sfw

"Defend Science Fiction World" -- China Youth Daily's report

On March 31, the China Youth Daily ran an in-depth report on the internal struggle for control of Science Fiction World in its prestigious Freezing Point supplement.

Below is a full translation of that article, followed by some behind-the-scenes tidbits written up by Sanfeng, a semi-prozine editor.

For the full story, see Science Fiction World topples its editor-in-chief.

Defend Science Fiction World

by Zhao Hanmo / CYD

On March 21, a letter titled "An Open Letter from Science Fiction World to SF Fans Nationwide: Let the Storm Rage!" was released online. Speaking for "the entire staff of Science Fiction World," the writer criticized the "hubristic, arbitrary leadership, the incompetence, and the malfeasance of the magazine's head, Comrade Li Chang," and said that the thirty-one-year-old magazine had reached a "critical moment of crisis."

Out of the way in the southwest, Science Fiction World is well-known nonetheless for having the largest circulation of any science fiction magazine in the world. Many world-renowned SF authors have found fans in China through this "niche magazine." Best-selling British SF author Neil Gaiman has even called the magazine "my home in China."

Practically every SF fan in China can tell you their own story about SFW. Science fiction author Yang Ping remembers how he arrived at the editorial offices in 1996. Even though he had not published anything at the time, "Deng Jigang, an older senior editor, took me all around Chengdu just as a show of care for a potential writer."

Feidao, who was born in the Chifeng mining district in Inner Mongolia, spent his secondary school years accompanied by SFW. Today, he is one of the magazine's core writers. In his "library-free" hometown, "that chance meeting changed my entire life."

Hundreds of thousands of science fiction fans are looking to see just what has gone wrong with the magazine. A China Youth Daily reporter went to Chengdu to investigate the things mentioned in the open letter.

The first to be interviewed was a group of angry editors. "Dirty laundry shouldn't be aired in public, but we can't stand it anymore," one of them said.

An air-dropped leader; a "no discussion" general editor

A time when agency director and editor-in-chief Li Chang was visiting Taiwan was chosen for the publication of the open letter. The letter demanded that leaders "dismiss Comrade Li Chang from all of his posts at the magazine agency and hold an open election for a talented new leader able to lead Science Fiction World out of this confusion!"

This open letter had actually been in preparation for two months. At the end of last year, a "cover incident" sparked the uprising. An art editor recalls that they had always used eye-catching original SF art on the cover of Science Fiction World, but Li Chang suddenly notified them that they were to use a photo of a lecture held at Sichuan University.

The editors suspected that this was another decision Li made out of "penny-pinching that had become morbid," because the price for cover art was 2,000 RMB.

Fierce conflict erupted between the editors and their boss. Li Chang still did not understand why his suggestions incited such strong opposition. Around noontime on March 29, this reporter met Li, who had just returned from Taiwan, at the Science Fiction World agency in Chengdu. When asked about the issue, he replied, "If the magazine put one of your photos on the cover, wouldn't you give it another look if you passed it on the newsstand?"

"Of course, but I'm just one person," this reporter said.

"That's better than having no one look at it at all, right?" said the man in charge of a magazine with a monthly circulation of 130,000 copies.

Li continued his complaint: "Besides, when they voiced their opposition, I went along with them." Eventually, that issue of the magazine returned to its customary practice before printing, and the cover was changed to a SF painting showing "a particle cloud scattering light to every corner of a city."

One editor, "afraid the same thing could happen again and again," smashed a teacup during an editors' meeting held in a teahouse. They decided to seek a resolution through an open letter. Through interviews, the China Youth Daily verified that while there were still editors inside the agency who maintained a "wait and see" attitude toward the open letter battle, the majority of editors said, "The open letter was accurate," and "it can represent our position."

Why did they choose to publicize the letter when Li Chang was in Taiwan? "He frequently brags about the backing he has, so we took advantage of that opportunity," said one reporter. The open letter laid out Li's actions in seven points, and among them was, "...during meetings and on other occasions, Comrade Li Chang trumpeted his backing, flaunted his borrowed power and warned staff members who wanted to complain not to overestimate their strength."

The anxiety among editors over "backing" can be traced back to the winter of 2008. At the time, the magazine's "elderly" editor in chief Qin Li was suddenly transferred, and Li Chang was reassigned from Defense Times (国防时报) to the Sichuan Association of Science and Technology-controlled Science Fiction World as the first boss of the special niche magazine who had never held any previous position within it.

A senior official with the SAST was astonished: ten years previous, Li Chang had been in charge of the Association's Sichuan Science and Technology News (四川科技报), "He was transferred out because of the paper's poor performance, but he circled back and had the capacity to return to SAST."

