Human Rights & Worldcon: An Interview with Danielle Ranucci of the Human Rights Foundation

CORRECTION & UPDATE 12/14/12:  “SFWA has been changed to WSFS in the following: “Freedom in the World is well-researched, updated annually, and can easily be incorporated into WSFS’s site-bidding procedure as a 5-minute background check.”

CORRECTION & UPDATE 12/12/23:  We incorrectly identified the Chicon 8 Convention as the source of a resolution objecting to Chengdu’s selection of guests and have corrected that below.  The WSFS Business Meeting at that convention issued the resolution.
In addition, we conflated that resolution and other statements from other sources that objected to Cixin Liu’s selection.  Liu was not listed in the BM’s resolution.  Objection’s to Liu’s selection can be found here, among other places on the web.
Finally, we will note that our link to commentary on File 770 links to a post title and not the comments themselves and it should be noted that those comments do not represent File 770’s own statements or position, but those of the commenters.  We did not intend to imply that File 770 made those statements.

The original article with corrections continues below.

In August of 2020, Amazing Stories published an OpEd in opposition to the Chinese Worldcon Bid.  Later that same year that same article was updated with additional information.

Leading up to the bid vote, numerous influential members of the science fiction community in the west were feted by bid representatives and members of the Chinese government – expenses paid visits to Chinese conventions and events – for several years as Chinese fans and government representatives visited Western events to promote the bid (full disclosure:  I was invited to and attended one such event during the San Jose Worldcon).

Following the vote, which China won under questionable circumstances – numerous otherwise ineligible ballots were counted – additional protests from other quarters of the SF community were raised, particularly in relation to selected guests of honorUkrainian, Polish fans and the Chicon 8 Business Meeting voted a resolution objecting to the inclusion of Sergey Lukyanenko.  Objections to Cixin Liu’s selection , and Robert Sawyer was taken to task for not speaking out in the comments section in a post on File 770.

Following the conclusion of the event, much discussion has taken place regarding both the things that happened or didn’t, as well as the a wider question:  should Worldcon be more discerning in its selection of host countries?

Here at Amazing Stories, I have framed that discussion as a question of whether or not Worldcon should restrict events to countries whose governments and laws “support Fannish values” of inclusion, diversity and equal rights regardless of gender, orientation, religion, origin, etc., and I have suggested that studies of governments and human rights by one international human rights organization or another be used as a way to vet the appropriateness of bidding countries.

One common thread of response to that suggestion has been the idea that I am somehow exempting the United States, or the entirety of the “western world”, when I have clearly stated that if the US, or any other  country, should be deemed unacceptable, a Worldcon should not be held there, either.

I base that position on a belief that every Fan should be comfortable and not at risk of retribution if they openly express themselves  while attending, and that the values of a hosting country should generally reflect the values of Fandom.  I  further do not believe that the awarding of a Worldcon to a host country that does not share Fannish values will in any way influence the host country to change, and in fact, it does the opposite by offering the appearance of acceptance of that country’s values and policies.

I’ve given voice to the concept of introducing a proposal at a future WSFS Business Meeting that such a system of advanced vetting be adopted by that organization, and am still contemplating that route, although some have already suggested that it would not be well received.

The other option is to achieve that goal organically, by convincing voters themselves that they do the vetting, and to do so by taking into consideration the alignment of their own values with that expressed by a potential host country through its laws, regulations and actions.

Fandom’s openness and willingness to entertain concepts and ideas in the furtherance of spreading its ideals makes it vulnerable to actors who do not share its values, and who seek to take advantage of it for their own goals.  Fandom needs to recognize that it and its actions have become influential, or at least a potential tool that others can use for their own purposes.  Fandom needs to step up and treat that influence accordingly.  We are unfortunately no longer existing in a corner of the world that is ignored or dismissed – free to do whatever it is we do without fear of consequence.

Recently, a human rights watchdog organization – the Human Rights Foundation published an opinion piece – Worldconned: How China Co-Opted Sci-Fi’s Crown Jewel Amidst the Uyghur Genocide – by one of its interns – Danielle Ranucci – on the Chengdu Worldcon and included links to the OpEds appearing here on Amazing Stories, offering a glimpse into the reception of that event by those working in the field of human rights.

Please read Ms. Ranucci’s article.

Amazing Stories followed up with Ms. Ranucci in a recently conducted email interview, which follows.  Our understanding is that her responses were reviewed and approved by HRF.

Artwork by Sophia Choi, HRF Intern.

Amazing Stories Magazine:  Who is Danielle Ranucci? What are your pronouns, perhaps a bit on your educational background, where you’re from…?

