Books, China, Top Stories, World Affairs

Chinese Science Fiction’s Disaster Dystopias

The Great China dream will replace all private dreams.
~Ma Jian, China Dream

In Ma Jian’s new novel, the protagonist, Ma Daode, may be a corrupt, womanizing local official, but he is a corrupt, womanizing local official with a mission. His goal is to develop a drug that will allow President Xi Jinping’s vision of a glorious Chinese future to dominate not only citizens’ daily lives but their sleeping hours as well. This is his utopian quest. The China dream, Ma Daode suggests, “is not the selfish, individualist dream chased by Western countries. It is a dream of a people, a dream of the entire nation, united as one and gathered together into an invincible force.” This mindless worship of hierarchy and control permeates his thinking.

China Dream was published in 2018, three years before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and it provides insights into the Middle Kingdom that are becoming harder to find as control of local media tightens. It is a product of the “golden age” of Chinese science fiction, notes the New Scientist, that has been able to transcend the controls increasingly imposed on most non-fiction writing and public discussion. Author Liu Cixin has argued that, unlike the earliest days of the genre during the last days of the Qing dynasty, Chinese science fiction no longer fits a science-based optimism underlying the Communist vision. Such views, he observes, have “almost completely vanished.”

Contemporary Chinese writers are continuing the tradition of anti-totalitarian science fiction. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We explored the dangers of a Soviet regimented society dedicated to erasing the individual; the works of the Polish author Stanisław Lem identified the various underlying hypocrisies of the old Soviet Empire. Other classics, like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, presaged developments still evident and threatening today.

Ma Jian now lives in London and sees his task as similar to that of Orwell. In his introduction to China Dream, he writes that Orwell “foretold it all.” Xi’s “national rejuvenation,” Ma adds in the Afterword, reprises the horrors of the last century—it requires complete control of the population’s thoughts and the elevation of the leader himself to demigod status. China’s race towards the perfect state, he warns, will produce the same result as the Soviet experiment: “Utopia,” he reminds us, “always leads to dystopia.”

The new global vision

Critically, the “Chinese dream,” like that of the late Soviet Union, is not only meant for local consumption. “If we meld traditional Chinese values with Marxist ideology,” Ma Daode’s party superior suggests to him, “the China dream will be embraced by every nation. The world unity so desired by Genghis Khan will be accomplished by our generation of Party leaders.” As China Dream suggests, the Middle Kingdom now represents the most profound philosophical challenge to liberal values since the end of the Cold War. And they are not without their Western admirers. Standard Chartered Bank, for example, predicts that China will surpass the US as the world’s largest economy as early as the end of this year.

This sense of China’s inevitable preeminence has been bolstered by the Western decline after the Great Recession, convulsions over climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic, now thought by some analysts to have been a “triumph” for President Xi. “Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” predicts Jørgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. “Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.”

Some prominent Westerners even see China’s rise as the product of a system that is in some respects superior. As two law professors recently argued in the Atlantic:

In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.

The New York Times’s journalist Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, embraces the Chinese notion of granting more power to credentialed “experts” for societal problems, arguing that they are too complex for elected representatives to address. The similarly minded economist Jeffrey Sachs denounces what he calls “an evangelical crusade” against the Chinese regime, pointing out that America’s own repressions disqualify any presumption of superiority.

Even some greens have rallied to China’s cause, which is faintly amazing given that the country produces more greenhouse gases than the US and EU together. Former California Governor Jerry Brown likes China’s top down approach and has embraced the notion of “brainwashing” as a necessary means of getting the masses to fall into line with the preferred emerging climate consensus. This Western admiration for Chinese authoritarianism is reminiscent of those who allowed themselves to be seduced by Stalinist propaganda in the 1930s, peddled by influential journalists such as the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Walter Duranty.

 A model for the “surveillance society”

The British academic David Lyon writes about the emergence of “the surveillance society,” in which all individual activities are monitored from above. It is becoming, as one writer put it, “what Orwell feared.” In China, efforts to expand digital control have been boosted by US tech companies, including Apple and Google as well as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Western Digital. These companies have shown particular interest in China’s facial recognition systems, which is being used heavily in the Xinjiang region of western China, where Muslim Uighur dissidents are seen as a serious threat to the regime.

