The Winter Olympics, which begin in Beijing today – the first day of spring in the Chinese lunar calendar – are usually more muted than the summer games. Even so, the contrast with 2008 is striking. Ninety-one nations are competing, of which fifteen are joining the US in a diplomatic boycott (or are not sending officials for unspecified reasons). Athletes are corralled in an Olympic bubble and ferried around in shuttle buses; Beijing’s residents have been instructed not to come to their aid in the event of a crash. Domestic ticket sales have been cancelled and the torch ceremony is an abbreviated three-day jog through Beijing. The measures are designed to achieve ‘zero-spread’ of Covid, but seem symbolic of the tightened, less outward-facing nation that China has become.
In 1902 Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was ‘as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time’. Not any more. The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin has sold 500,000 copies in China since the first volume was published in 2006 (it will come out in English in the autumn). Liu, an engineer, is one of the so-called ‘three generals’ of contemporary Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song.