Chen Qiufan: Why did I Write a Science Fiction Novel about E-waste?

Guangzhao Lyu, Angela Chan and Mia Chen Ma. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF. If you’d like to receive the issue, join the BSFA.

This is a transcription of Chen Qiufan’s public talk at Goodenough College, London, invited by London Chinese Science Fiction Group (LCSFG), on 12th August 2019, which is followed by a conversation with Angela Chan and Mia Chen Ma. This was originally published in Chinese on LCSFG’s WeChat account.[1]

The London Chinese Science Fiction Group (LCSFG) is a community for people interested in Chinese languages (sinophone) science and speculative fiction. Since it was founded in April 2019, LCSFG has been organising monthly reading groups focusing on short stories available both in Chinese and English and has been inviting established/emerging Chinese SF writers to participate in online discussions following the pandemic lockdown since March 2020. During our meetings, we explore the story’s themes, literary styles and even translation techniques and choices, as a way to better understand the piece, as well as the evolving field of contemporary Chinese SF.


Chen Qiufan:

Firstly, many thanks to the London Chinese Science Fiction Group for inviting me here, and to Goodenough College for providing such a gorgeous place. Today, I would like to talk about my debut novel, and only novel to date, Waste Tide. And don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers. Before I discuss the story itself, let me give some general background information and my inspiration, that is, why I wanted to write a science fiction novel about China’s near-future in conjunction with e-waste recycling.

Back in 2011, I took a trip back to my hometown Shantou (汕头), which is also one of several special economic zones in China, established in 1981, the same age as me. But unfortunately, the development of Shantou has been below our expectations over the years. There, I met a friend and he talked to me about the location of the small city of Guiyu (贵屿,Guìyǔ),[2] as well as some of the problems it was facing. At that time, my friend worked for an American waste disposal company, and he also told me that their company hoped to introduce some new technologies to upgrade the local waste recycling industry. However, the local government kept getting in the way for various reasons.

This was the first time I heard about Guiyu, and later I got to know more about it. I found out that at that time, Guiyu was known as the ‘World Centre of Electronic Waste Recycling,’ but how it gained this title was not always through legal channels. Deeply moved by some pictures on the Internet, I decided to go there to see for myself.

There, I noticed that everything is chaotic and disorganised, and the waste disposal workers are unprotected and directly exposed to this polluted environment. They try to find recyclable metal components containing a certain amount of rare earth among the discarded cables or electronic parts. Such business has caused serious damage to the local environment of Guiyu. Soil, water and even the air are all contaminated and eroded by the electronic wastes, not to mention the impact on unprotected workers, who are the most direct victims of environmental pollution.

I was appalled by this scene and began to understand more about how serious electronic waste pollution is today. I learned that Guiyu was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, a total of 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste was created worldwide, which is equivalent to the combined mass of 4,500 Eiffel Towers, and this number is still growing year after year. The waste recycling industry in Guiyu continues to thrive precisely because the total amount of e-waste continues to grow, and the rare earth elements separated from the waste are also really valuable, with the total value of the global waste recycling industry reaching a staggering 55 billion euros in 2016.

But why has China become the centre of the world’s waste recycling industry? According to the statistics of some government and scientific institutions, the waste is usually transferred from developed regions like North America and Western Europe to developing countries and regions like China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and even South America, resulting in a huge imbalance between these countries. In China, although there is still a gap compared to the United States in terms of the per capita production of electronic waste, its growth rate is rapid. China’s economic development has allowed people to update the electronic devices in their hands more frequently, even if such updates will also bring huge environmental pressure. As a result, in early 2018, the Chinese government banned the import of 24 types of waste, which also includes electronic waste. Meanwhile, many countries in Asia have implemented similar policies to restrict waste from developed countries to mitigate local environmental degradation.

After this, Guiyu has established many industrial parks for electronic waste recycling, tried to design more efficient and environmentally friendly industrial processes, and increased health protection for waste workers, so the situation here has now been much improved. Local residents of Guiyu also revealed that the air and water quality here is getting better, but the land contamination will take longer to recover due to the heavy metals that have seeped into it.

