Sun, Sep 23, 2018 - Page 4 News List

China bets on science fiction to spark technology boom


Visitors walk past a photograph of Shenzhou-9 astronauts at the Forty Years Through the Lens exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing on Sept. 8.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Twenty-year-old Hua Xia waits patiently in a Beijing conference hall for his chance to chat about alien invasions with Liu Cixin (劉慈欣), China’s most popular science fiction writer, who counts former US president Barack Obama and Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg among his readers.

Carrying a book that he hopes to have autographed, Hua said it was Liu’s novel The Three-Body Problem (三體) that inspired him to study aircraft design.

“Science fiction has a power to call on your spirit,” said Hua, who is now a sophomore at Beihang University in Beijing. “It shows me the most imaginative, enchanting and exciting part of science. That makes me believe that working on science would be a very cool career.”

Wagering that there are many just like Hua, China’s leaders have started a campaign to popularize science, including a three-day conference in Beijing over the past week that featured Nobel laureates, exhibitions and a science fiction panel at which Liu spoke.

Also there to stress the importance of the effort was Wang Huning (王滬寧), a member of the seven-man Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, who told the attendees that China’s future hinges on technological innovation.

Trade tensions with the US and suspicions that US President Donald Trump’s ultimate aim is to thwart China’s rise have added urgency to those efforts.

Most alarming was when an April measure barring ZTE Corp, China’s second-biggest maker of gear for mobile-phone networks, from buying US products crippled the company because of its reliance on US technology, including semiconductors.

Refusing China access to technologies could produce an unintended result, Liu said.

It would drive China to strengthen its own innovation and research capabilities, he said in a brief interview after signing autographs and taking selfies with his fans.

“We are too dependent on chip imports, because chips can be bought easily,” Liu said. “We are leading in space technologies because there’s a blockade.”

In The Three-Body Problem, Liu tells the story of how a more advanced alien race takes steps to halt scientific advancements on Earth.

Liu said he thinks science fiction can contribute to China’s technology push by inspiring the imagination of its readers.

However, he quickly added that without education and greater science literacy, literature would not affect innovation.

Until 2014, 55-year-old Liu was a full-time engineer at a state-owned power plant.

That year, The Three-Body Problem was translated into English and a year later Liu became the first Chinese writer to win the US’ Hugo Award, which recognizes achievement in science fiction writing.

Another Chinese author, Hao Jingfang (郝景芳), won the Hugo Award in 2016.

China is home to at least 80 million science-fiction fans, Yao Haijun (姚海軍), editor-in-chief of the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World, estimated in 2016.

In addition to popularizing science, China is also changing the way the subject is taught.

The Chinese Ministry of Education last year added science as a compulsory subject for primary school students from first grade, with courses focused more on hands-on experiments than textbooks.

In Zhejiang Province, information technology and coding were last year added as subjects to the college entrance exam on a trial basis.

Another fan waiting to meet Liu was Wang Jing, who traveled to Beijing from Xian in China’s Shaanxi Province to participate in the conference.

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