This is a place where simply wearing a beard, or giving your child a Muslim name, can draw the attention of the police. The facial recognition system allows authorities to follow someone on a watchlist; if they stray more than 300 meters from home or workplace, they could be arrested. The regime is also aiming to collect DNA from every resident of Xinjiang, and implementing a satellite tracking system for every vehicle in the region. “They are combining all of these things to create, essentially, a total police state,” said William Nee, a China campaigner at Amnesty International.

This “surveillance society” is not restricted to Xinjiang province. The regime plans to deploy over 400 million surveillance cameras in cities across the country by the end of the year. This surveillance is designed to regulate behavior, making it much more dangerous to express dissent, or even to commit a minor violation of traffic laws. The regime is also tracking smartphones and harvesting biometric data. Brain-reading technology seems destined to become more commonplace in Chinese factories, ostensibly to improve productivity, but also with a clear potential to monitor and manipulate the thoughts of workers.

This new reality permeates Chinese science fiction. In his short story “City of Silence” about the Internet in the near future, author Ma Boyong foresees attempts by “appropriate authorities” to restrict speech to “healthy words”; at the end of the book so few words are left that the “capital of the state” itself becomes mute. Ma’s story suggests an autocracy amplified by technology far more subtle than the Stalinist horror depicted by George Orwell. As one dissident in “City of Silence” suggests: “The author of 1984 predicted the progress of totalitarianism but could not predict the progress of technology.”

Some animals are more equal than others

Orwell’s insight about how Communism creates rigid hierarchies has proven particularly apt. Under its ostensibly “Marxist” regime, notes one observer, China is now developing “something resembling a permanent caste system.” In recent works of science fiction, China’s peasants and workers remain repressed, particularly in the countryside where many of the some 600 million rural Chinese still live in poverty. Liu Cixin’s “The Village Schoolteacher” describes a place “so poor that a bird wouldn’t shit on it.” Mao’s revolution may have been driven by the peasants, but President Xi’s “moderately prosperous society” may never reach them. The world Liu describes would not fit anyone’s vision of a desirable future society. The country already is becoming among the most unequal on the planet. In the future, they predict, class distinctions will become ever wider and more rigid.

Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” portrays a megacity divided into sharply delineated communities for the elite, the middle ranks, and a vast poor population living mainly by recycling the waste generated by the city. She depicts a city that changes shape into three forms—a luxurious first space with five million, a still comfortable second space accommodating 25 million and a third space, in which the protagonist Lao Dao lives where 50 million people cluster in stark conditions.

Similarly, Han Song’s clever “The Passengers and the Creation” speaks of a world that is contained within an airplane—with strict designations between first, second, and coach class. The velvet curtain that separates first class, Han writes, is “soft” but “as impenetrable as iron.” In this world, the wealthy aged live in comfort and can call on the services of young flight attendants recruited from coach.

Enforced conformity

Like Ma Jian’s protagonist in China Dream, the Chinese state’s goal is the assertion of control, by going as deep into private thoughts or behaviors as possible. Eighteen of the world’s 20 most heavily monitored cities are in China; Beijing and Shanghai already have a million each. The cult of conformity expresses itself as well in the banal uniformity imposed on China’s cities—endless rows of similar towers, shopping malls, glittering highways, and fast trains. In the process, the once distinctive terroirs of China’s great cities are being systematically eliminated. In urban China, old neighborhoods, with their histories, are being physically destroyed and residents uprooted to build physically imposing “global cities.” Maggie Shen King’s novel An Excess Male, set a few years in the future, has a longtime Beijing resident remembering the brutal razing of the old blocks of hutong, or courtyard houses, once common in the capital, and the displacement of residents:

Stately eight- and ten-lane boulevards crisscross the city and we rarely walk down one without… pointing out that countless properties were seized, and lives disrupted in the most egregious cases cut short to make possible their construction. Relegated to tiny stacked boxes, ordinary citizens pour into parks and scenic streets, thirsting for open air and elbowroom, so that our leaders could have their show of grandeur.

This search for control, notes Shen, who lives in the San Francisco area, extends to the details of private life. Her book describes a society in which women are allowed to take more than one husband, to encourage greater breeding and relieve social pressures. Shen’s heroine May-ling is married to two men, neither of whom is much interested in carnal relations and is looking to marry a third, an “excess male,” in order to have more children.

