The Three-Body Problem, by the Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, is about as far out of my literary comfort zone as it’s possible to get. Alien invasions and virtual reality computer games underpinned by theoretical physics and quantum mechanics do not often feature in Jane Austen or Hilary Mantel. But when a friend gave me a copy of the book, I was gripped. It is a fantastical story that gives a fascinating insight into the clash of civilisations between China and the West.
Liu’s novel — the first part of a trilogy — is based on an apocalyptic struggle for supremacy between two rival powers. Earth is under threat from Trisolaris, an unstable distant planet in a solar system that has three suns. The Trisolarans are much more scientifically advanced but the humans have greater ingenuity. There is subterfuge, espionage and moral ambiguity on both sides. The key thing is that this war of the worlds has technology as the new frontier. As Liu writes: “To effectively contain a civilisation’s development and disarm it across such a long span of time, there is only one way: kill its science.”
With rows raging on both sides of the Atlantic about TikTok and Huawei, and Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, describing Chinese state-backed technology companies as “Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence”, the message could not be more relevant.
The Three-Body trilogy has been translated into 26 languages and sold more than nine million copies worldwide. Barack Obama is a fan, Mark Zuckerberg has recommended the books to his millions of Facebook followers and, at Westminster, MPs are amazed by the contemporary resonances. For decades, science fiction was frowned on by the Chinese Communist Party for “promoting decadent capitalist elements” but Liu’s global success has become a source of national pride in Beijing. In 2015 Li Yuanchao, then vice-president, invited him to the party’s headquarters to discuss the books and showed the author his own densely annotated copies. Liu has also been asked to address engineers in China’s aerospace agency about using “sci-fi thinking” to solve problems.
Like HG Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, which was in part a commentary on British imperialism, Liu’s novels are an exploration of the 21st-century fight to control the future. Although he insists his fiction is not political, he writes in the postscript to the English translation: “I cannot escape and leave behind my reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow.” When the book was published in the US in 2014, he told The New York Times: “China is on the path of rapid modernisation and progress, kind of like the US during the golden age of science fiction in the Thirties and the Sixties.”
There is talk of a new Cold War, but the geopolitical rivalry is less an ideological clash between capitalism and communism than a power struggle with innovation at its heart. “Great scientific and technological capacity is a must for China to be strong,” Xi Jinping told his people in 2016 and he has certainly acted on his words. To begin with, China was seen as the underdog that was determined to catch up with the West; now the roles have been reversed and it is the West that is being left behind on the silicon Silk Road. China has around 70 per cent of the global drone market, dominates 5G communication and is ploughing huge state resources into artificial intelligence, robotics and other emerging technologies.
During the Covid crisis, patients in Wuhan were treated by robots that delivered food and medicine around the wards. Last year China became the first country to successfully land a discovery probe on the dark side of the moon. A Chinese company has even used 3D printing to create a ten-house village in a day. With no need to worry about human rights or individual privacy, Beijing has a huge inbuilt commercial advantage and none of the moral constraints of its liberal democratic rivals.
According to the former Tory defence minister Tobias Ellwood, China already controls around a quarter of the world’s data at a time when “data has taken over from oil” as the most important commodity. “The modern battlefield is in cyberspace, and the targets are critical infrastructure, intelligence, data theft, subversive tactics and misinformation,” he says. “We must quickly adapt to the fast-evolving character of conflict and not simply be reactionary to singular events as they occur.”
So far that hasn’t happened. In 1991, the first year for which Chinese data is available, China spent $9.2 billion on research and development, while the UK spent $18.4 billion and the US $161.4 billion. In 2018, the most recent year with complete data, China spent $554.3 billion, the UK $53.1 billion and the US $581.6 billion. Most experts think that China is investing more than the US in science and technology and it has gone from spending half what the UK did to ten times more. In 2017 there were 1.74 million researchers in China, 1.43 million in the US and 290,000 in the UK. By 2018 the number in China had risen to 1.87 million.
Downing Street has promised to increase research funding but the Tory MP Neil O’Brien, founder of the China Research Group, warns that the West is in danger of being left behind, with potentially dire implications for jobs and living standards. “In the old Cold War western countries thought a lot about technology, most notably in the space race, but since then it’s largely been left to companies,” he says. “In China, the state is effectively acting as a giant venture capital fund. It’s all about dominating the industries of the future. And China is going about it in a very aggressive way, with hacking and industrial espionage, coercive joint ventures, as well as tech acquisition and home-grown innovation.”
In a recent speech, Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, said his bureau was opening a China-related counterintelligence case every ten hours. There was a “generational fight” by the Chinese government “to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership but not through legitimate innovation [or] fair and lawful competition,” he said. “Instead, they’ve shown that they’re willing to steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”
In the Three-Body trilogy, the ends always justify the means and idealism is fatal. “In a time of war we can’t afford to be too scrupulous,” one general says. Last year, Liu received an award in Washington. He made a point of reading his acceptance speech in English. “China is a futuristic country,” he told his attentive audience. “I realised that the world around me became more and more like science fiction and this process is speeding up.”
Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist at The Times. She started writing about politics in 1996 and was a lobby correspondent on The Daily Telegraph before becoming political editor of The Independent on Sunday. She joined The Times in 2008.