But this also brings another problem: developed countries are no longer able to dispose of their own waste by ‘dumping it in China,’ so they change their partners and transfer it to our neighbours, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc. This also brings a series of conflicts and contradictions to these countries. For example, in 2019, there were massive protests in the Philippines against the e-waste coming from Canada that was left unattended. All of this is not just about recycling. It is also about geopolitical wrangling.

Since China deployed stricter waste recycling policy, many countries are criticising the Chinese government for not taking responsibility for the so-called ‘waste recycling.’ But again, we must take a long-term view, gain a greater voice in the international political competition, and slowly find a balance between ‘waste disposal,’ ‘national interest’ and ‘environmental protection’ in practice. We also need to take care of local businesses, so it is reasonable to upgrade waste treatment technology and pursue efficiency and safety. At the same time, we need to encourage everyone to contribute to this effort, emphasising the individual’s obligation and responsibility for environmental protection, and to strengthen international cooperation and establish a tracking system for waste transportation to stop some underground and illegal waste transport. Some garbage containers are labelled with ambiguous or even disguising expressions such as ‘electronic equipment’ in an attempt to conceal their contents, resulting in the illegal importation of garbage. In addition, the health of waste disposal workers is also a concern, because currently they do not receive sufficient protection, both physically and mentally, from the stresses and harms caused by the waste disposal industry.

As we can see, the Chinese government is actually taking the lead in reforming the recycling industry. All other unofficial organisations, including NGOs, corporate businesses, research institutions, e-waste suppliers, as well as individuals, should realise that China does not have a “throw-away” culture, as there is not much space for the waste we produce.

Waste Tide: Amazon.co.uk: Qiufan, Chen: 9780765389312: Books

That is why I wish to involve e-waste in my stories. Many people have asked me why I wrote a science fiction novel instead of discussing the issue of environmental pollution in a documentary literature, if I wanted to talk about it. But for me, science fiction has a metaphorical role that cannot be found elsewhere. It can transcend the limits of the “present” and incorporate literary symbols that are applicable to all cultures in all countries concerning the imagination of the future. Thus, in science fiction, environmental issues can be generalised to a broader social context, and readers are more willing to consider how their personal actions can affect our environment, or the work and lives of garbage workers they have never met.

I feel very fortunate to have this story in English in 2019, and to have it in other languages in the process of being proofread for publication. I believe that environmental issues have been gaining more and more attention in recent years, whether through self-publishing or the big screen, and the urgency of environmental issues has forced more writers and artists to use “environment” as a keyword in their work. I would also like to invite everyone here to rethink what we can do for the environment.

Two months ago I attended the Dalian Summer Davos Forum and met a 16 year old girl from Bali, Indonesia. She set up an organisation called “Bye Bye Plastic Bag” to put pressure on the local government to implement more environmental policies and reduce the use of plastic bags. I think, since a 16-year-old girl can achieve so much, we must be able to do a lot too. When we shop or throw out our trash, we need to think about where it all comes from and where it will be shipped to. While we are throwing away toxic waste, what impact does this waste have on our lives?

I have been talking upon myself for long enough, and I’m sure you all have many questions that you would like to discuss together. I hope my sharing can bring you some inspiration.

Mia Chen Ma:

Thank you very much for sharing with us all these backstories and information beyond Waste Tide, which is very useful for us to understand the message you tried to convey. A lot of people are talking about the relationship between Chinese science fiction and Western science fiction, so I’d like to hear where, for you, the Chinese SF New Wave is in the overall history of Chinese literature. Has the influence of science fiction in China increased compared to its more marginalised position in the past? Has there been any new progress in the exchange and interaction between Chinese science fiction and mainstream literature?

Chen Qiufan:

This is a good question. As an ‘imported’ genre, science fiction has only been introduced to China for about a hundred years. In the West, science fiction in the usual sense can be traced back to Frankenstein two hundred years ago, so in China, science fiction is still a relatively young genre, and its status is relatively marginal compared to mainstream literature. But in recent years, a lot has changed for Chinese science fiction, especially after The Three Body Problem won the Hugo Award and Wandering Earth became a huge success in cinemas. Now it is clear that people are taking science fiction more and more seriously.

