by Chen Qiufan
A Chinese science fiction writer goes to Burning Man.
Translated by Julian Gewirtz and Wenbin Gao.
Every year at the end of August, the Nevada desert, with its dense, corrosive, dusty air, welcomes tens of thousands of pilgrims who call themselves “burners.” They come in house cars, peculiar floats, or private jets to this “Black Rock City,” which only exists for nine days. They build hundreds of art installations, attend sexy dance parties with roaring music all night long, and take part in more than one thousand activities—from yoga and meditation to S&M and orgies to artificial intelligence (AI) exhibitions. There is no commerce here. All you can get with money is ice and coffee. Everything else must be gotten for free or shared voluntarily. A hug or a song can be payment for bread and alcohol.
This is the legendary Burning Man Festival, a utopian gathering centered around performance art. The theme for 2018 came from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi collection I, Robot, published in 1950. The choice of the novel, which discusses the various moral issues between robot and man, seems to be responding to the current worldwide fervor for AI.
Perhaps it was this theme that attracted a large group of tech entrepreneurs and investors from China. The media has reported that Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have all been seen in the playa of the Burning Man Festival, and these figures are revered by Chinese tech entrepreneurs as the heroes of the present era. Some participants from prior years even attributed the success of their projects to the inspirational power of Burning Man. Admittedly, this neat combination of worshipping totems while pursuing practical benefits is quintessentially Chinese.
This year, I also came here with a group of friends from all over the world and became a “virgin burner.” I had already learned about the so-called Ten Principles of Burning Man—but experiencing firsthand this miraculous feeling of order emerging from chaos proved to be remarkably different from the Chinese social experience of myriad rules and stringent controls. I had to spend several days slowly assimilating before I could savor the joy of this so-called “techno-hippie orgy.”
I couldn’t help but feel curious about those Chinese entrepreneurs and investors who came in private jets from thousands of miles away. There was an entrepreneur training camp organized by the internet giant T———, and seventy startup owners were brought over by their investor, a leading Chinese venture capital company, M———. They hired a company to outsource their experience; this company set up expensive air-conditioned space-capsule tents and prepared large amounts of food, drinking water, and alcohol. One camp even had karaoke. But in the first four days, these luxuries, which were too high-end for traditional burners, sat untouched. Those Chinese guests only arrived, belatedly, on the fourth day. I heard that the most expensive slot for this camp cost $20,000, whereas a regular ticket for the Burning Man Festival cost only $425.
Of course, this sort of privilege and consumerism, which runs against the ideals of Burning Man, can also be found among Silicon Valley elites, and have been harshly criticized. But the difference was this: the majority of these Chinese burners seemed to know little about the festival and had no intention of trying to understand and respect the Burning Man spirit. They either saw the festival as an exotic, lawless place, or as just another holiday getaway for business-related socializing. They brought certain habits with them from the outside world, and especially habits from China.
So we witnessed the following scenes: most people lay in air-conditioned tents, drinking cold beverages and fiddling with their smartphones (though there was no signal); many used their senior executive titles when they introduced themselves; some took photos of other people’s nude bodies without consent; there was verbal or physical harassment of burners of the opposite sex, often occurring in the form of “inviting” them to the orgy dome; some were unwilling to share food and even called other burners fuwuyuan, or “waiter”; others refused to take part in collective work and set up individual entrepreneur training classes in the camps; and there were also people littering and spitting everywhere.
However, there was another group of Chinese burners, mostly millennials—artists, documentary directors, feminist activists, and Burning Man enthusiasts—who tried to communicate to the rest of the Chinese burners the principles of the Burning Man Festival: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. But they didn’t have much success.
Looking at these tech elites who represent the new era of a rising China, I felt as if I were seeing something much larger played out in miniature. And I was forcefully reminded of several recent events that have sparked heated debates in China.
On August 7, 2018, the founder and CEO of the Chinese search giant Baidu, Li Yanhong (also known as Robin Li), commented in a WeChat post about Google’s possible return to the Chinese market: “If Google decides to come back to China, we are highly confident that we will take them on again, and win again.” This comment triggered a vehement backlash online, with tens of thousands of people expressing discontent about the quality of Baidu's search results, especially about the deceptive ads that it promotes.