Following the demographic implosion created by the one-child policy, the government pursues and punishes anyone whose behavior, such as homosexuality, might impede the production of desperately needed children, something already much on the mind of Chinese planners and government officials. May-ling’s favorite husband, Hann, is gay. In the China of the future, people designated “willfully sterile” are persecuted for not procreating, losing their jobs and right to housing.

A warning from an imagined future

For the most part, journalists and political and business leaders are not likely to be dissuaded by the plainly nativist demagogy from President Trump and his most vehement right-wing allies. Nevertheless, science fiction writers reveal China’s fundamental weaknesses behind its facade of strength. To some extent, they express the angst of a millennial generation, which faces a troubling future and an aging society with diminishing opportunity. In Chen Qiufan’s Year of the Rat, a surplus college graduate ends up hunting genetically altered rats. “We are just like rats,” the protagonist suggests, “all of us only pawns, stones, worthless counters in the Great Game.”

Rather than the emergence of a China-dominated world order, as some in the West and many in Beijing propose, science fiction writers illuminate realities that could end up reprising the failures of the former Soviet Union. Ma Jian’s message, and that of Chinese science fiction, provides a cautionary tale for the 21st century. Sold as a dream, China’s future vision really constitutes a nightmare that we should seek to constrain and avoid.


Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Feature image: Face monitoring and surveillance technology exhibit at a Smart City Expo in Shenzhen, China, August 2018. Alamy Stock Photo. 


  1. It’s not a bad technique to critique a nation and it’s dreams with the vehicle of fiction especially speculative science fiction. Or is it more of a neat little trick ?
    Keep one foot in the fictional world and another in ours, you can dance between the two without having to stand anywhere in particular. A fictional character is given a first person voice and then blended in with the voices of professors and pundits from our own reality with only the thinnest of lines separating the two.
    Like I said it’s not a bad technique, Star Trek certainly had interesting things to say about the Cold War and the Harry Potter series does give us insights into the British class system and their status anxiety around private education.
    Personally I would be a lot more rigorous in using the voice of either Mr Spock or Professor Dumbeldore in an essay. There is a very important line that separates such character’s worlds from my own. They will never have to bear the consequences of my actions in my world.
    I will.
    It’s not as if Joel Kotkin is unconcerned with real world consequences. he has an agenda which maybe the same as his Urban Futures Reform Institute, he says it quite clearly;

    China’s future vision really constitutes a nightmare that we should seek to constrain and avoid.

    This is where the danger of leaning too heavily on fiction becomes evident. Which vision of China’s future ? The ones being planned out today in the real physical China or the dreams contained within Chinese speculative fiction, culled out and curated for us by Joel Kotkin ?
    You can avoid China if you wish, just don’t live there, personally I do. Which Chinese dreams need to be avoided and constrained ? And why ? For your benefit or for theirs ?

  2. The CCP is actually the rule of the Han Chinese. China is made up of numerous nationalities, and many have suffered under the specter of Han control. There is a simmering hatred, bought off by new roads and ongoing development.
    But China needs to grow at around 5-6% to offset the teaming masses.
    The command economy has gamed the global system, exporting often below the cost of production. This export lead success is now slowing, and with it the prospects for pacified peasants.
    China had a good run, but the future does not look good. They believed their own bullshit, as they say.
    China cant even feed itself. The arrogance of the only child will soon turn to a temper tantrum. And hungry Uighers will be settling some scores.

  3. European Imperialism, Fascism, Communism. The West in general and the USA in particular have been repeatedly assailed by foreign tyrannies that were much admired by cowards and traitors here, but each in turn failed and collapsed. China’s government is not even in the same league as that earlier trio and its Western fellow travellers are fewer in numbers and influence than their Twentieth Century predecessors. Mr. Kotkin’s dismal warnings and predictions can serve a useful purpose in keeping us alert, but let’s not get too carried away with them. The last paragraph strikes such a good balance.

  4. It would be interesting to know about non-dystopian Chinese science fiction; whether it fits the agenda of Xi Jinping Thought, or simply comes from some apolitical corner of their culture.

  5. The Great China dream will replace all private dreams.

    One man’s dream is oft some other’s nightmare,
    As visions render saints and madmen joy;
    While sometimes smoothing words beguile to snare,
    Which else with scorn would tender hopes destroy.

    Some random poet.

