New York: I contend that the Party buying control over the juntas in charge of the Philippines and Indonesia doesn’t count as an invasion.

– Me, in Minds of Sand and Light

This is a follow-on to my little thing about the protests back in October 2019, and looking back I’m shocked at my own prescience because my number two and most likely scenario is the one that happened: nearly everybody who publicly said that democracy is a good idea is now either in jail or exile, and internationally respected legal professors from the universities are wanted fugitives with million-dollar bounties on their heads.  But this is about Worldcon, and the Hugos…

Why China Sucks at Innovation, so it Bought Worldcon (and the Hugos)

Innovation is the direct result of a free exchange of ideas. China doesn’t have that, because of its stifling of free discourse. And this is because of the Chinese Communist Party, and most of all because President Xi made himself president for life. He’s essentially a dictator.

His – and the CCP’s – position is precarious; if the people rebel, as they did in Tiananmen in 1989 (and don’t forget all of those students were murdered for asking for democracy), the entire edifice could topple and they’re well aware that they could have a French Revolution scenario. They must cling to power to survive.

The CCP is the power structure here, and Xi is at its head. Anyone within his politburo who disagrees with him is purged – and this has happened to top generals and officials, who simply disappear.

So: the CCP knows that they’re in a precarious position. How to hold on to it?

    • Propaganda is the biggest one. They limit people’s access to outside ideas, and provide everybody with a carefully curated set of positive spins.
    • By limiting access to information from outside China. Facebook, Twitter and Google are banned (and don’t give me nonsense about tunnellers. For people who don’t have the nous to use VPNs, there’s no access. And there have been a few people who have been dragged into police stations and made examples of.)
    • By limiting discourse. If someone says something even mildly negative about the government on a social media site, it’s deleted by a massive army of censors. And the CCP controls all the social media sites.
    • People will use rhyming slang and metaphors to get around the censors. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse as these are deleted as well.
    • Rigid political control. Any company with more than 50 workers must have a CCP representative present, to spy on them and report back!

There’s a secondary aspect, which is the social contract. The CCP has promised the people of China that they will bring prosperity, as long as everybody works together with them.

    • The obvious downside is that when things turn sour, the people are going to be even more unhappy with their inability to complain or change the leadership through a democratic process.
    • Thus, democracy is a Bad Thing. Mention democracy in China and you’ll be invited down to the police station for a cup of tea. Say it’s a good thing too many times and you’ll disappear. Or, in the case of Hong Kong professors of law, find yourself an international fugitive for the crime of ‘speaking to foreign powers’.

This leads to the third aspect, which is that the CCP robustly claims that China can’t have democracy, because ‘democracy doesn’t work for Chinese culture.’ There’s been a propaganda blitz about China’s ‘five thousand years of superior culture’ which is Xi, once again, attempting to make out that China is culturally unique and superior, and the CCP is the only government that will work under their culture.

    • And of course Taiwan, a robust democratic and extremely Chinese society, is just sitting there being wealthier than China, more innovative than China, and worst of all, being a successful democracy. Yeah, they really, really want that to go away.

Xi has this vision of China being alternative imperial power to America, in a sort of ‘soft colonialism’. This is the Belt and Road program, which is basically China buying control of developing nations under the pretext of economic assistance. It’s a direct response the US soft power imperialism, and Xi wants to set China up as an alternative empire to the US one.

As I said in my other article, the CCP’s usual way to deal with issues is to bluster, hire thugs to intimidate people, or throw money at it. And here’s where we get to Worldcon, and the Hugos.

Xi is well aware that there’s a lack of innovation in China. China lags behind other nations, because the strict enforcement of ideas policing means that everybody’s afraid to say anything new. And if you have a brilliant, lucrative idea, there’s a good chance that if you’re successful they will disappear you and steal everything. (Jack Ma had everything confiscated and is hiding in Tokyo. Ai WeiWei is hiding in Europe after being under house arrest for years.) There are no consumer protections, and no copyright protection. The best way to make money in this environment is to steal an idea, make cheap rubbish copies, make as much money as possible, and then grab the money and run. Wedding dress from Wish, anyone?

One way the CCP has dealt with this lack of innovation, is a sophisticated global program of corporate espionage to steal ideas and technology. The new Chinese aircraft, the Comac C919, is a recently-unveiled clone of the Airbus A320 – which has been around since 1984. (Proof it’s stolen, and many Chinese operatives were arrested in the process.)

There are videos of their copies of the Boston Dynamics ‘spot’ robot, even doing the same demonstration routines. It’s shameless.

In the spirit of ‘Buying Soft Power’ there was a Facebook page called ‘Interesting Engineering’ that has obviously been bought by China and is now a propaganda dissemination program that shares sometimes obviously doctored pictures of innovation in China.

They’re aware of the fact that they suck at innovation. So Xi pulled a group of politburo members together and asked the question: where does innovation come from? And the obvious answer was: science fiction. What was science fiction 50 years ago is science fact now.

As Xinhua says: “Science fiction is believed to be a tool that will help people further liberate their minds to create a more magical future.”

The CCP couldn’t intimidate or bluster science fiction and have innovation magically fall out, so the CCP decided to buy it.

So China Bought Worldcon

Most cities in the world have a small group of enthusiastic sci-fi fans who will hold conventions to share their love for all things speculative. They’ll have marathons of the Star Trek animated series; cosplay competitions, and panels about Whether a Lightsaber-wielding Jedi Could Defeat a Bat’leth Wielding Klingon. In Klingon.