Two years ago, a college student named Wei Zexi died as a result of delayed treatment caused by the so-called “Putian Medical Group,” which posted misleading ads for an ineffective form of cancer immunotherapy that were then promoted in Baidu’s search results. In the two months after this incident, the stock value of Baidu plummeted by over 15 percent, but even today fake medical ads still appear in Baidu Search, waiting to swindle users once more.
On August 25, 2018, a twenty-five-year-old girl from Zhejiang was raped and killed by a car driver after she had used Didi Hitch (an app similar to Uber Pool or Lyft Line). Public opinion was especially incensed because this was the second instance of rape and murder on the Didi platform within the span of one hundred days. Didi is the biggest online car-hailing service provider in China, yet its product design, driver screening, and customer service all still had serious security vulnerabilities that had gone unresolved. Furthermore, a former executive was discovered to have said that Didi Hitch was designed to be a “sexy” social platform—“like a coffee shop, or a bar, a private car can become a half-open, half-private social space. It’s a very sexy application scenario”—which further fanned the outrage. Didi eventually decided to suspend and reorganize Didi Hitch in an effort to address the problem, but it could not stop users from uninstalling and boycotting the app anyway.
The third piece of explosive news happened during the Burning Man Festival. Liu Qiangdong, also known as Richard Liu, the founder of the online retailing giant JD.com, which has a stock market value of 310 billion RMB, was embroiled in a sexual assault scandal following a night of lavish eating and drinking at a Japanese restaurant in Minnesota. As a result, from August 31 to September 7, 2018, JD.com’s share price plummeted from $31.30 to $26.95 and the company’s market value evaporated by 43 billion RMB. Although the scandal was unrelated to the services of the company, it nonetheless gave rise to carnivalesque visions of the lifestyles of Chinese tech entrepreneurs as well as a significant critique of this nouveau riche class.
In the past twenty years, the Chinese tech industry has experienced explosive growth. Terms like langxing (“wolf instinct,” as in The Wolf of Wall Street), yeman shengzhang (“savage growth,” as in, “That was savage, man!”) and jiangwei gongji (meaning a blow so powerful that it flattens your opponent from three dimensions to two dimensions, from the famous sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem) have become popular among Chinese tech entrepreneurs. They act as the first generation of pioneers journeying into the virtual New World. They imagine themselves as packs of wolves in the Mongolian plains who can only survive and emerge victorious through bloody combat, incessantly stalking new territory and prey.
Objectively speaking, China’s technology companies have indeed greatly promoted technological progress in China and even around the world. According to an unpublished report by the China Development Research Center, from 1995 to 2015 nearly 80 percent of Chinese R&D expenditure came from private tech companies rather than the government, a percentage significantly higher than in developed countries such as the US, the UK, and France, where it hovers around 50 to 60 percent. In most Chinese cities, cash is seldom used, since in everyday life most consumers use mobile payment apps through their smartphones. Even street peddlers selling roasted sweet potatoes hang a card with a QR code to scan for payment. Concepts like AI, virtual reality, blockchain, and genetic editing have become deeply rooted in the public consciousness through relentless coverage in the media. Chinese people love technology, trust technology, and rely on technology. While fully (or even excessively) enjoying the convenience brought by technology, they have consciously or unconsciously forgotten about its possible negative impacts, such as infringements upon personal privacy and being misled by inaccurate data.
Thousands of years ago, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi said, “One should master the external world rather than be mastered by it.” His was a sober reflection upon the power relationship between man and material civilization. But just as the traditional idea of gewu, the study of the essence of things, did not blossom into modern science, so too did the relationship between man and technology only enter Chinese people’s field of vision in the last forty years, after the start of “reform and opening up.” Important tasks like public oversight and institutional design according to the rule of law are poorly developed, and often have been done only in hasty reaction to the exponential growth of the tech industry over the last twenty years. This lack of supervision has resulted in the vast majority of Chinese tech companies falling behind with regard to the ethics of science and technology.