On a national level, the Chinese governments have always tried to use science fiction as a way to popularise scientific knowledge, which is part of our conventional understanding of science fiction imported from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and even sometimes science fiction is used as one of the channels of government propaganda. They believed that science fiction could stimulate people’s creativity and imagination. However, it is well known that science fiction in the Western tradition has a strong critique and questioning of reality, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and we have been hoping that more and more attention would be paid to this “introspective” power of science fiction itself.

At the same time, mainstream literary studies have also begun to pay attention to the values embedded in science fiction. Nowadays, scholars are more interested in the history of the development of science fiction in late Qing dynasty (at the beginning of the twentieth century) because the purpose of science fiction “enlightenment” was very clear at that time, and many literary figures, including Lu Xun and Liang Qichao, were engaged in the translation and writing of science fiction, trying to save China from external and internal troubles. Unfortunately, most of their attempts failed.

I believe that the rapid growth of science fiction in China in recent years reflects the country’s great economic and technological progress. On the geopolitical front, the international community is also paying closer attention to the development of science fiction in China, trying to understand the Chinese imagination and portrayal of the present and future, and the interplay between humans and technology. Earlier this year, I went to a very interesting workshop in Berlin where they explored, through science fiction, the various possibilities for bilateral relations between China and the EU by 2035, and the potential developmental direction of science and technology. I think this is one of the core functions of science fiction, that is, to discuss the various forms of ‘what-if,’ so that people can feel the changes brought by the development of science and technology to all levels of society.

This is an important reason why science fiction is so popular in China, and why everyone wants to use this genre to fulfil some kind of future prophecy. But I think such an understanding is a bit too ‘practical’ and ‘Chinese.’ Science fiction should not be given so many functions and roles outside of literature, as it’s just a narrative style and technique. Perhaps you can read a lot from a specific story, even a lot that the author themselves doesn’t even realise, but science fiction itself is complex, and it’s hard to summarise all its potential possibilities in a few words. But again, it should be admitted that science fiction has indeed become one of the most important literary genres in China and in the world.

Angela Chan:

I would like to add to your point that science fiction is indeed a special, interdisciplinary narrative. What are your thoughts on the combination of the visual arts and science fiction?

Chen Qiufan:

Back in 2015, the copyright to the film adaptation of Waste Tide had been bought by a British film company. Now we have a relatively complete script, but we have not yet proceeded to the stage of actual filming. Before the English version of Waste Tide was published, we only had English translations of some of the chapters, but it still achieved a certain level of impact, which became the reason why the producers reached out for cooperation. It definitely would take some time between the novel and the film adaptation, and in China this time can be even longer due to the still imperfect film production process. Although Wandering Earth was a box office success, it doesn’t mean that we have the ability to dabble in science fiction films on a large scale.

Therefore, writing a novel is very different from making a movie, and it is very difficult to change the content across media, so many directors will firstly try to adapt the stories considered less difficult. But it’s never ‘easy’ in the absolute sense, because when you adapt them, you might have to make several considerable changes to the whole structure of the work. When reading a novel, you can spend ten to twenty hours slowly experiencing the details of the story, but a movie is only about two hours long, so the director must ensure that they can capture the audience’s attention, and the plot and characters in the movie have a more direct narrative role. This is a different kind of coherence from that of a novel, where the story line, character portrayal, motifs and mood changes, and the direct interaction of these elements in the film must be seamless.

This is where film adaptations are the most difficult, and original science fiction filmmaking is even more so. Many script writers may have the ability to adapt and recreate existing works to a certain extent, but not so much to imagine and design a worldview that is highly original. For me, I’m working on a lot of different projects at the same time, such as TV series and animation, but the processes can take quite a long time. I’m not personally a producer, so I don’t really have a say in a lot of things, so I’ll wait and see what happens later. If I ever try to direct a film, I’ll start with a smaller project so that I have the ability to control it. Personally, I prefer small budget sci-fi horror and B-movies, which are more to my taste.