Some nations have a ‘Natcon’ that is a conglomeration of the whole nation’s aficionados, once a year, and these Natcons can bid to be ‘Worldcon’ which is where everybody world-wide gets together and shares the love. Worldcons can be huge, and attended by many of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy publishing, television, movies – everybody. Side note – they’re fantastic.

The city is selected by votes by all members who paid the membership fee for the Worldcon two years before it. You can also buy a non-attending membership, which will also get you a vote. Aha!

So what China did, was buy a bloc of memberships of the 2021 Worldcon, and had them all vote for Chengdu’s bid for 2023. The Worldcon committee conveniently overlooked the fact that most of these votes were from people at the same address, and allowed Chengdu to host.

I was one of the people who objected to this. A few people did. It didn’t get far.

The CCP built a massive Sci-fi museum/convention building designed by Zaha Hadid architects,  just for the Worldcon. It was only just finished in time for the con, and it was going to be an event.

It turned into a circus. There was a mascot.

There wasn’t a dealer’s room, there was a trade fair extolling technology innovation in China. Thousands of people rocked up, because China has a really big sci-fi fanbase. There are photos of bemused-looking Western attendees with their lanyards and badges standing next to a human-sized statue of the mascot.

There was rampant copyright violation during the convention, from showing of unlicensed media on the main stage to giveaways of pirated material at the door. Here’s a propaganda clip connecting sci-fi and technology with games (which young people aren’t allowed to play in China) and uses a clip from ‘Inception’ taken without permission.

Many of the propaganda outlets didn’t understand what science fiction is, and used the term interchangeably with ‘technology’:

“Chengdu’s sci-fi equipment manufacturing industry is also on the fast track of development, supported by enterprises in the artificial intelligence, big data and high-definition display technology sectors.” – People’s Daily

And Then the Hugos Happened

Each Worldcon has the Hugo Awards, usually voted on and awarded during the convention. The Hugos are the Academy Awards of Science Fiction. They’re the premier award for a speculative fiction novel in the world and voted on by everybody who attends Worldcon. The little propaganda video above calls it the ‘Nobel Prize for Science Fiction’ which is… taking it a little far. The CCP went berserk with ferocious pride, however, when the ‘Three Body Problem’ won it, so there’s that I guess.

For 2023, the best novel was absolutely going to be won by R.F. Kuang’s ‘Babel’, a masterpiece of colonial deconstruction set in an alternative universe London/China during the OpiumWars. Everybody knew it would win – and it didn’t.

The awards were handed out, there were was some confusion as some obvious shoo-ins – like ‘Babel’ – didn’t win, but the short lists and voting weren’t released when they were supposed to be.

Ninety days later, on January 20, 2024, the short lists and voting numbers were revealed just before the cutoff in the constitution that requires they be released. And all hell broke loose.

R.F. (Rebecca) Kuang’s Babel, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Episode Six, Hai Ya’s short ‘Pagoda of Fogong Temple’ and Mu Ming’s Novelette ‘Color the World’ all received enough votes to be shortlisted – but were disqualified. Blogger Paul Weimer was disqualified from best Fan Writer. The list came out, and these works had an asterisk attached to them that at the bottom said ‘ineligible’.

When questioned, Hugo Award administrator Dave McCarty was at first opaque: ‘After we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible,’ which was a response to Neil Gaiman. Then he was outright breathtakingly racistly rude to Xiran Jay Zhou – ‘It’s not my responsibility that you can’t parse a sentence in what I assume is your native language’.

There’s nothing in the constitution that gives any reason why these works should be disqualified. And it’s completely obvious that these are political disqualifications. The CCP doesn’t like any of these writers.

I haven’t read all the works, but I do know why the ones I’ve read have been disqualified:

Outspoken non-binary Xiran Jay Zhou’s Iron Widow both undercuts the ‘five thousand years of perfect Chinese culture’ by having a main character who’s in a wheelchair because her feet are bound, causing her constant pain, and as well is in a three-way with a couple of guys who kiss on the page? Not happening.

Babel is set during the Opium Wars, a shameful part of China’s history, and the main character is openly queer? Not happening.

Weimer expressed doubt about holding the con in Chengdu in his Patreon. Yep, gone.

The Sandman thing? Nothing to do with that particular episode. The CCP hates anything LGBT because Xi is personally concerned that China’s men are all turning into gay prancing weaklings (or something) (no, seriously) and Gaiman wrote that kiss. You know the one I mean.

(Inserted for reference, because anyway)

That particular writer? Not happening.

The fallout? Two members of the committee (one of them McCarty) resigned and another two were censured by the committee. Xiran Jay Zhou’s touting her book as ‘A Number One Bestseller Disqualified from the Hugos’ with good reason. Babel has even more admirers.

And the Worldcon committee are reconsidering the option of having 2028 Worldcon in Uganda, a nation notorious for its oppression of the LBGT community.

I guess China did manage to buy science fiction, for a while. I doubt it will lead to any innovation but hey, the massive Zaha Hadid Museum of Science Fiction added a great deal to China’s flagging GDP. The science fiction community in China – and the China’s largest sci-fi magazine published in Chengdu – received a great deal of CCP attention (yeah this isn’t a good thing).

And the Hugos? Here’s hoping they recover.

‘The Wreck of the Hugo’, Charles Oines, 2015

Further Reading:

A Chinese resident’s take on the controversy:

(Note that, of course, he has to be very careful what he says and he still says a little too much)

Hilariously, the best mainstream media breakdown of the whole debacle is in Esquire:

    • It also includes links to breakdowns of the weird voting stats, and links to other people’s takes on the whole business.