Older readers began to notice "tiny but glaring" changes to the magazine. The publication, described by "super-fan" Xiao Ji as "adorably stubborn," had for ten years printed the Science column inside the front cover because editors believed, "Hard SF can only flourish through science."

But in this year's February issue, the stubborn editors lost their power and the color page inside the front cover became an ad for a computer game. Printing ads on color pages may be a larger trend among mainstream magazines, but science fiction fans began to ask, "Why are ads replacing science?"

The editors could not answer this question. According to a few senior staff members, Li Chang had disbanded the agency's old advertising department when he came aboard and had contracted out advertising to the Sichuan Xingjuren Advertising Company. The ad contract, "signed only by Li Chang," was termed a "humiliating surrender of sovereignty" because it stipulated that "all pages in the magazine could be occupied by ads." Science Fiction World staff said that the head of the ad company was "one of Li Chang's subordinates at Defense Times."

Li Chang feels aggrieved. He does not deny that the head of the ad company "is indeed a friend," but he claims that before he joined the magazine, "there were no ads. But now the ad company can bring in tens of thousands a month for the magazine agency."

However, the more dogged staff members were unsatisfied with this answer, and they worked out the numbers for the agency's periodicals. Using Science Fiction World as an example, "The March 2010 issue has eighteen full-page color ads, and five full-page black and white ads. At the standard rates the agency used to charge, the ad income would be 600,000 RMB." "Tens of thousands versus hundreds of thousands. Where did the difference go?" the staff members asked.

Li Chang did not reply to this figure, but he said that when the time came, he would show the reporter the original copy of the contract. "But now is not the time."

"They objected because their pages were taken over." Li believes that this is the main reason the editors objected to the ads.

Even though he has no editing experience at a speculative fiction magazine, in the eyes of employees, he seems to be very confident: "His catch-phrase is, 'No need for that. End of discussion'."

When asked for confirmation by the China Youth Daily reporter, Li Chang said, "Science Fiction World is just a magazine. Does everything need to be discussed from morning till night?"

Then he emphasized that he actually "had no patience for taking part in editorial meetings." But this did not prevent him from proposing all kinds of ideas that upset the editors, things like, "Let the Chinese-language editors write stories, let the foreign language editors translate, let art editors do paintings."

Even though Fly! ("Fantasy World"), another of the agency's magazines, was not the main focus of Li's reforms, it became a battleground for the war of ideas. Li asked the magazine to "use one quarter of the page count to run a selection of rejected stories," an idea that one editor rudely termed "bullshit." Ultimately, after a "lengthy fight" by the editors, this was changed to "selected excerpts." Unable to accept the leader's ideas about how to run a magazine, the editor decided to resign.

However, the group of SF editors could not imagine the "ridiculous things" that were in store.

"We started getting calls from readers saying that they had seen a new magazine from the Science Fiction World agency on newsstands." That was when the editors realized that the Science Fiction World brand may have been pirated. They poured their efforts into finding out just how many "unauthorized magazines" there were, and ultimately discovered that apart from the four main publications (Science Fiction World, Science Fiction World: Translations, Fly! and Newton Kid (小牛顿), there were five previously unheard of publications on the market that had "Editor in chief: Li Chang" and "Sponsored by the Science Fiction World magazine agency" on the masthead.

These magazines dealt with real estate, parenting, and education. Looking through them carefully, the editors discovered that the registration for the agency's monthly Business (商) magazine had been changed to three times a month, and in addition to the Sichuan Business (商•蜀商) partnership, there were two additional "illegal publications" using the same periodical license: Moment (商•瞬) and Price (商•成都买房). They suspected that Li Chang had privately rented out or sold off a periodical license belonging to the Science Fiction World agency.

If this suspicion panned out, it would be a serious violation of the State Regulations on Periodical Management. Article 36 reads, "Periodical publishers may not sell, rent out, or transfer their own name or the registration numbers, names, and pages belonging to the periodicals they publish."

Li Chang does not believe that this is a case of "one license, multiple publications." "We've been operating for a while. This method is not unique to me." Besides, he said, "Those magazines belong to us. Who would you put (as editor in chief) if not me?"

On the eighth day after the open letter was made public, the magazines involved in the controversy were sent to the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Press and Publication. This reporter then spoke to an official at the Bureau. He said, "True, I've never seen those publications before." But as for whether or not they were illegal, "there needs to be a further investigation," and he refused to give a timetable for that investigation.

This is not the only department investigating this affair. Li Dayong, the vice party secretary, director of human resources, and commissioner of discipline and inspection at SAST, was one of the officials who first looked into the matter. However, on the fifth day after the incident, his answer to a reporter's questions was still, "I don't know what business Li Chang is conducting in Taiwan, and I don't know when he'll be back."

