Author: Alex Colville

When Science Fiction Meets Political Fact

To the surprise of no one who understands the Chinese leadership’s obsessive control of ideas, news broke last week that a prestigious international book award was subject to censorship when held in China last October. File 770, a science fiction blog, revealed in a special report how the selection panel of the Hugo Awards in Chengdu had obeyed local laws and regulations, vetting the eligibility of finalists based on their stance on sensitive political issues. The blog also found evidence that Sichuan’s propaganda bureau had conducted “strict checks” on works at the convention.

For those paying closer attention, the red flags had flown at least six months before the awards were held, as rules published by Chengdu WorldCon said content considered for awards would only include works and individuals “that comply with local laws and regulations.” In China, local laws and regulations always abide by the political discipline of the Chinese Communist Party. Foreseeing trouble did not require a vivid imagination.

In media coverage outside China, the most obvious focus has been those writers excluded by Chengdu’s skewed process — including the likes of R.F. Kuang, Neil Gaiman, and Paul Weimer. But what about those writers who were boosted?

Plaudits and Put-Downs

The winner of 2023’s Best Novella category was the hitherto unknown Chinese author Hai Ya (海漄), whose quick read, The Space-Time Painter (時空畫師), revolves around a tough-as-nails cop who investigates spooky reports of a ghost in Beijing’s Palace Museum, known worldwide as the Forbidden City. The cop traces the spectral source to a real-life treasure of the museum — an ancient scroll painting by Song dynasty artist Wang Ximeng (王希孟), whose ghost is trying to make contact with contemporary China.

Author and Hugo Laureate Hai Ya holds up his novella in October 2023.

Hai Ya has said openly that the story came to him after watching a documentary series on China’s national treasures produced by the China Media Group, the media conglomerate directly under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department — a touch of background that has delighted state-run English-language media and prompted a wave of favorable coverage.

The author’s novella has not fared well, however, on Chinese rating sites, where readers have sometimes been scathing with their remarks. On WeRead (微信讀書), Tencent’s book-reading app, The Space-Time Painter scores a poor 16.4 percent. Meanwhile, on the film and publishing networking service Douban, the novella earns a lackluster 5.5 out of 10. Readers point to clunky writing and clichéd plot points, expressing disbelief that the work is a prize-winner. “Could it be that the award was forcibly given because the home turf is in China,” one user posted. “With so many better works than this one, how did they pick something so unappealing?”

In a commentary on the video site Bilibili, one online influencer said Hai Ya’s novella had the quality of a decent topical essay by a high school student. The work was not meant to satisfy Chinese readers, he said, but “to swipe an award from the English-speaking world.”

While there is no evidence that The Space-Time Painter was nudged by event hosts in Chengdu, this possibility cannot be ruled out. As the File 770 report points out, there was a lot of money riding on publishing and distribution deals being negotiated by Chinese publishing companies at the event. The prestigious international award would certainly drive a boost in sales, and drum up interest in the film rights.

A Chinese influencer on Bilibili pans Hai Ya’s novella as “unappealing,” and likens it to the work of a high school student.

As The Space-Time Painter is so far available only in Chinese, votes in its favor at the 2023 WorldCon would have come exclusively from Chinese members. Moreover, the novella’s path was substantially cleared by the exclusion early on of politically sensitive works. As one Chinese sci-fi reader who attended the conference has pointed out, membership in WorldCon was prohibitively expensive for many, and the voting process was abnormally opaque.

Prize-Winning Themes for the Party

It is also impossible to ignore the fact that the storyline of The Space-Time Painter, with its reference to the now politically popular theme of China’s deep cultural roots, would have endeared it to friends in high places.

Ever since the Republican era in China, science fiction has been treated as a vehicle for public education, and this tradition has continued since the early decades under CCP rule. Writers like Zheng Wenguang (鄭文光), who published the PRC’s first sci-fi novel, Flyto Centaurus, at the outset of the reform era in 1979, helped popularize science through works woven with patriotic purpose, giving young people a vision of what fantastic things a “modern” China could achieve under socialism.

Hai Ya’s win may have been given additional impetus by the more recent intersection of political and cultural priorities in China.

The Party continues to take an interest in promoting the genre. In 2020, the China Film Administration published a list of measures to bolster Chinese sci-fi films, including tax relief, and preferential loans to promote studios, talent, and innovative scripts.