But Chinese tech companies are starting to pay the price for their immaturity now that the entire market has become saturated, and hundreds of millions of users have both more experience with technology and the opportunity to reflect on it. At the same time, the government is beginning to actively intervene via supervision and legislation, which has made life increasingly difficult for these companies. For instance, the stringent controls over online gaming (including restrictions on the number of regulatory approvals granted to games and limiting the time minors spend playing games) imposed in 2018 have indirectly cost Tencent a stunning 1.2 trillion HKD in market value.
Nevertheless, tech startups are still the hottest field. In our camp at the Burning Man Festival, there were two tech entrepreneurs, from Beijing and Hangzhou respectively, who tried to find inspiration from Burning Man to help them start new journeys. One, Mr. Miao, spoke only broken English but spent the day reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. At night, he went to electronic music parties and clumsily swung his limbs around trying to dance. Every day he discovered something new. “There is a kissing booth, and everyone can kiss strangers!” The digital platform he created was about to expand overseas into the North American market, and he was trying to find some kind of cultural affinity. The other, Mr. Yang, was an engineer from the hottest Chinese short-video platform. He imagined the Burning Man Festival as a giant TED talk but was often disappointed: “Those guys aren’t discussing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat—they just literally believe the Earth is one giant flat board!”
Although Mr. Miao and Mr. Yang might have been let down by the Burning Man Festival, I trust that this experience opened them up to new ways of thinking. Mr. Miao gradually came to accept the idea that people can walk around naked or make out with strangers if they are willing. Mr. Yang made friends with one neighbor who was sharing marijuana cookies and had a long conversation with another, who happened to be an IT engineer. I also met some founders of leading Chinese tech companies who thought more deeply about these issues after experiencing the festival. The founder of the search engine and internet company Sougou, Wang Xiaochuan, said, “In this utopian community, we can experience cultures or principles that have been discarded or distorted in the civilized world. If you take certain things back with you, they’ll make your daily life more creative and more powerful.”
During the final night, a huge nebulous wooden structure called Galaxia was burned in a spectacular fire at a place called the Temple. The tradition is that many burners put photos and objects representing deceased family members and friends together with words of remembrance into the Temple to be burned as commemoration.
People gathered around the soaring flames. We sat quietly in the desert, below the vast, starry sky, and we seemed to have returned to a time thousands of years ago, when primitive humans yearned to connect and communicate with the gods and the dead. We were no longer lonely.
Next to the flames someone shouted, “Thank you, Larry!” More people followed suit, shouting, and some people wiped tears from their eyes.
They were paying tribute to the founder of all this, Larry Harvey, who had just passed away that year. In 1998 he said in a speech, “This is the analog to cyberspace, but it’s different, because it’s not anonymous and it’s not vicarious like the internet can be. So it puts people in touch with one another . . . It turns out the world is changing fast and we’re teaching valuable survival skills out here, this is about radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.” And this is precisely what I felt over those eight days.
Then the camps and the art installations were removed. The house cars left. The desert returned to its original state, and the Milky Way reappeared in the night sky. Before departing, groups of burners voluntarily searched the sand for any trash left behind by human activity. Even a tiny shard of glass had to be found and taken away. Leaving no trace.
In the campsite where I was staying, which had become a sort of headquarters for all of the Chinese campers, a group of young people were having a heated discussion as they prepared to leave. They hoped to set up a screening mechanism next year, so that only true burners could be selected to attend. They also hoped to create art installations and campsites that would authentically represent Chinese culture so that all burners interested in China could partake and interact.
Consent. This word appeared repeatedly in their conversations. It represented a respect for others, for their communities and their cultures. Maybe Chinese tech entrepreneurs would remember this word every now and then, after they went back home. Maybe they would bring such respect to their future products and services so that technology can better serve everyone. Or maybe I am too optimistic.
Will I return next year? I ask myself.
I think I will return. The best way to change the future is to become a part of it. And I want to become a better Chinese burner.
Chen Qiufan is a Chinese science fiction writer and entrepreneur. His debut novel Waste Tide, translated by Ken Liu, will be published by Tor Books in the United States in spring 2019.