  6. Some hard facts and figures are always useful when discussing China, they help avoid speculation and pulling things out of your proverbial. Here are some for your consideration
    Han Chinese are about 91.6% of the population of P.R. China. That’s more than 1.2 billion people.
    The next largest group are the Zhuang at 1.27 % that’s about 16.9 million people
    About 6.6 % of the population are members of the CCP that’s about 91 million people.
    About 10.1% of the CCP are ethnic minorities, so that’s a slight over representation.
    So the CCP out numbers the largest ethnic minority by a factor of 5.
    Ethnic minorities were never subjected to the now suspended One Child policy.
    The Epoch Times is a Falun Gong front.
    The Epoch Times

  7. In an otherwise excellent and informative article, Kotkin just had to drop a parting shot at “the plainly nativist demagogy from President Trump and his most vehement right-wing allies.” Sad, especially coming from someone whose other work would suggest that he knows better than to make such a smear. Who is he speaking to here? Is it a signal to the progressive elites? He seems to be saying: “What I write may not fit some details of the progressive narrative, but please don’t confuse me with those bitter-clingers, those deplorables, the fly-overs. Peasants!

  8. The link i provided shows all kinds of facts and figures. My research in Xinjiang on the agricultural sector is not speculation. It is an econometric analysis of the costs of production for various commodities. And when it was done, it was cutting edge. Ive been visiting China on and off for 35 years. But hey, if a guy who did extensive primary research among the Uighers is your idea of ‘speculation’ by all means, tell us how it is.
    The Governor of Xinjiang was very supportive of my efforts, it was an amazing experience to host him and his entourage here in California. We toured many factories, irrigation canals and farms together.
    Damn old people who base their opinions on lived experience. Pfft.
    Jake, i am a senior citizen. I was in China before you were born? Please dont imply i am pulling anything out of my proverbial…

  9. That’s an interesting tidbit about The Epoch Times. When their Hong Kong office was torched, I suspected that the CCP had reasons for targeting them over other media outlets. I didn’t look into it too deeply, as there was plenty of chaos unrelated to that specific incident to keep my attention.

    Anyhow, that affiliation definitely explains the animus they have against the CCP. That said, I doubt you can deny that Falun Gong practitioners have legitimate grievances against the CCP. Even when looking at those brutal (and ongoing) events through the most charitable lens possible, I think at the very least it’s safe to say that the CCP is sensitive to any perceived threat to its power, and is willing to engage in any means necessary to ensure its survival. Perhaps those measures are necessary for the regime’s goals, but they are certainly unfortunate for those who find themselves on the party’s bad side.

    By the by, I’m a long-time lurker first-time poster, and I’d just like to say that while some suspect your motives (you do have a rather specific set of interests, after all;) I do hope you continue your crusade. It’s healthy to have a variety of views presented in a thoughtful way, especially when they are considered unorthodox for a given platform. Irrationality grows like a weed when there is nothing to challenge it, and arguments can become much more refined in the presence of opposition.

  10. Hard facts and figures are often useful when discussing practically anything. Except the collected works of Foucault of course, in that case, facts would only detract from the distinct lack of “meaning”.

  11. Which ones should be constrained? Those that might harm my position in the universe.
    Why? Because they might harm my position in the universe.
    For your benefit or theirs? For mine. Definitely for mine.

