Why a Chengdu Worldcon Should Be a Chengdhon’t

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OK.  We went through the largely unnecessary Letter of Concern regarding the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia WorldCon bid.

I say largely unnecessary because:  too little too late (a day or so before voting closes?  Ineffective); publicly demonstrated a lack of knowledge of how the process works or even of how WSFS (World Science Fiction Society, an Unincorporated Literary Society) is organized and operates, which led to, I think more verbiage on that score than on the central message; a small amount of research in advance would have shown that not only is there no proper way to vet or prevent bid proposals, but also that the vast majority of fans likely to vote in site selection had been talking about the moral and ethical problems associated with the bid.

And now we have the upcoming bid (which will be voted on next year at DC in 2021 – a bid I pre-supported and a convention I have offered promotional assistance to) for Chengdu China.

Ever since Cixin Liu won the Hugo in 2015 for The Three Body Problem, China has been on a tear. And I mean China, not just some fan groups or publishers.

I met with both the assistant editor of Science Fiction World magazine and the assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs for Chengdu (city, district, province;  I’m not entirely sure of the exact title the gentleman had, but he was accompanied by at least three assistants who were most definitely not fans, finger beside my nose if you catch my drift) at the bid party I was formally invited to during the San Jose Worldcon.  (I brought my tux, Saturn cufflinks and rocket tie tack.)

Others have been feted far more than myself. many of them friends and colleagues in the field, invited to conferences in China, brought in to publishing deals, praised and honored for their contributions to a genre that China (not Chinese fans) has declared a useful tool for social engineering.  Ken Liu (the author and translator who has appeared here on the website) says in this NY Times piece “In China, there’s this official propaganda position that science fiction is about imagination and this is what the future is all about,” Liu told an audience in New York”

One of the more prominent representatives of Chinese Fandom here in the states, Regina Kanyu Wang (who has been providing content on Chinese fandom to the website since 2014) notes in this article “… that “whatever becomes of Chinese sci-fi, it does not forget its fan-based roots”, which suggests to me some level of concern regarding a disconnect between governmental aspirations and fannish ones. (Note.  MY interpretation.)

I have corresponded with many other Chinese fans and it is clear to me that there are some subjects that – for their own safety – it is best to not discuss.  Which, even if all of that is self-censorship on the part of those fans means that they have reason to believe self-censorship is in their personal best interests.

In that NYTimes magazine piece featuring Ken Liu, he notes “It’s a very tricky dance of trying to get the message that they’re trying to convey out, without painting the writers as dissidents,…A lot of Chinese writers are very skilled at writing something ambiguously, such that there are multiple meanings in the text. I have to ask them, how explicit do you want me to be in terms of making a certain point here, because in the original it’s very constrained, so how much do you want me to tease out the implications you’re making? And sometimes we have a discussion about exactly what that means and how they want it to be done.”

Why “tricky”? Because “…some of the stories he [Liu] has translated into English have not been officially published in China, at times because of their politically sensitive nature.”

“It’s no surprise that sci-fi is booming in China, where the breakneck pace of technological transformation can feel surreal…technology has also become a tool of state oppression. Some Chinese factories have outfitted workers with devices that measure brain-wave activity to monitor their emotional fluctuations and alertness. Bird-shaped drones have been used to surreptitiously spy on citizens, and surveillance through facial-recognition technology is widespread. On social media and messaging apps, posts containing certain banned words are automatically censored.” (NYTimes).

From the Science Fiction Encylopedia, “Particularly in a “small” genre like sf, the simple act of withholding Mainland publication usually seems to fulfil the criteria for maintaining the Party’s status quo, allowing, for example, odd situations such as that of Han Song, who remains a high-profile journalist in the employ of the state, while much of his fiction is “banned” in China.”  And from the conclusion of that article – “…new investors lured into the market by Liu Cixin’s Hugo win and the adaptation of his novel into a film. What had formerly been a community of underpaid amateurs transformed in the late 2010s into a scrum of holding companies and management entities, cannily exploiting the genre as a means of converting local currency into overseas rights-sales. Such speculation in Chinese sf, quite literally as a “futures market”, has had a demonstrable impact on its higher profile abroad.”