Danielle Ranucci is a Combatting Kleptocracy Intern at the Human Rights Foundation. She graduated Princeton University magna cum laude, where she majored in Comparative Literature, with minors in Spanish and Translation & Intercultural Communication. As a journalist for the Daily Princetonian, she interviewed the family of Xiyue Wang, a former Princeton graduate student unjustly incarcerated in Iran. Her fiction has appeared in Uncharted Magazine and J Journal: New Writing on Justice. When not advocating for human rights, she serves as an Assistant Editor at Nightmare Magazine and reviews books on her blog at https://danielleranucci.wordpress.com/.

ASM: How long have you been writing science fiction?

D.R.: I’ve been writing science fiction since middle school, starting with stories inspired by YA dystopias and improving from there. Now, I tend to write stories exploring philosophical questions, with rich characters, emotional impact, and exciting plots.

ASM: Who are your writing influences?

D.R.: I’m inspired by authors like Ray Bradbury, Chingiz Aitmatov (you NEED to read him), Ursula K. Le Guin, and György Dragomán. Outside of SFF, I admire the works of Eugene O’Neill, Richard Wright, and Guy de Maupassant.

ASM: Is there an example of your work you can share with readers?

D.R.: I wrote a short story called “A Guardsman Remembers” which was recently included in a wonderful anthology called Soul Jar. It’s a fantasy story about a man who has to reconcile with his estranged child while reckoning with his own mysterious past and his role in an oppressive society.

ASM: Can you summarize the mission statement/purpose/goals of HRF?

D.R.: The Human Rights Foundation seeks to expose authoritarianism and defend democracy worldwide. It’s unique in that it focuses on “closed societies,” also known as dictatorships. More than 5.7 billion people live under dictatorships—72% of humankind. HRF conducts its advocacy through reports, outreach, and amplifying the voices of dissident artists and activists.

ASM: How did the circumstances of the Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in China first come to your attention?

D.R.: I first learned about the ongoing Uyghur genocide in China through a Global Politics class I took in high school in 2018. It is very sad that 5 years have passed since then without any end to the genocide. However I’m heartened that the plight of the Uyghurs is receiving increased attention, and that some people are taking action.

ASM: Do you consider yourself a fan? If so, what are some of your Fannish activities?

D.R.: I definitely consider myself a fan! Coronavirus made it hard for me to attend conventions, but I’ve been involved in science fiction/fantasy book clubs, binge-watched author readings on the KGB Bar’s YouTube livestreams, and even got Princeton’s Creative Writing Department to subscribe to Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’m also an Assistant Editor at Nightmare Magazine, where I enjoy reading everyone’s submissions. Finally, I love writing SFF, have published in magazines, and review a lot of SFF books on my blog. One recent favorite has been J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics—a satire of Dungeons & Dragons and the “heroing economy” (slaying monsters for loot).

ASM: Why did you write your article about Worldcon?

D.R.: I’d previously read about the controversy leading up to Worldcon and was surprised that there weren’t any articles about it afterwards. The Chengdu controversy could have easily been forgotten, but the problems that led to totalitarian China winning the Worldcon site bid still exist.

I wrote my article to call renewed attention to Worldcon’s complicity in China’s ongoing genocide, and to call for reform so that the SFF community can prevent itself from ever again becoming a tool of dictatorship.

ASM:  In moving forward, do you think that WSFS and its members should be taking a host country’s politics and human rights into consideration when accepting bids for host countries?

D.R.: It’s essential for WSFS and its members to take a host country’s politics and human rights into consideration when accepting bids. There are many reasons for this. First, self-protection. How safe would it be for an attending member to publicly criticize China for its genocide at the 2023 Worldcon? For reference, when China hosted the 2022 Olympics, it warned Olympic athletes not to criticize the regime or they would face consequences. Given how China had handled protestors during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the consequences for speaking out against the regime are all too evident: intimidation, arrests, and killings.

It would be downright perilous for anyone to criticize China while at Worldcon. Now, I doubt that state repression is a common conversation topic at Worldcon, but the extreme danger that members would face for even broaching this topic means that they are never truly secure. For every second they spend in a dictatorship like China, their safety is always jeopardized. Clearly, it is unconscionable to ignore a country’s human rights record and so jeopardize the safety of attending members in this way.

Considering human rights also helps protect Worldcon from being twisted into a tool of totalitarian repression. Hosting events like Worldcon helps dictatorships distract from, and legitimize, ongoing repression. I wrote about the effect such reputation-laundering has on outside countries, but it also has an important effect on those living within the dictatorship: It isolates them. Americans praise China’s futuristic-looking sci-fi museum while Chinese citizens can’t even find employment. Yet their lived experiences become invalidated. Their reality is made unimportant. And for people being persecuted by the regime, to diminish their suffering in this way is to forsake them. In a sense, it’s to render their pasts, presents, and futures meaningless.

