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What will the world be like when China is a global superpower?

Illustration for article titled What will the world be like when China is a global superpower?

In North America, it's become almost a cliché in science fiction to turn Japan and Korea into superpowers of the future. From William Gibson's first cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (now a movie), we are bombarded with images of a hyper-futuristic world dominated culturally and economically by these Asian countries. And yet, despite intense political debates (and fearmongering) over China's growing hold over the U.S., we rarely see science fiction stories that depict it becoming a superpower. It's like we're afraid to imagine in fiction what the U.S. presidential candidates argued over repeatedly in their debates. Even the remake of Red Dawn shies away from a Chinese future; the movie was about a Chinese invasion, but that detail was changed in post-production to North Korea.

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Still, there are stories like Looper and Maureen McHugh's novel China Mountain Zhang that are set in a future where China has eclipsed the West. A few themes emerge from stories like these, where most U.S. and Canadian fiction fears to go.

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China On Top

McHugh, who lived for a time in China, has set several of her stories in a future version of that country. Her award-winning China Mountain Zhang came out shortly after the first book in David Wingrove's series about the rise of China as a superpower, Chung Kuo. The difference between the two authors' visions is stark. In China Mountain Zhang, McHugh imagines a China transformed by wealth and technology, a place where young people in the West aspire to go for education and opportunity. In this way, her future China is similar to the one we saw in Looper. It is still a country that struggles with authoritarianism, but like the United States today it is a sprawl of social contradictions and clashing viewpoints.

Wingrove, however, chose to imagine a more mythical future China, its often stereotypical characters grouped into two factions who are locked into a Cold War struggle between communism and capitalism. But for McHugh and Looper writer/director Rian Johnson, the future of China is all shades of gray. It's an amalgam of communism and capitalism, existing as uneasy bedfellows, the way a science-fueled economy and Christian-dominated politics do in the U.S. today.

Indie film Ghosts with Shit Jobs, which takes place in a future Toronto, takes McHugh's ideas a step further. This film has a strong satirical bent, and imagines what might happen if the west went bankrupt while China soared to economic dominance. A Chinese film crew comes to Canada to find out what it's like for all those poor Westerners who take those "shit jobs" outsourced by rich Chinese companies. China has basically become the United States, and North America has become a kind of mashup of today's India, China and Central Europe.

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China Is Our Best Hope

Perhaps the most Utopian of the stories devoted to the rise of China as a world power is Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which suggests that the world might be saved by hyper-educated Chinese women. Obviously the message of the book is far more complicated than that, but it nevertheless ends with one of the most striking Utopian images in fiction about China's ascendency.

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Han girls who have been abandoned by their families in China organize themselves using an extremely advanced e-book teaching system called A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Armed with all the knowledge they need to become engineers, scientists, and leaders, they form a vast group called the Mouse Army. As the novel ends, they are unleashed upon the world. It's unclear what they will do, but it seems that they will be both just and unstoppable. This is a theme that Stephenson returns to in his near-future tale Reamde, where Chinese women are again represented as among the smartest and most capable characters.

We see another hopeful vision of China in some of Kim Stanley Robinson's work. In The Years of Rice and Salt, he creates an alternate history where the medieval plagues wipe out almost all of Europe's population. As a result, Christianity is barely a blip on the historical radar, and North America is colonized by Chinese and Japanese explorers. Indeed, the Americas are known by Chinese names. The world is dominated by Islam, Confucianism, and Buddhism — and eventually a strain of feminist Islam helps to reform many nations. In Robinson's work, like McHugh's, we see Chinese cultural dominance as a patchwork of many cultural traditions and ideals. But in Robinson's work the world is arguably a better place for it, while McHugh is ambivalent.

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In Robinson's recent novel 2312, China has colonized Venus and is in the process of geoengineering it so that it will have an Earthlike climate. There is a certain sense that this massive engineering project mirrors some of Mao's disastrous ones — but instead of killing people, it is creating a better home for them. Though the Chinese Venus is a troubled political region, it is certainly better off than Earth in the novel.