My concern here (before we even get to Human Rights issues, security issues, legal issues) is that the government of China, which controls what science fiction is or is not published throughout that country (“works of Chinese sf in support of the Communist Party and its institutions, such as the Jin Ming stories of Ye Yonglie, printed in state newspapers in runs of millions, are largely unknown in English.” SFE3) can or are using possible financial incentives to gain the support of influencers within the SF Community outside of China.

No, I don’t think it has been anything overt (“Here’s a million bucks, you know what to do…”), but the possibilities of access to the Chinese market, supported (or implied support) from State representatives, is a HUGE incentive to view the bid favorably.

It is also a HUGE incentive to refrain from publicly disfavoring the bid.  No one even need say anything as the connection is self-evident:  You’ll have some chance of landing a deal if you’ve acted properly, probably no chance if you haven’t.  (Notably, the incidence of Chinese fan contributions to this website have dropped off significantly since I have begun to speak out against the bid.  I doubt anyone said to any of those contributors, “don’t send anything to Amazing Stories”.  If anything, it was “how about sending it to these guys?  They’re supporting the bid…”…and probably a lot subtler than that if the drop off is anything more than mere coincidence.)

I think a lack of commentary on the problems associated with a Chinese WorldCon bid is ample evidence that the strategy is working.  (Please prove me wrong here by offering links to commentary speaking out against the bid.  Put them in the comments or email me.)

And then there’s the Human Rights issues – the same human rights issues that have killed before aborning potential bids from a slew of countries, Israel and Russia among them.

But let me take a moment to state:  I like the Chinese fans I’ve worked with;  I do not view them as willing participants in whatever their government is doing;  I believe they are doing what they consider to be the best compromise they can manage, given their circumstances.  I’ve encountered enough “self-censorship” on their part to know that they do have to take government oversite into consideration in probably everything they do.  I feel bad about that, I don’t want anything I say or write to negatively affect them; I will continue to support them through the website and the magazine as best I can and I wish them the best with their efforts to advance Chinese Fandom.  But awarding China a WorldCon is not the answer at this time.

Human Rights.  The Uyghurs in particular.

The Cato Institute’s Human Rights Index for 2019 lists countries based on 76 different indicators of personal and economic freedom in 12 different areas: Rule of Law; Security and Safety; Movement; Religion; Association, Assembly, and Civil Society; Expression and Information; Identity and Relationship; Size of Government; Legal System and Property Rights; Access to Sound Money; Freedom to Trade Internationally; Regulation of Credit, Labor and Business.

The top 25 countries for 2019 (the most recent publication) are (in order): New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria, United Kingdom, Estonia, United States (15th), Norway, Iceland, Taiwan, Malta, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Belgium, Japan.

Saudi Arabia comes in at 149th; Israel 46th; Russia 114th and China 126th.

(IF, and I say “if” very reservedly, if someone wanted to introduce a proposal to the WSFS rules to pre-vet future WorldCon bids, the CATO Institutes independent annual listing might be the way to go:  for example, no country ranking below 25th place for the two years prior may be considered for a bid.  Of course that would have to be caveated at least for changes in regime during the consideration period…But I will note that ALL previous WorldCons have taken place in countries currently in the Top 25.  Those countries are bolded above.)  (Perhaps Fans in one of those 25 countries can be persuaded to propose a 2023 bid….)

China is a concern for foreign visitors for a number of reasons beyond or associated with Human Rights issues.  From the US Department of State, Office of Consular Affairs, we learn the following (which may be tainted by our own Government’s politicized views):

The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General have no law enforcement authority and may not represent U.S. citizens in either criminal or civil legal matters.

