By Danielle Ranucci, Research and Data Analytics Intern
Last month, Chengdu, China hosted the 81st World Science Fiction Convention. Known as Worldcon, this annual convention is the site of the prestigious Hugo Awards—sci-fi’s equivalent to the Oscars. Past Hugo winners include household names like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King. Yet as over 20,000 people flocked to Chengdu’s futuristic-looking Worldcon site, China was committing one of the largest genocides since the Holocaust.
China is detaining 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic populations in concentration camps in the East Turkestan region. Meanwhile, the regime seeks to avoid accountability and improve its image through reputation laundering, such as taking advantage of voting irregularities to become the host of the prestigious Winter 2022 Olympics. Or to buy Worldcon.
Worldcon happens in a different country each year. Countries submit “site bids” to host it—there’s no overarching organization regulating the process, and each host is independently in charge of overseeing its own year’s Worldcon.
Site bids are voted on two years in advance by members of that year’s Worldcon. Anyone can pay a fee to become a member. Members can attend Worldcon and vote on site bids. Meanwhile, people who pay to become “Supporting Members” don’t attend Worldcon, but can still submit mail-in votes for site bids.
In 2018, China submitted a bid to host the 2023 Worldcon in Chengdu. Its main competitor was Winnipeg, Canada. Yet Chengdu won by a landslide: 2,006 votes to Winnipeg’s 807. More than 1,900 of the Chengdu votes were mail-in ballots, mostly from China. Of those ballots, 1,586 had no street address for the voter.
“Chengdu’s victory—technically legal, but ignoring WSFS’s unwritten rule that Worldcon should be selected by the Worldcon community—showed that any group who wanted to spend the cash could buy a Worldcon,” said an article in Fancyclopedia, the sci-fi community’s version of Wikipedia.
People protested. The publisher of renowned science fiction magazine Amazing Stories wrote several pieces about why Worldcon shouldn’t be held in Chengdu. Over 80 authors, including bestsellers like N.K. Jemisin and Angie Thomas, signed an open letter against hosting Worldcon in China.
“To participate in Worldcon in Chengdu, China, would be equivalent to giving Worldcon’s imprimatur to genocide and to crimes against humanity,” said the letter.
However, due to the setup of Worldcon, no regulatory measures existed that could effectively strip China of its bid. It’s true that some writers boycotted the 2023 Worldcon because of China’s ongoing genocide, but the fact still stands: China bought sci-fi’s most prestigious event.
Liu is the most popular sci-fi author in China, and the first writer from Asia to win a Hugo Award for his novel, “The Three-Body Problem.” Americans like Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama have lauded his book. It’s even being adapted by Netflix.
Yet Liu’s stated views are far from commendable. In a 2019 interview, the New Yorker asked Liu about China’s Uyghur genocide.
“Would you rather that they [Uyghurs in concentration camps] be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks?” Liu asked back. “If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.”
Being named a Worldcon Guest of Honor is the sci-fi equivalent of receiving a Nobel Prize. Allowing Liu to be named a Guest of Honor is thus symbolically equivalent to letting him endorse genocide and then receive praise for having “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Again, people protested. Again, Worldcon’s setup prevented anyone from revoking Liu’s title.
This is the power that China earns from buying Worldcon: the power to turn sci-fi’s most hallowed ceremonies into tacit endorsements of crimes against humanity.
Fortunately for China’s strategic aims, Liu does more than write sci-fi. In July 2021, he was hired by a company named SenseTime, which the US later sanctioned. SenseTime is known for creating the AI “Uyghur Alert,” a facial-recognition technology used to track Uyghurs in China and alert officials of their whereabouts. Members of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project assert that without such technology, China’s mass persecution of Uyghurs would not have been possible.
While Liu hasn’t been directly linked to developing any such technology, his role at Worldcon hints at another way that Chengdu is tied to China’s broader agenda. At Worldcon, China solicited entries for its second annual Science Fiction Planet Awards. These prizes provide substantial funding to people who come up with practical-use technology inspired by science fiction.
“[The award’s goal] is to spotlight and accelerate innovative sci-fi tech applications,” said an announcement about the awards.
Liu helped envision this prize, whose first ceremony focused solely on encouraging foreign ideas and investments in sci-fi-inspired technology. With its massive international audience, Worldcon was the perfect platform for China to solicit more submissions for this sci-fi research contest.
Yet even that description masks why the CCP would be so interested in promoting the prize at Worldcon. The Science Fiction Planet Award is run by the China Science Fiction Convention, whose host is the regime-affiliated China Association for Science and Technology. Given the government’s involvement in China’s science fiction research scene, whatever ideas and technologies that result from such a contest have a very high risk of informing the development of governmental technology—and thus their methods of oppression.
Put another way: even sci-fi could become a weapon in China’s genocide.
The Chinese state is co-opting the world’s science fiction field to launder its reputation, legitimize its genocide, and promote dubious research. Worldcon’s setup may have made it difficult to enforce accountability. But institutional limitations shouldn’t be an excuse for enabling such a profound distortion of the values and beliefs that define science fiction. As acclaimed science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “Freedom […] is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.” The science fiction community must make the choice to reform Worldcon’s setup so as to never repeat Chengdu.
The broader public must also be vigilant of China’s new strategy. As China seeks to strengthen its own AI-powered dictatorship, science fiction can inform the development of oppressive surveillance technology. And as China starts exporting such technology to brutal regimes like Iran and Myanmar, the stakes become global.
Because this is no longer science fiction: the world’s freedom is at risk.
Danielle Ranucci is a research and data analytics intern with the Human Rights Foundation.