Hai Ya’s win may have been given additional impetus by the more recent intersection of political and cultural priorities in China. The newcomer’s tale of communication between a present-day cop and a prized Song dynasty painter echoes a speech Xi Jinping delivered to a study session of the Central Committee back in 2014, in which he urged cadres to adapt traditional Chinese culture to modern society and sensibilities. This way, said Xi, the Party could “bring the cultural relics located in the Forbidden City to life,” and create a new culture “transcending time and space.”

A “space-time painter” indeed. Seen in this light, the novella is a near-perfect reference to the political framing of culture that only in early October 2023, less than two weeks before the Hugo Awards Ceremony in Chengdu, was presented through a grand new buzzword that was splashed across the Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper: “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” (習近平文化思想). This followed a major conference on propaganda and ideology at which Xi urged officials at all levels, including a visiting delegation from Sichuan, that they should promote the “innovative development of China’s excellent traditional culture,” and thereby “improve the country’s cultural soft power.”

Sometimes science fiction can become political fact.

What Does the Party Stand to Gain from AI?

Since ChatGPT was unveiled to the world just over two years ago, prompting what some have called an “artificial intelligence revolution,” China has been playing catch-up. But when it comes to applying AI to super-fuel the media control and propaganda objectives of the government, both at home and overseas, China may be ahead of the game — even if the results so far are mixed.

For a closer look at China’s plans for AI-driven propaganda and messaging, we spent a bit of time with Zhongke Wenge (中科闻歌), a company touted in China Daily as having “established a panoramic international communication” system, integrating AI-based news gathering, content production, editing, and impact analysis. Zhongke Wenge is one of a growing number of companies in China offering AI-based communication services to answer the call of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Back in 2018, President Xi Jinping identified it as a “necessary” mission for the CCP “to develop artificial intelligence systems suitable for government services.” Two years later, a set of opinions from the Party’s Central Committee urged media specifically to use AI to improve the quality of their content, innovate new ways to tell the news, and integrate the Party’s messaging into both domestic and international outlets. Last year, CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily highlighted how AI can use big data to generate images, text, and in-depth analysis “in seconds,” and this month urged the development of “AI-aided translation software” to assist with outreach overseas.

Established by three researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and chaired by a member of the National Development and Reform Commission, Zhongke Wenge is turning this call into an enviable revenue stream. As of August 2023, it claimed total assets worth 1 billion RMB ($140 million), with an array of shareholders including state-owned funds and enterprises.

What exactly can Zhongke Wenge do, and what are its limitations?

Using AI to “Tell China’s Story Well”

The company says it offers “long-term services” to the Central Propaganda Department, the Ministry of Public Security, CCTV, Xinhua, and People’s Daily. Chinese media have noted that it offers “technical services” such as “data analysis and modeling of countries along the Belt and Road” and has provided “minority language modeling” and “external publicity modeling” for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China Daily, and Hong Kong’s CCP-backed Ta Kung Wen Wei Media Group. It claims its tools to “assist content creation” have shortened production times at news companies by 15 percent, while its “assisted decision-making” tools allow platforms to gauge how their stories are being received, both at home and abroad.

Zhongke Wenge also claims its multi-lingual monitoring system caters to government and state media that face “difficulty [in] guiding international public opinion.” It does this by harvesting information from both domestic and international media, as well as prominent individuals, in 42 different languages. This allows the “timely warning of China-related public opinion” and recommendations on how to “tell China’s story well.”

People’s Daily has collaborated with Zhongke Wenge to create a “People’s Public Opinion Cloud” that the newspaper claims has been used by local police to help them quickly spot “sensitive data” and trace its origins, while provincial media have used it to spot news leads. Zhongke have also teamed up with Xinhua to create a “News Statistics Monitor” showing how often a certain article has been published domestically and abroad, how often it is liked on WeChat, and how many times the article was “commented on” online. Zhongke claims to have saved Xinhua’s Statistics Department 10 million RMB.

Screenshot of Xinhua’s News Statistics Monitor shared on Zhongke Wenge’s website, displaying the impact of Xinhua’s articles domestically and abroad.

