When we first met, you were visiting Harvard in your professional capacity as an economics researcher. But you are probably better known to the general public as one of China’s most successful science fiction writers from the younger generation. Are these two pursuits, economics research and science fiction, separate for you, or do they have a connection?
I think about questions and problems in human societies. If the problems seem to have solutions, I write them into economic and policy research. If the problems seem to have no solutions, or there are dilemmas, ambiguities, and philosophical debates, I write them into stories. Economic research is more objective. Stories are richer and more emotional. They come from the same roots in my head, but turn into different outcomes. The forms don’t bother me much. I care more about the problems.
One such problem that your writing describes vividly is inequality—whether the temporal and spatial inequality of your story “Folding Beijing” or the interplanetary inequalities of “Invisible Planets.” China and the United States are both seriously unequal societies. Technological changes, especially increasing automation, seem likely to make this problem even worse. Do you think humans are powerless in the face of these shifts?
I think inequality is the most difficult issue to tackle. It is perhaps the most persistent phenomenon in all human societies in history, regardless of nation, race, or period. In China, we’ve seen the cycle of peace leading to prosperity, then leading to rising inequality, then leading to war several times over two thousand years of history. So I’m not surprised at all that inequality has risen from its postwar level to a historic high in all major countries in the world today. For large economies, perhaps only wars or revolutions can eliminate inequality. The technological changes that have taken place in recent years only exacerbate this problem. I think humans are perhaps powerless in the face of inequality, rather than powerless in the face of technological shifts. There will be various kinds of technological changes in the future, and people can handle them, but inequality will still persist.
Amid those technological changes, I’ve noticed that Western observers often describe contemporary China as a kind of real-life science fiction—a place where the future seems to have already arrived, whether it’s because of striking architecture in the cityscapes of big cities, huge investments in cutting-edge scientific research, or more advanced governance and surveillance technologies. Do you think this has some truth to it, or is it a kind of projection, a techno-Orientalism?
No, I don’t think China has become a frontier country with advanced technologies that represent the future—if this is what you mean by “real-life science fiction.” China has changed very fast in the past few years. That’s for sure. However, it has a long distance towards becoming the real global leader in science and technology. It devotes only a small amount of resources towards basic science research every year, which makes it rely completely on advanced countries for core technologies. A lot of investment projects in China are shortsighted and won’t turn out to bring long-term prosperity. I’d rather call today’s China “real-life magic-realism” than “real-life science fiction.”
Ha! I like that phrase. And your critique of “shortsighted” investment makes me think of your recent economic research examining the connections between the slowdown of the Chinese economy, industrial policy, and China’s path to becoming more innovative in the future. It’s certainly a timely set of challenges. How did you become interested in those questions, and what did you conclude?
As a researcher, my colleagues and I have been analyzing the slowdown of the Chinese economy for several years. We studied various indicators and aspects of the Chinese economy, and finally I felt that the slowdown of efficiency growth is much more important than people have suspected. If China cannot allocate its resources and plan its investment and innovation strategies properly, it will face the problem of continuously losing momentum in the future.
Although the Chinese government and venture capitalists in China also have noticed the importance of technology and innovation, their behaviors are still quite “shortsighted.” Government and VCs are keen to invest in products’ experimental development, rather than basic and applied science. Industrial policies and the systems for rewarding research also tend to promote the short-term growth of nominal research results (such as patent quantity) rather than true innovations (such as patent quality).
Since global value chains shortened after the 2008 financial crisis, it has not been easy for China to absorb foreign knowledge directly. Thus more emphasis on science research is important for China to develop into an innovative economy. The educational system also must be reformed to promote creativity among children, in order to foster the next generation of innovators.
What do you think the place of economic policy research in contemporary China should be? And a potentially related question: Do you think that economists—whether in the United States or in China—fully understand inequality?
I hope that economic policy research can give the government valuable suggestions to help policymakers carry out the right decisions. But sometimes policymakers have other considerations besides economic concerns, such as how to maintain political stability, gain power, beat other countries in certain ways, fulfill personal interests, and so on. These considerations might send the country on a harmful path affecting the whole economy.
I think the government understands the phenomenon of inequality, but maybe not the origin of it. In modern economies, where human capital formation has become the determinant of income inequality, it is important to guarantee everyone access to resources like education and training.
I want to return to what you said earlier about your view of fiction as a way of exploring ambiguities and problems that seem to have no solutions. Do you see your work as also seeking to inspire people to imagine alternative and perhaps even fairer futures?
Yes, I always hope to inspire people to imagine different futures, whether those futures are good or bad, bright or dark. Sometimes even if we can predict a dark future, it is still impossible to prevent that result. The more we think about different possibilities for the world, the deeper understanding we can have of the world.