You are subject to Chinese laws. If you violate Chinese laws, even unknowingly, you may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.

Certain provisions of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China – such as “social order” crimes (Article 293) and crimes involving “endangering state security” and “state secrets” (Article 102 to 113) – are ill-defined and can be interpreted by the authorities arbitrarily and situationally. Information that may be common knowledge in other countries could be considered a “state secret” in China, and information can be designated a “state secret” retroactively.

Business disputes between U.S. citizens and Chinese business partners can sometimes result in physical confrontation or kidnapping. Go straight to the police if you feel threatened or relocate to a public place.

Contracts and Commercial Disputes: Before entering into a commercial or employment contract in China, have it reviewed by legal counsel both in the United States and in China. The U.S. Foreign Commercial Service can assist you in identifying and vetting business contacts and opportunities, but may not intervene in contract disputes. Many U.S. citizens have reported difficulty getting their contracts enforced by Chinese courts or being forced out of profitable joint-ventures without opportunity to secure legal recourse in China.

Exit/Travel Bans: Business disputes, court orders to pay a settlement, or government investigations into both criminal and civil issues may result in an exit ban which will prohibit your departure from China until the issue is resolved. Even individuals and their family members who are not directly involved, or even aware of these proceedings, can be subject to an exit ban. Additionally, some local businesspeople who feel that they have been wronged by a foreign business partner may hire “debt collectors” to harass, intimidate, and sometimes physically detain foreign business partners or family members in hopes of collecting the debt. The U.S. Embassy or consulate can provide a list of local attorneys who serve U.S. clients, but otherwise are unable to intervene in civil cases. Local law enforcement authorities are generally unwilling to become involved in what they consider private business matters, and may not provide the individual who has been barred from leaving China with any written notice of the exit ban.

LGBTI Travelers: Same sex marriages are not legally recognized in China and local authorities will not provide marriage certificates to same-sex couples. There are no civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, though homosexuality has been decriminalized. Prejudices and discrimination still exist in many parts of the country. There are growing LGBTI communities in some of China’s largest cities and violence against LGBTI individuals in China is relatively rare. Seeour LGBTI Travel Information page and section 6 of our  Human Rights Report for further details.

Political and Religious Activity: Participating in unauthorized political or religious activities, including participating in public protests or sending private electronic messages critical of the government,may result in detention and Chinese government-imposed restrictions on future travel to China. Although China’s constitution permits freedom of religious belief, government officials are increasing pressure on domestic religious activity. The U.S. Mission to China has observed an increase in the number of U.S. citizens being interrogated, detained, and/or forced to leave the country in connection with real or perceived religious proselytization. U.S. citizens have been detained and/or expelled for distributing religious literature, including Bibles, or engaging in unauthorized religious meetings. If you bring religious literature with you, Chinese law dictates that it be a “reasonable amount” for your personal use. If you attempt to bring larger quantities, the literature will likely be confiscated and you may be fined, detained, or deported.

Social Media: Social media accounts are widely monitored in China. Local authorities may use information they deem critical, controversial, or that might involve illegal activity against both the poster of the material and the host of the social media forum under Chinese law. Individuals have also been held responsible for the content that others place within social media spaces they control, such as the comments section under a post or within a group chat that an individual controls.

Surveillance and Monitoring: Security personnel carefully watch foreign visitors and may place you under surveillance. Hotel rooms (including meeting rooms), offices, cars, taxis, telephones, Internet usage, and fax machines may be monitored onsite or remotely, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge. Security personnel have been known to detain and deport U.S. citizens sending private electronic messages critical of the Chinese government.

(Some emphasis added is mine.)

And, for Business Travelers, American Express warns of and suggests the following:

“We always recommend using a virtual private network (VPN) on business trips but even more so in China. Not only can the secure internet connection help maintain cybersecurity, but you also will be able to access sites that the Chinese government restricts its citizens from using, such as Twitter, Dropbox, Gmail and Facebook.