Gauging international opinion on China is a top priority for China’s propaganda apparatus, but never before have these been combined with big data on single online platforms, accessible to any official or editor in the country. Zhongke also offers a content creation suite for overseas audiences, giving AI-generated video scripts and filming directions from a single prompt and the click of a button.

Screenshot of Zhongke Wenge’s response to China Media Project’s prompt “Write a video script in English about Chongqing’s electric cars, to impress Americans.”

On Zhongke Wenge’s content creation platform, we did just that. After we input a text prompt in Chinese to their “short video copywriter,” we got a full script about the electric car industry in the inland megacity Chongqing, complete with suggested camera shots. The site also offers AI anchors, who will read out (in a selection of different voices and with a variety of different gestures) whatever you type. China Media Project took the system for a test drive, producing this video in under 15 minutes:

Quantity Over Quality

One of Zhongke’s listed clients is iChongqing, part of the city’s international communications center (ICC). These centers, which respond to instructions issued by Xi Jinping in August 2018, are central to China’s latest efforts to restructure its external propaganda apparatus. According to our research at CMP, at least 20 ICCs have opened in various provinces and other jurisdictions in China since 2022. iChongqing’s AI anchors now front the outlet’s anti-US explainer videos on their app “Bridging News” (which, at the time of writing, has been downloaded over 100,000 times on Google Play).

Zhongke Wenge’s unsettling AI anchors are a testament to the difficulty of manufacturing creativity, innovation, and “lovable” messages by machine. Ultimately, its products are more useful in turning the propaganda mill up a notch, pumping up the sheer quantity of positive messaging, and in giving crucial feedback to create more targeted messaging that is more likely to win hearts and minds abroad.

CMP tracked down one particular AI anchor, on iChongqing’s app Bridging News, to Zhongke Wenge’s website.

And this is just one company. Separate investigations in January into video content in French, and in Chinese ahead of the Taiwanese elections found a trove of videos posted on Western social media that used AI-generated voices and anchors to spread pro-China and anti-US disinformation in a way designed to sway public opinion. At least 100 videos using AI-generated content appeared on YouTube about “The Secret History of Tsai Ying-wen” (蔡英文秘史), a 300-page book filled with disinformation about the Taiwanese president’s personal life. Some of these videos were being shared 100 times a minute.

While these investigations have not directly implicated Zhongke, its content-creation software does present a double threat: It is both highly accessible — freely available for any WeChat users to create and share videos — and difficult to trace, since videos do not include any markers. These features make it a valuable tool not just for state-level actors but also for individual internet users looking to smear China’s perceived enemies and further muddy the waters of online discourse, where the line between what is and is not real continues to dissolve.

Furious Misreadings

State media have had a field day this month with the cover of the January 13 edition of The Economist, “China’s EV Onslaught,” which depicted an in-bound meteor shower of China’s latest electric cars, poised to strike the Earth. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), state media, and their affiliates on Twitter re-posted the image in quick succession as an example of the hypocrisy of how China is portrayed by Western media, comparing it to the magazine’s cover from 2013, which painted China as poising the globe on Armageddon as “The World’s Worst Polluter.”

The idea is that no matter what China does — pollute or invest in green energy — Western media inevitably find a way to attack the country. “The self-contradicting reports reflect a consistent narrative,” wrote the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney’s official account. “China is the bad guy.”

But not so fast.

Such posts entirely bypassed or omitted the content of the article, which argued that although the West fears Chinese expansion into electric vehicles (now making them the world’s largest car exporter), it should in fact “welcome them.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency takes to X (Twitter) to criticize a recent cover of The Economist, along with another much-hated cover from 2013.

The original tweet pointing out the contrasting covers came two days before state media, and apparently from outside the state media machine — from Sun Sibei, a PhD candidate at Macau University. Sun has made previous posts contrasting Western media reports or positions from experts over time to suggest hypocrisy in their stance on China. Sun has also co-written a paper on how Chinese diplomats use Twitter to push “well-structured narratives” about the country abroad as a “PR tool.” He has claimed that although state media “copied” his tweet, nonetheless The Economist’s “sensible commentary is obscured by sensational cover art and headlines, which is what most people see.”

It’s not the first time a sensational headline from international media has come across to the Chinese as biased, insulting, or racist. 

