Posted by Joel Martinsen on Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 5:29 PM
On the morning of April 1, the website of the magazine Science Fiction World posted an announcement that included the following decision: "Li Chang is suspended from his positions as director and editor-in-chief, and day-to-day agency operations are turned over to vice-director Liu Chengshu."
The preliminary decision made by the Sichuan Association for Science and Technology, the magazine's sponsoring organization would seem to bring to a close a staff revolt that has been playing out in the public eye since March 21.
On that day, an open letter addressed to all Chinese science fiction fans was released on Douban, a culture-oriented social networking site. In the letter, magazine staff charged Li Chang (李昶), who came on as director at the very end of 2008, with short-sighted management practices that bordered on incompetence. Their complaint, written in a style reminiscent of Cultural Revolution-era rhetoric, laid out seven points of disagreement (excerpted):
Immediate media reports on the open letter quoted unnamed editors who affirmed that it was all "basically true." The editors followed through by filing a grievance with SAST, reproduced in part by the March 25 issues of the Oriental Morning Post (which misidentified it as a web posting) and the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily. The text included the following demands:
While the mainstream media provided a general picture of the controversy, editors and SF fans were actively discussing the issue online at Douban, Sina's microblogs service, and for a time, on the SFW BBS. Some editors posted with salary information to counter the notion that they were only griping about money, while others gave more details about life at the magazine under Li Chang's regime. One such post included these choice quotes:
Lest you believe that these lines are fabrications by editors with an axe to grind, here is an exchange from an in-depth report that ran in the March 31 issue of China Youth Daily's Freezing Point supplement:
The China Youth Daily article, which appeared just one day before the magazine announced that Li Chang had been suspended, looked into each of the seven complaints cited in the open letter and found that they were all justified to some degree. Even Li himself did not argue with most of them; he just interpreted the opposition differently.
Li's focus on circulation and the bottom line may have been justified, even if his methods would have turned Science Fiction World into a mass-market digest magazine whose readership skewed even younger than King of Science Fiction, SFW's low-circulation, subscription-only competitor aimed at a junior-high audience.
A number of reports noted that Li Chang was not solely to blame for Science Fiction World's declining circulation. The magazine actually experienced an unexpected bump in popularity owing to a story that accurately predicted a college entrance exam essay one year, and circulation has been falling from a height of 400,000 (or 300,000, depending on whom you believe) ever since. It currently stands somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000, or roughly the level it stood at in the mid-nineties.
While Li may have clashed with editors over his approach to running a magazine, more serious for his fate as agency director may have been the deals he made to let other magazines piggy-back onto the periodical licenses belonging to SFW's stable of magazines.
According to the China Youth Daily article:
On March 27, a Moment staff member wrote an impassioned defense of the magazine, arguing that Science Fiction World's efforts at self-preservation should not include sacrificing an innocent publication.
And in China's restrictive press and publication climate, Moment's situation is actually not at all unusual: the vast majority of new magazines are launched by piggy-backing onto the license of an existing publication because legitimate licenses take considerable time and effort to obtain. Authorities generally look the other way, but when they want to punish a magazine for some other reason, the violation makes it very easy to do so.
An interesting comparison can be made between the rebellion at Science Fiction World and a public campaign launched in 2004 to save Sanlian Bookstore, a prestigious publishing house that runs the influential left-leaning literary journal Dushu (读书), from the misguided leadership of profit-seeking officials.
Here's a bit of background on the "Defend Sanlian Bookstore" campaign, as narrated by the China Youth Daily:
The China Youth Daily article noted that the actions of the "key leader" sparked public anger and led to a campaign to "Defend Sanlian Bookstore" among Chinese academics and writers, including Yang Jiang, Chen Pingyuan, and Zi Zhongyun.
The uprising at Science Fiction World brought out a similar crop of notable figures of Chinese science fiction, from novelists Liu Cixin and Wang Jinkang to Xinhua journalist and SF author Han Song to the magazine's retired leadership. Xinhua's main reporting on the issue was done by Ji Shaoting, who is well-known in SF fandom. And the China Youth Daily article, although written by a non-SF fan, was guided by Freezing Point's deputy general editor Xu Baike (徐百柯), who translated two volumes of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.
Back in 2004, one senior Sanlian staff member described the incident as a clash of ideologies:
Science Fiction World has overcome many obstacle in its thirty years of operation, from the anti-"spiritual pollution" campaign of the early 80s, the transition to a commercial operation in the late 80s and early 90s, and the SF boom and bust in the 21st Century.
The announcement of Li Chang's suspension has already been removed from the SFW website, but the editors who have posted in discussions on Douban claim that it is not an April Fool's joke. If that holds up, then the magazine has beaten back another threat to continue to offer a spiritual garden to Chinese SF writers, editors, and fans alike.
Update (2010.04.01, 21:50): Xinhua is now reporting that Li Chang has been relieved of his position, so it looks like it wasn't an April Fool's joke after all.
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