In China, you’ll also want to take additional precautions. According to CountryReports, security personnel may place your activities under surveillance. Hotel rooms, meeting rooms, offices, cars, taxis, telephones and internet use (including WeChat) may be monitored onsite or remotely without your knowledge or consent.

When you visit China — or any other country for that matter — we always suggest encrypting your hard drive and using dual-password protection in case your device lands in the wrong hands. And just as you do on the airplane or when back in the office, be mindful of your activities and act under the assumption that someone is looking over your shoulder while working on your device.” (Emphasis added)

And now, the Uyghurs.

“Since 2015, it has been estimated that over a million Uyghurs have been detained in Xinjiang re-education camps. The camps were established under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s administration with the main goal of ensuring adherence to national ideology. Critics of China’s treatment of Uyghurs have accused the Chinese government of propagating a policy of sinicization in Xinjiang in the 21st century, calling this policy an ethnocide or a cultural genocide of Uyghurs.” (Wikipedia)

“Since 2014, Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been affected by extensive controls and restrictions which the Chinese government has imposed upon their religious, cultural and social lives. In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has expanded police surveillance to watch for signs of “religious extremism” that include owning books about Uyghurs, growing a beard, having a prayer rug, or quitting smoking or drinking. The government had also installed cameras in the homes of private citizens.” (Wikipedia)

And – Somewhere between 120,000 and more than a million Uyghurs have been imprisoned in “re-education” camps, subject to torture, family separations, child separations, censorship of nearly everything Uyghur and, shades of NAZI Germany, are building a DNA database (using US Technology) to track down and round up every single person with Uyghur DNA.

In that ill-considered Letter of Concern About Saudi WorldCon Bid, the issues raising concern are –

  • repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • harassed, arbitrarily detained and prosecuted dozens of government critics, human rights defenders, including women’s rights activists, members of the Shi’a minority and family members of activists
  • grossly unfair trials
  • women face systematic legal discrimination
  • identifying as LGBQT+  is illegal

In what way – allowing for local differences of repressed minorities – does China not meet each and every one of those criteria?

There’s simply no difference – other than the presence of a huge potential market for publishers and authors. None.

As members of a community that has eschewed commercial interests in favor of doing what is right, and creative and moral and open and accepting of diversity, which has, over the years, put us in good stead, placed our community at the forefront of progressive thought and action, we owe it to ourselves and the maintenance of our community as something we can continue to be proud of, to not vote for the Chengdu Bid.

We’ve got 389 days to discuss this before the vote.  We’ve got almost a year and a month for someone to come up with a justification that isn’t motivated by commercial interests to show reason to ignore the fact that China’s human rights issues are not the equaivalent (or worse than) of Saudi Arabia’s.

I honestly don’t think there is such an argument, other than the weak one I’ve already seen – that our support of Chinese Fandom by way of awarding a WorldCon, will somehow get the Chinese government to reconsider its actions and policies.

The Jeddah bid lost, receiving 5% of the votes cast.  Defeating the Chengdu Bid is not a foregone conclusion.  There are millions of Chinese Fans and I suspect that a goodly number of them will be encourged to register and vote by their government representatives.  Perhaps even subsidized to do so.  (I don’t want to impugne the fans here, but this possibility has been raised in the past regarding other possible bids and remains a vulnerability within the voting system.  With a government actor motivated by its own interests, it becomes an even greater possibility.)  We’ll need to keep an eye on DC 21’s registrations as a way to gage whether or not this might be happening.  And we’ll really need to get out the vote for an alternative.

If you were upset about the Saudi bid, you should be as upset – even more so – by the Chengdu bid.

~~~

Our featured image for this article comes from ABC Australia and shows via satellite imagery the growing number of Uyghur detention camps in Xinjian province.

“Chengdhon’t” deliberately uses the Fannish “H’.  See Fan Language

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