Leaving aside pointless arguments about whether this meteor shower was meant to look awesome, apocalyptic, or both, it’s not the first time a sensational headline from international media has come across to the Chinese as biased, insulting, or racist. The Economist came under fire in June 2022 for a tweet from their official account that could be inferred to compare Chinese to pigs. A Wall Street Journal op-ed title from 2020 calling China “the real sick man of Asia” led to the first mass expulsion of Western journalists from China since the Mao years, and a statement of “regret” from the CEO of their parent company, Dow Jones.

However, whereas the above two examples became trending topics on the Chinese internet, this latest example has only been taken up by international accounts belonging to state media – the target audience is the West, not the supposedly insulted party. The tweets make no mention of what The Economist’s argument is, only the cover — resulting in the same oversimplification and hypocrisy Chinese state media accuses Western media of. This particular “well structured narrative” is designed to form doubts as to whether a well-respected Western periodical truly “understands China”. In 2013, Xi Jinping urged cadres to solve the problem of Western media “badmouthing” China by painting it as a “threat,” pointing out that “major Western media controls world public opinion” — correcting these myths in the international community will clear up “misunderstandings.”

Certainly, Western headline writers could walk more in step with the content of the articles on their platforms. But by judging a magazine by its cover, state media have only discredited a story that — had they quoted it instead — might have served the talking points of the Chinese government, arguing that Western countries, now gripped by fear of Chinese EV imports, should keep their markets open.

Quake Comments Bring Suspension for TV Host

Last week in China, a state-run Chinese media outlet fell victim to the state’s own efforts to ramp up anti-Japanese sentiment. In response to a devastating earthquake in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture, Hainan Satellite TV (海南衛視) host Xiao Chenghao (蕭程皓) posted a video that asked, “Has Retribution Arrived?” (報應來了?)

A screenshot of Xiao’s video with news of his suspension is posted by Shanghai’s The Paper to Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok.

“For such a strong earthquake to strike Japan may seem really unforeseen,” said Xiao, immediately before suggesting the temblor was directly linked to Japan’s controversial dumping into the Pacific Ocean last August of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant. “But for such a major natural disaster to occur on the first day of the new year . . . It seems there are certain actions that should be minimized. Nuclear wastewater should not be released into the sea.”

It was the latest in a pattern of schadenfreude that rears its ugly head whenever natural disaster strikes Japan. Anti-Japanese sentiment has been more pronounced in China since last year, when state media launched a disinformation campaign on the supposed environmental damage caused by Japan’s actions (deemed harmless by UN regulators).

Although many netizens expressed concern for the hundreds dead or missing after the magnitude-7.6 quake, the idea that they deserved their fate was widespread.

In Xiao’s case, however, his employer tried to take the high road. The broadcaster announced it was suspending Xiao for “inappropriate” behavior. This caused a furore online — many believed Xiao had a right to be vocal given Japan’s historic (and supposed current) crimes. “We have been bullied and insulted so much,” a commenter wrote, “what does it matter if we say that retribution has arrived?” One netizen even reported the network’s director to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

One trending comment on Baidu in reaction to the earthquake: “The nuclear wastewater flowed back again? Heaven has eyes [clap clap]”

Beijing’s official line has been more dignified, offering condolences to the victims. Even nationalist firebrand Hu Xijin posted on Weibo that Xiao had caused “damage” to Hainan Satellite TV’s image. That said, Hu did not condemn anti-Japanese sentiment — he maintained that ordinary citizens were free to “applaud” the disaster if they wished, but urged public figures to “keep a distance.”

Other media opted to educate the public in a less subtle way. In a Weibo public opinion poll, where Toutiao asked the public for their thoughts on the suspension, the only options were various forms of agreement.

A screenshot from Toutiao’s Weibo account. After relaying the news of Xiao Chenghao’s suspension, they included a poll asking netizens for their thoughts on the suspension. The three options were “The remarks were indeed inappropriate”, “Public figures should be cautious in their words and deeds”, “They should reflect carefully during their suspension”

It’s possible giving netizens the option of expressing hatred for the Japanese could risk demonstrating how prevalent such sentiment is, or expose the outlet to accusations of stirring up such hatred.

With Xi Jinping calling on China’s state media to make the country appear more “lovable” (可愛) to the outside world, at least some realize that gloating over the deaths of innocent foreigners is not a good look.