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China Uses Sci-Fi to Try to Spark a Tech Boom

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

Carrying a book he hopes to have autographed, Hua explains it was Liu’s novel “The Three-Body Problem” that led him to decide 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 this past week that featured Nobel laureates, exhibitions and the science fiction panel at which Liu spoke. Also there to stress the importance of the effort was Wang Huning, a member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, who told the attendees that China’s future hinged on technological innovation.

Trade tensions with the U.S. and suspicions that President Donald Trump’s ultimate aim is to thwart China’s rise have added urgency to those efforts. Most alarming was when an April ban on ZTE Corp., China’s second-biggest maker of gear for mobile-phone networks, from buying U.S. products crippled the company because of its reliance on American technology such as semiconductors.

Refusing China access to technologies could actually produce an unintended result, according to author Liu. It will 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 thinks science fiction can contribute to China’s technology push by inspiring the imagination of its readers. But he’s quick to add that without education and greater science literacy, literature won’t affect innovation.

Until 2014, the 55-year-old Liu was a full-time engineer at a state-owned power plant. It was that year “The Three-Body Problem” was translated into English and a year later when he became the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award, which recognizes achievement in science fiction writing. Another Chinese author, Hao Jingfang, won the Hugo Award in 2016.

China is home to at least 80 million science-fiction fans, Yao Haijun, 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 Ministry of Education last year added science as a compulsory subject for primary school students beginning from first grade, with courses focused more on hands-on experiments than textbooks. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, information technology and coding were added as subjects to the college entrance exam on a trial basis in 2017.

Another fan waiting to met Liu was Wang Jing, who traveled to Beijing from the city of Xi’an in western China to participate in the conference. She says the way science is now taught in many Chinese schools is “a bit boring.”

Wang is an executive at Xi’an CAS Star, an incubator for startups founded under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her team in Xi’an also recently opened a 3,000-square-meter exhibition hall built around the theme of China’s Shenzhou spaceships. They hope that it, like the space centers in the U.S. opened by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will promote an affinity for science.

“NASA is definitely a benchmark,” said Wang, who was hoping to invite Liu to a conference in Xi’an. “We still have a lot of catching up to do.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.