The slow pace of the investigation has perplexed many editors and devoted readers.

< b>Pain amid commotion, suffocation amid depression

"Everything I do is for Science Fiction World." Li Chang persisted in his self-defense, saying that the editors' complaints made him feel put-upon. In fact, the quality and circulation of the magazine had not dropped dramatically over the past year. Editors and readers have acknowledged that its influence had begun to fall years ago.

In a "purely technical analysis" that someone performed, an investigation found that "every issue of Science Fiction World reaches four to six people," meaning that conservatively, "In the space of twenty years, the magazine has been read more than 230 million times throughout the country." With today's extremely rich reading options, it maintains a monthly circulation of 130,000 – although compared to its peak in 2001, it has declined 280,000 copies.

The "arrival of a layman director" is not the first trial that the magazine has endured in its 31-year history.

The magazine was fashionable for a time right after it was launched, but then in 1983, for "offending a high-ranking leader within the China Association for Science and Technology," it was slapped with the label "spiritual pollution." Seven years later,* then-editor-in-chief Yang Xiao applied to host an annual meeting of the World Science Fiction Society, but that society had been deemed a "peaceful evolution" organization.* After breaking through the obstructions of domestic public opinion, this slim woman traveled by train for seven days and nights from China to the Netherlands, where at the Worldcon in The Hague she beat out Poland for the right to host a World SF conference in 1991. The world knew at last that China "unexpectedly" had a science fiction magazine.*

In those difficult days, editors continued to hold an annual writers' conference to meet their authors. The second editor-in-chief, Tan Kai, recalls how he once waited overnight at the train station in the freezing cold to welcome two "writers I had never even heard of." Even so, four editors and seven or eight authors "crowded into the guest house to hold a writers' conference."

In 1997, Science Fiction World held an International Science Fiction Convention in Beijing, where Tan and his successor A Lai turned their room into "welcome center for SF fans" in which five or six fans "talked into the night and crowded together to sleep on the floor. And when morning came and they were hungry, they cleaned out the little fridge."

That convention hosted more than 20,000 fans. When the editorial department returned to Chengdu, "it was a tragic sight: director Yang Xiao with her tousled hair and shambling footsteps, and editor-in-chief Tan Kai's face looking as weathered as a rice vendor."

In May 2009, the magazine was to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, but the now-retired Tan Kai "heard no movement within the agency," and the annual writers' meeting had also run aground. The 66-year-old was anxious, so he bought a large cake to send to the agency offices. "I was very upset. Once you take something up it's hard to let go," he said.

Unlike the climate of excitement that surrounded the difficult times in the early days, the entire editorial department at Science Fiction World today is almost oppressively silent. "No one makes any suggestions, because the director will never approve them. It's depressing."

Outsiders have wondered whether this "mass eruption" was triggered by salary problems. Yet one of the editors who took part in the incident also made their own salary public and said, "After Director Li came to the agency, he cut some of the editing and manuscript fees, but at the same time he increased staff benefits, including vacation bonuses and year-end performance bonuses, so overall the editors' income is slightly more than what it was."

"We remain at this magazine because of our ideals. If it was just about the salary, we'd have left long ago," said one person who formerly worked in the ad department. After becoming an editor, "my salary was cut in half, to just 1,800 RMB." Here, it is not unusual for years to pass with no salary adjustment.

To those familiar with them, practically all of the people who write and edit science fiction are "not really materialists": "they will suffer all, so long as the magazine is not harmed."

At the moment, with the investigation still ongoing, no one can predict the outcome. "What happens if Li Chang doesn't leave?" someone asked. "Then we will," the editors said. "At any rate, freedom is not entirely without cost."

But this is practically "the last territory held by Chinese science fiction." SF Ocean (科幻海洋) folded in 2001; Dreamers (梦想者) in 2003; SFW Pictorial: Amazing Files (科幻世界画刊•惊奇档案) in 2004; Fantasy Studio (幻想) in 2005; World Science Fiction (世界科幻博览) in 2007; Nanye: Fantasy (幻想纵横) in 2008....between 2001 and 2008, at least 10 domestic speculative fiction magazines folded, all for "unknown" reasons, yet outsiders can hypothesize that most were due to "poor circulation and lack of funds." Today, King of Science Fiction (科幻大王), founded in 1994, still perseveres, but is limited to mail subscriptions, "and most science fiction fans have never even heard of it."

