry — how to remain on the right side of CCP’s censorship

It doesn't matter that the plot of a sci-fi book or film is fictitious, the CCP wants to ensure that the imagination of writers and filmmakers doesn’t run amok.

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Since the publication of Liu Cixin’s book The Three-Body Problem in 2006, the science fiction industry in China has taken off with a bang. Sci-fi themed books and films have become a robust genre in China. Life imitates art, as the famous quote by Oscar Wilde goes, and sci-fi has a lesson for all of us trying to understand China.

Liu Cixin has remained a legend whose ability to write sci-fi narratives based on scientific research has been inspired by Chinese writers and filmmakers. But now, the Chinese sci-fi authors and filmmakers are developing a unique genre rooted in stories from everyday lives in urban and rural spaces in China.

“The most important thing is that the core expression of this animation is in sharp contrast with the ‘Western science fiction culture’,” said a movie blogger about a new animation series called Spirit Cage.

The Chinese sci-fi movie industry is trying to reinvent itself by drawing on Chinese cultural heritage and current affairs. Journey to the West, a 2021 movie, has premiered at leading film festivals around the world, and the domestic release of the movie is eagerly awaited. In the film, Tang Zhijun, a middle-aged magazine editor, travels to a remote village to probe the sighting of an unidentified object. While at the village, Tang meets a local poet who suggests that answers to the sightings could be found in a faraway mountain. What follows is an adventure with storytelling rooted in Chinese culture and history.

Another sci-fi movie that has inspired Chinese culture, occult and Buddhism is The Soul (2021), starring Janine Chang, Christopher Lee and Chang Chen. The movie is set in Taiwan 2031, and revolves around an investigation into the death of a businessman, which leads to a prosecutor and his wife discovering occult secrets. In the movie, the dead businessman was developing a futuristic cure for cancer to help the prosecutor save his own life as he faces terminal stage cancer. Though the movie is primarily a Taiwanese production, the Buddhist symbols littered all over the film appealed to audiences across mainland China.

After many setbacks, a movie and TV series based on Liu’s famous The Three-Body Problem series may finally move towards completion. Currently, China’s Tencent and Netflix are locked in a battle to complete their versions of the production based on Liu’s Hugo award-winning trilogy.

Liu’s work critically examines the Cultural Revolution’s history, a topic that can be contentious in Xi Jinping’s China and could be behind the delay in the release of the movie. Another sci-fi theme, which Beijing finds highly sensitive, is time travel, and many scriptwriters have tried to avoid it since 2011. The buzz around movies and TV series based on Liu’s books has many in China hooked and eagerly waiting for their release.

The superhit 2019 sci-fi movie, The Wandering Earth, based on Liu Cixin’s 2000 book, earned a global revenue of $700 million and a sequel to the movie is in the works. The sequel is set to be released in 2023. The Wandering Earth became the second highest-grossing film of all time and set the course for the future of sci-fi films in China.

In 2021, there were 37 sci-fi movies released in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2018, China’s sci-fi industry generated $6.5 billion, which marked a threefold increase within one year. The market of sci-fi publications alone grew by 83 per cent in 2018 to the tune of $256 million.

But Liu Cixin didn’t introduce the sci-fi genre to China, there is a long history of Soviet-era sci-fi and space exploration, which has inspired many creative minds. The Chinese audience was introduced to sci-fi movies and fiction through Soviet productions in the 1950s and 60s, such as Flight to the Moon and Battle Beyond the Sun. Within the Soviet region, the Czech sci-fi films left a particular impression on the Chinese filmmakers and academics during the 1960s.

Also read: First, Beijing failed to prevent Covid in Shanghai. Now, it’s struggling to censor criticism

Telling stories without getting censored

With a growing crackdown on creative expression that doesn’t align with Xi and the CCP’s worldview, the sci-fi industry is seeking ways to tell stories without getting censored.

The Beijing central government has backed some aspects of the sci-fi genre, mainly the thematic focus on AI and the future of technology which aligns with the CCP’s agenda to ensure China’s rejuvenation.

In 2019, Sichuan University opened China’s first sci-fi research institute, which will devote itself to developing “a sci-fi theoretical system with Chinese characteristics”. China Science Fiction Research Academy at Sichuan University is the first of its kind research institution dedicated to sci-fi theory and practice.

China now has a film festival dedicated to sci-fi Blue Planet Science-Fiction Film Festival (BPSFF), which opened its first festival in 2019. The festival attracted over 500 films from 30 countries and regions around the world.

The popularity of the sci-fi genre hinges on its relative non-political approach to a fantasy world where boundaries of science and fiction can be expanded. Despite the new breed of sci-fi movie producers experimenting with Chinese cultural history, the interest in space exploration and futurism remains the driving force behind the latest sci-fi movies and books.

Liu is the cult figure who has found a way to transcend cultural politics to offer a new imaginary universe to a Chinese audience. “Imagination often takes us to the world of nothingness, but we can’t go anywhere (without imagination),” Liu said in a recent interview with CCTV.

The cultural turn in Chinese sci-fi is the movie industry’s attempt to remain on the right side of Chinese censorship. It doesn’t matter that the plot is fictitious, the CCP wants to ensure the imagination doesn’t run amok. China has always had difficulty marketing its soft power, but sci-fi themed movies have grown widely popular worldwide.

As China ventures into outer space, the sci-fi movies – with their innate cultural nationalism – provide an insight into a world China hopes to build beyond the reaches of planet earth.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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