Mia Chen Ma:

I know that writers’ own perceptions of their work may often differ from those of academics or readers, whether it’s a text or a film adaptation. There’s a lot of scholarly discussion about the ambiguity of science fiction when it comes to looking at environmental issues, and you talked earlier about how the environmental narrative in fiction can actually show the ecological awareness that people need to have. However, Waste Tide eventually ends up being that no matter what we do, we are always trapped in an environmentally degraded world, with no way out. I think the end of the novel also hints at this to some extent, that there are still countless islands of garbage floating around in the world along the ocean currents, and we have no better way to change this. Even for Guiyu itself, its problems are still not really solved, and it is still subject to a capitalist discourse. You mentioned the responsibility of each individual in environmental issues, but at the same time, you configured a future in which ‘nothing we can do will change anything.’ So I’d like to know how you see this ‘ambiguity.’ What kind of message are you trying to convey to the reader from your story?

Chen Qiufan:

For me, the end of the story is closely related to the current situation in China. We don’t have a very complete solution yet, and it’s going to take a long time here. I’ve always associated science fiction with realism, which I call ‘science fiction realism.’ So this ambiguity is necessary because I don’t wish to have a happy ending, but leave some suspense and regret, so that more readers can think about the value behind the story. More importantly, everyone can see the consequences of environmental pollution and the crisis brought about by the behaviour of each of us in a consumerist culture. Such consumerism is also one of the most central drivers of capitalism. In a capitalist society, each person has his or her own specific position in the whole social network, and the difference in position creates the difference in people’s understanding of the world.

In fact, I am now writing a sequel to Waste Tide, which is also related to garbage, but not limited to physical garbage, I will also deal with some ‘spiritual garbage’ or ‘spiritual pollution.’ I want to think about the inner contradictions of each person from a spiritual perspective, and perhaps we can find ways to deal with the problems of the real world.

Angela Chan:

Considering that you mentioned that different people in different social positions have different environmental responsibilities, Waste Tide also talks about some class conflicts. In the context of the story you’ve built, such conflicts are mainly between migrant workers and local residents. I know that the focus of Waste Tide is on some of the current problems and crises that China is facing, but did you take into account the involvement of other races in the story? For example, in Guangdong province, many workers from other countries and regions are slowly integrating into the Chinese social network, so from your point of view, do you think science fiction can also discuss the topic of ‘race’?

Chen Qiufan:

This is an intriguing thought. Many people think that China’s racial problems don’t seem to be serious, but in reality, the kind of racial conflicts that other countries face are presented in a different way in China. In the surroundings in which I grew up, there were many foreign workers from outside China, but I have to admit that many locals were prejudiced against them, whether it was the difference in language, accent, lifestyle or even food preferences, so in Waste Tide I am indeed trying to incorporate different elements and discuss the different conflicts. I hope to convey that because China is so vast, its culture is also diverse and complex. We all have different backgrounds and ideas, but we all share a common cultural identity, that is, we are all ‘Chinese.’ This is why we wanted to show such a rich geo-cultural element in the story, although it also puts an extra burden on the translator. But Ken Liu seems to enjoy this process, and he likes to maintain the ‘authenticity’ of the language. He did a great job.

At the same time, Guangdong now has a lot of immigrants from Africa, which is another interesting topic. Chinese and African cultures are vastly different, yet now we all live in a city like Guangzhou at the same time. So many Africans can also speak Mandarin or even Cantonese fluently, and this cultural level of integration makes the whole cultural context more complex. I also wanted to include this phenomenon in my novel, because although everyone can speak Chinese, their perception of the current society, limited by the cultural environment they originally lived in, is obviously very different. In science fiction, we’re always trying to establish a ‘hyper-real’ social context where all these elements can be integrated into a story, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Angela Chan:

Yes, I think science fiction has the capacity and tools to frame and discuss complex geopolitics and social relations very well. Again, thank you very much for this great conversation. We are looking forward to your future stories or even your B-movies.


[1] The Transcription in Chinese is available at https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/8JsHwZPtkhZm4zaEZWnbkg

[2] This place is the homophonic prototype of the fictional Guiyu (硅屿,Guīyǔ), the setting of Waste Tide

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