  12. Thanks for all your thoughtful replies, it’s good to see that Quillette circle is keeping the standard high and the tone friendly.
    Let me do a little compendium counterpoint
    @Glass_Olmund I of course don’t see myself on a crusade or a man of particularly limited interests. You can check through my contributions to these forums and see for yourself.
    I do have an interest in China, it’s a huge place with a long history and a lot going on today. I contribute to forums on topics where I believe my comments could be illuminating or amusing. I don’t have much interest in being the 100th poster about why Covid is fake or why stupid Wokesters are stupid. I left western academia a long time ago and am no longer interested or shocked in seeing them choke on the rotten stew they have been cooking for decades.
    I feel bad for the kids but what can you do if their parents are crazy ?
    @MorganFoster I am glad you have direct experience with Xinjiang and it’s agriculture, such experience is rare and valuable. However I believe your prediction of mass starvation causing civil unrest among Uyughars or other ethnic minorities is highly unlikely. Just for speculation’s sake, how many Chinese do you think are going to die of cardio-vascular disease exacerbated by obesity and how many of starvation in the next generation ?
    I’d be curious to here any comments you may have on the stories of millions of Uyughars in concentration camps. My position is basically that it’s highly implausible, politically motivated speculation presented as fact to a credulous audience without anything approaching solid evidence.
    I maybe hedging there but when in doubt I fall back on the old Wittgenstein maxim, “Whereof one cannot speak , thereof one must be silent .”
    I don’t have experience of the situation in Xinjiang but I do have experience of the stories being told about it, so I will speak about those.
    @TheSnark The question of Chinese creativity is an interesting and deep one.
    China is still a collectivist and conservative country. There are many cases from history of China making major errors, turning it’s back on major opportunities because of these attitudes.
    The Ming emperors destroying their high seas fleet, the Qing emperors closing off foreign trade. But we are now in a different epoch. Information has now been liberated from paper and the speed of physical travel. The world just can’t be shut down like it could in past centuries.
    China also has a huge population with a naturally high IQ ( I am at least partially an IQ hereditarian), with a culture deeply dedicated to education (so there is the environmental bit). How much creativity is actually needed to survive and thrive ? Obviously some, but I think the West has made a false God of it, particularly in education. Conservative top down control of creative innovations in society does have advantages. I don’t usually like to rely on American counter examples but here is one that I have been considering for a while.
    How much did America benefit from The Sackler family and Purdue Pharma’s slight bit of chemical creativity and huge marketing creativity used in the creation and distribution of OxyContin ?
    There were problems there but creativity was not one of them.
    In summary; The West generally and America specifically have been underestimating China for at least 50 years. In fact it’s hard to find any major predictions the have gotten right. My favorite is Gordan Chang’s “The coming collapse of China” which he wrote in 2001 and updated in 2011. Of course he’s correct, he just needs to update it every 10 years.
    Predictions like that are like saying “It’s going to rain”, of course it is, but when ? and how much ?

  13. Hi Jake,

    Your analysis is good and well-written. However, you seem to be defending China by simply picking apart the author’s technique/premise.

    I think the article was good because it showed how close China is to becoming the scary thing fiction writers fear it might be someday.

    China is accused of herding, sterilizing, repressing, and reeducating millions of Uighur Muslims; creating a vast surveillance/police state; limiting access to certain websites for its citizens (and others who enter the country); going back on its promises to allow Hong Kong to maintain an autonomous democratic society (and harshly punishing those who publicly protest); the list goes on…

    This is all the stuff of dystopian fiction, thus the article is apt. I know I painted with a broad brush with the list above (and it’s worth noting I’m not the one doing the accusing; I just read about it), but are you denying this stuff is taking place? In other words: are you willing to say that people are flat out lying about China or are you just tired of a perceived general lack of nuance when it comes to criticizing China? Please elaborate (assuming you have time/energy/desire).


  14. There is a lot in there and I will try to be brief;
    The surveillance system and control of the internet is very real. It’s a massive topic which I can’t totally defend except to say that no complex system can run without monitoring and that applies anywhere in the world.
    I note that you say

    (emphasis mine) I’ve heard the accusations too. What I’m interested in is the truth of them, I will examine accusations and treat them as accusations until proven otherwise. I’m getting a little tired of repeating myself, but the topic is an important one so I guess I will have to.

    My position about using fiction to critique a nation or culture is that it is a very different type of writing to journalism or government reporting. Blending quotations from those different types of writing creates the danger of unintentional confusion or deliberate deception. Full context of those fictional characters is just not given and the opportunity for cherry picking is obvious.
    If you want to find dystopian Chinese fiction you can, but there is also much in China that is optimistic and light hearted, you can find that too but only if you try.
    One cultural trend I have noticed in the last few years in China is the growing influence of Japanese and Korean pop culture in. It was actually one of the Quilletters that turned me on to a Chinese series “Scissor Seven” which is rather cool and owes much to Japanese superhero anime. There also a change in fashion, somewhat subtle but growing especially among young women. Older styles such as Hanfu are coming back and the Japanese street fashion “Sweet Lolita” can be seen in the major cities. I don’t know exactly what this means but it seems to be optimistic and fun not depressing and dystopian.

  15. Thanks for your response, Jake. I appreciate all the comments you provide on this forum.

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