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China Is Everywhere, But It's Invisible

One of the best-known examples of science fiction about the rise of China is Joss Whedon's TV series Firefly. Though all the characters speak Chinese, eat Chinese food, and appear to live in a universe dominated by Chinese culture, we never meet anybody who seems even remotely Chinese. This omission has been so widely remarked upon that it's become almost a trope unto itself. I would argue that Firefly is a perfect example of the fear and confusion that lurk at the heart of western representations of Chinese power. We can imagine that China will eventually dominate human culture, but somehow can't bear to work out the details of how that might work. Nor can we stop believing that western characters will dominate that future somehow, even when that future belongs to China.

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In 1930, famed SF author Olaf Stapledon published Last and First Men, another novel of invisible Chinese domination. In this epic future history of humanity, China wins out over America and becomes the dominant human culture — until humans evolve into new species (the second men, third men, and so on). So there is a history of Chinese rule, but it has long since faded away into the prehistory of post-humanity.

Through Western Eyes

It's important to remember that these fantasies I've been discussing — just a handful of stories told in the west about the future of China as a superpower — is not the same kind of fantasy you'd expect to see in China itself. SF is very popular in China, but sadly very little exists in English translation. Not surprisingly, one of the best-known works of Chinese SF in the west right now is The Gilded Age: China 2013 a dystopian tale that was banned in the mainland.

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It's about how the Chinese government suppresses dissent by drugging everybody in the country and causing national amnesia so that nobody remembers a protest movement. This story — which has struck a chord among Chinese dissidents as well as westerners — fits neatly with popular western ideas about China as a country whose authoritarianism will lead to a future of even greater political abuses.

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Still, looking at the novels and movies I've discussed here, we can see that North American fiction about China's great future is also filled with anxieties about America's own flaws. Often, the future China is a distorted version of the present-day America — full of wealth and opportunity, but dogged by a history of violent conflict and conquest.

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DISCUSSION

I think most westerners simply are unable to understand China. Specifically, Americans can't grok that culture at all.

When we think of China, we think about the authoritarian government, but mostly we don't get how far down that sort of thinking goes in their culture. For instance, all that Tiger Mother stuff that was such a scandal awhile back? In China, that's called "parenting." The majority of Chinese parents don't see a kid as a precious snowflake right out of the womb - that kid has to be molded and shaped and pruned, and he's graded harshly on everything he ever does. It's a level of control over a child's life that Americans can't understand; in fact, we consider it cruel.

One of the prices of such rigid control is the death of individuality. When you strictly regiment your child's every waking moment, he doesn't get much of a chance to think his own thoughts or figure out who he is as a person - and most parents simply don't give a fuck. Their child's personality changes nothing in how they approach that child's upbringing. In ruthlessly pruning the individual to fit a specific mold, you sacrifice that child's personhood, to a large extent. And most Chinese families are fine and dandy with that.

This becomes an almost insurmountable problem when you're looking to innovate. Do you get a Steve Jobs or a Sergey Brin out of that sort of culture? How about a Stephen Hawking? It's possible but it's a LOT harder, because they prune the imagination out of their kids as a matter of course. China makes cheap replicas of things other countries invent, but they are largely incapable of innovating new products. By fostering a culture where questioning, free thinking, and variances of opinion are seen as disrespectful, foolish, or even dangerous, they've crippled their ability to create.

All of this is why I find futures where China is the dominant power to be very far fetched. Unless they are able to effect a massive overhaul of their culture from the top all the way down, they will inevitably run into a wall. Will they be relevant? Sure. They possess the largest workforce in the world and have few qualms about exploiting their own people. Cheap goods and endless unskilled labor, however, are not the paths to world dominance. You have to be able to create and innovate to jump ahead of the pack and stay there. China is unable to do that.