Will Science Fiction World become the next name on the "death list"? Speaking to the media, noted SF author Wang Jinkang was blunt: "This is plainly bureaucratism, outsiders leading the inside....if things continue, Science Fiction World is finished for sure."

A reader who grew up amid science fiction dreams gave this heartfelt statement: "To me, Science Fiction World is not just a local periodical. It is a precious place in the cold reality of a world of bitter struggles where I and countless others like me are able to let our dreams fly. Take whatever you can get. But....leave science fiction for science fiction."


Notes

  1. In the afternoon of March 31, the beginning of this paragraph was amended to: "During its most difficult time, Science Fiction World was sustained by just four editors. In 1990..." Apparently the anti spiritual pollution campaign is still a sensitive subject for the mainland media. Science fiction writer and biographer Ye Yonglie has written a lengthy account of the problems Chinese SF faced in the early 80s in The Truth About Cinderella (是是非非“灰姑娘”, 2000). A copy of the article as originally printed in China Youth Daily can be found on Han Song's blog.
  2. "Peaceful evolution" toward capitalism was considered contrary to the socialist road. This clause has been deleted from the China Youth Daily article.
  3. Somewhat ironically, the discovery of Science Fiction World meant that the following year, the WSF would address the issue of whether to take legal action against the magazine for trademark infringement. According to the minutes of that year's business meeting, "5.5 SF World: The Committee plans to take no action concerning 'SF World', a magazine published in China.

On Douban, SF fan and proprietor of the aspiring semi-prozine New Realm F&SF (新幻界) Sanfeng posted some notes on the background of the China Youth Daily article:

The Story Behind "Defend Science Fiction World"

by Sanfeng / Douban

The Science Fiction World incident has been going on for more than a week. In the week after the outbreak, attention was driven to a peak by mainstream media competing to report on the situation. However, as time has gone on with no new developments, reports have become less frequent, and there has been a clear decline in attention from the media and from ordinary readers. It seems as if only the editors and a core group of SF fans are still standing firm. Is the situation to trail off in silence, unresolved?

Fortunately, on March 31, the China Youth Daily's Freezing Point supplement published a report, "Defend Science Fiction World." This report was eye-catching for its in-depth interviews, broad range of perspectives, objective viewpoint, and comprehensive, accurate reference material, and it not only encouraged SF fans, but boosted interest in the situation online as well. Through the time of this post, there are 227 and 614 search results for "Defend Science Fiction World" (守卫科幻世界)*, so it seems as if the report is gradually sending ripples across the still surface of the lake.

I'd like to share with you a few things I've learned about the background of the report. It may be a little jumbled, but I guarantee that it is all interesting:

1. Freezing Point is a prestigious commentary section of the China Youth Daily. The decision to send a reporter to do an in-depth report on Science Fiction World was made by Freezing Point deputy general editor Xu Baike (徐百柯). Xu should not be a stranger to old SF fans, and fans of Hitchhiker in particular. Xu has been confirmed to be the translator of the first two volumes of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As someone from Chengdu who has loved SF since childhood, he holds a deep affection for Chengdu's Science Fiction World.

2. The reporter Zhao Hanmo is not a SF fan. The most she read during secondary school was Aomi Pictorial (奥秘, a popular science magazine). After she received the assignment, she reported the story as a non-SF fan journalist. For the report, Zhao went to Chengdu to conduct multiple interviews and did extensive work collecting background material. One editor at the Science Fiction World magazine agency exclaimed, "The journalist from CYD really took things seriously."

3. To get a response from director Li's side, Zhao waited in Chengdu until Li had returned from Taiwan and then asked him repeated questions in the hopes of obtaining some feedback. Finally, after a period of silence, Li gave halting answers to a few of her questions. As the first reporter who was able to speak to Director Li, her report had an additional perspective that previous reports had lacked.

4. Zhao also spoke to Xiao Ji and myself as representatives of SF fandom. Although the content of our conversations was not published because of space limitations, she said that the two of us had been an immense help to her. Even though I was not quoted, the information I provided enriched the report, and for that I am pleased. :)

5. During the course of her talks with editors and fans, Zhao got a sense of their profound affection for science fiction. She said, "I was impressed by how pure, so pure, the SF fans and editors felt....the line 'leave science fiction for science fiction' deeply impressed me." In her first draft she let more of her own feelings show through, but Xu, as editor, felt that the piece was insufficiently objective and factually inadequate, so she made adjustments. The piece you were able to read is the second draft.

6. Han Song immediately reposted the article to his blog. Known for being demanding about news reporting, he gave the article full marks. Xiao Ji said, "This is the best report I have seen to date."


Note: The source of these numbers is unclear from the text; perhaps they are from Baidu and Google searches, respectively.

 
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