Science fiction and fantasy seeks to envision a new, better future. Only it’s impossible to truly envision such a future by denying (and so becoming complicit in) the suffering of so many people in the present. If we’re to truly stand for a better future, we have to stand for a better future for everyone—especially those being persecuted by dictatorships. (Ed.  Emphasis added)

ASM: Do you have any recommendations for resources that members of WSFS might reference in making their selections?

D.R.: There’s a highly-respected non-governmental organization called Freedom House, which has spent the past 50 years putting out a country-by-country human rights report called “Freedom in the World.” Freedom House’s website has an interactive map where you can click on a country, learn its “freedom score,” and read a brief summary of its human rights situation. Freedom in the World is well-researched, updated annually, and can easily be incorporated into WSFS’s site-bidding procedure as a 5-minute background check. I’d strongly recommend it.

ASM: Do you think that Fandom’s international attendance at the Chinese Worldon had or might have an effect on the Chinese government’s policies regarding human rights?

D.R.: It has already had an effect. Two days after Worldcon ended, China passed the Patriotic Education Law. Among other things, this law requires that religious institutions, like churches and Tibetan temples, promote communist ideology. Otherwise they will be punished. Given that China considers religion itself to be unpatriotic, this law is tremendously significant.

Literature, film, and other creative media won’t be spared either. Under the Patriotic Education Law, writers and artists could also face consequences if they deviate from the party line. PEN America already ranks China as the largest jailer of writers in the world. When it’s implemented in January 2024, the Patriotic Education Law will very likely increase the number of unjustly imprisoned creators in China.

Yet at that time, what was being talked about in mainstream American news wasn’t this law, but Worldcon’s futuristic-looking sci-fi museum, and the explosive growth of free discourse in Chinese science fiction.

Fandom’s participation in Worldcon has helped China cover up its ongoing genocide and its worsening repression against its own people—including against the very creative community China purports to cherish.

ASM: Can you elaborate a bit more on the effect(s) that the use of “white washing” international events has on the advancement of human rights and civil liberties?

D.R.: Dictatorships have always used prestigious international events to cover up atrocities. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, China actually used the 2008 Olympics to justify increased repression of Uyghurs and other minorities. Chen Quanguo, who’d go on to become the architect of the Uyghur genocide, used the Olympics to help rationalize the development of surveillance technology like facial recognition AI. Such technology later became instrumental to the genocide against the Uyghurs.

At the 2023 Worldcon, China solicited proposals for its Science Fiction Planet Awards, which seek to promote “science fiction research.” This research includes the development of technology. Any country in the world can submit a proposal to be evaluated by a committee. Last year’s winners included motion-tracking AI systems and other examples of what could be classified as surveillance tech. Given that China’s regime has near-total control over everything within its borders, such technology has a very high risk of being weaponized against Uyghurs.

Instead of helping envision a better future for humanity, Worldcon might have actually helped further Chinese repression. (Ed. Emphasis added.)

ASM: Anything else you would like to comment on?

D.R.: SFF has brought a lot of joy and wonder into my life. I’ve read terrific stories and met incredible people through my involvement in its community. So despite all of the doom and gloom I’ve talked about, I’m very hopeful that we can come together to institute a formal 5-minute Worldcon human rights site-vetting procedure.

Something like: “Look at Freedom House’s latest Global Freedom report on Country X. Is it ranked ‘Not Free?’ Its site-bid is rejected. Is it ranked ‘Partially Free?’ Look into it further for evidence of violent crackdowns on dissent, human rights violations, or worsening repression against minorities. Does it have any of those three aspects? Then its bid likely shouldn’t be eligible. Is it ranked ‘Free?’ It gets the go-ahead.”

A simple procedure like this would help protect members, prevent Worldcon from becoming complicit in human rights violations, and show genuine regard for persecuted people worldwide. More than 5.7 billion people live under dictatorships—72% of humankind. For us, instituting such a human rights reform may just mean words on paper, but for those living under dictatorships, it is a sign of solidarity, and an affirmation that they are not forgotten.

Amazing Stories would like to thank Ms. Ranucci for her time and her forthright and thoughtful responses to our questions.

We urge Fans everywhere to take the preceding into consideration when contemplating Worldcon bids (and, indeed, other Fan-related events).

We also urge our readers to  visit the Human Rights Foundation website and to review their policies and statements, and we equally urge our readers to visit Ms. Ranucci’s blog.

***

One current objection to the concept of using an organization external to WSFS/Fandom has been that there can be bias inherent in those organizations.

Having myself accused international organizations of bias, I understand this concern.  I suggest that this potential issue can be mitigated, if not eliminated, by both a careful examination of an organizations’ methodologies, and by utilizing multiple organization’s findings.  I will also suggest that Fans, as a group, are capable of assessing how much reliance to place upon any single bit of information – should they choose to take such concerns into consideration when evaluating the propriety of potential Worldcon host countries.

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure. https://www.patreon.com/amazingstoriesmag

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