Thursday, February 21, 2019

WONDERING ABOUT THE WANDERING EARTH



by Philip Cunningham
 
The Lunar New Year celebrations of 2019 saw twin space sensations, with China’s “Jade Rabbit” rover, “Yutu”, crawling about on the dark side of the moon while the action-packed science fiction film "The Wandering Earth" shook terrestrial box offices in Beijing and beyond. The timing seems propitious. Whether it be the Chang`e lander, artificial intelligence, or path-breaking satellite transmission using quantum entanglement, Chinese science, hard and soft, is certainly coming of age. With the rise of real science in the news, the market for science-tinged entertainment stands to benefit, reminiscent of the heyday of US space exploration and the genesis of space-based dramas such as Star Trek and Star Wars.

The prolific science fiction writer Liu Cixin, author of the award-winning novel “The Three-Body Problem,” is the inspiration for an impending boom in galactic-scaled films. Putting forward bold premises, the author takes the reader on a wild ride, whether through nudging earth out of orbit in search of a new sun, or the complex physics of climate change, three-body interactions, and alien technologies. The scenarios are provocative, and the physics borderline psychedelic.

The central conceit of “Wandering Earth” is that a sufficiently advanced China could survive the red dwarf blowout of the sun by using Earth itself as a giant ship. It’s nonsense, but high concept nonsense, and perfectly suited to be made into a film where special effects are a central element. There is a national slant in Liu’s vision of the future— in that China is the future, but the real cultural tell is the factional fighting reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. The tragedy is that even if earthlings remain rational, obedient and emotionless enough not to fight, quibble and clash, they will still find a way to screw things up.

The first Chinese writer to win the coveted Hugo Award for sci-fi, Liu Cixin has acknowledged his debt to Arthur C. Clark, Issac Asimov and others classic writers of the genre who dared to think on a galactic scale. The golden age of science fiction in the US, including the works of the above, along with Philip K Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein hark back to an age when the American public took big science and big questions seriously.

Several decades later, China is proving fertile ground for science fiction, stoking a hunger for scientific wonder at a time when China has invested heavily in technology and science. The rise of Chinese science fiction has been championed by Chinese-American author Ken Liu, who has translated Liu Cixin among others.

In 1961, the Soviet space program stunned the world by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, into space, and then by putting the first man in orbit, Yuri Gargarin. Feverishly playing catchup, NASA sent John Glenn around the planet three times in 1962, and with that the space race was on. Despite the ravages of political violence at home and an ill-considered war abroad, the US had sufficient material wealth, technological prowess and respect for science to reach for the moon. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface “in the name of all mankind” in July 1969, the Apollo program seemed like the beginning of a new era, but within three years, it was all over.

Liu is among the philosophically-minded science fiction authors who find in the vastness of space a frame of reference that illuminates the foibles and limits of the human soul. It’s a bracing perspective, explicitly and implicitly, because deep space makes nationalism look shallow in the cosmic scheme of things.

The US space race was bookended by such skeptical visions. Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” (1959-1964) asked searching questions about human nature while Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial “2001: A Space Odyssey” raised red-flags about artificial intelligence and robot-driven spaceships.

In the USSR, science fiction was one of the few realms that was relatively free of heavy-handed state control. Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” released in 1972, is a classic of the interstellar psychological genre, based on the 1961 novel by science fiction giant Stanislaw Lem. Another Russian film, “Through Brambles to the Stars” directed by Richard Viktorov in 1981, was considered ahead of its time as it imagined a cosmopolitan future featuring an actual actor of African descent rather than usual Soviet blackface.

American fans of science fiction have lamented a decline in genre, both in books and film, and, while the correlation may only be a loose one, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the best days of the US-manned space program are over. While it’s encouraging to see billionaires pick up some of the slack with commercially driven dreams of space exploration, it does not compare with the sense of national purpose when American scientists, boosted by the tax support of a thriving middle class, made the moon walk a reality.

A good argument can be made that the ball is in China's court now; it has the economic means and the engineering talent to conduct large scale science. If China’s penetration of space seems limited compared to the superlative short-lived efforts of the US and USSR, it’s the forward-looking trend that counts. Yang Liwei’s journey into space aboard the Shenzhou 5 in 2003 was just the opening move. Plans are being made for a space station, a manned lunar landing and a Mars mission. As enthusiasm for science wanes in the US and governmental programs are dismantled by dueling politicians, and Russia’s broken space program remains cash-strapped, there remains adequate ambition, focus and funding in China, offering the opportunity to serve the common good in the name of science.

The US program, shell-shocked by failures of NASA’s Space Shuttle and the rancor of domestic politics, is not even capable of launching its own astronauts into space. The so-called International Space Station, from which China was excluded by design, can only be reached through Russia’s aging Soyuz fleet. Yet, as Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron slyly suggests in “Gravity,” released in 2013, it is not improbable that China might one day be called upon to come to the rescue as the programs of the US and Russia languish and fall into disrepair.

As long as the nation state, alone or in concert, is the only unit capable of marshalling the money, manpower and knowledge necessary for big science, national chauvinism will be part of the mix, but writers can break the bonds of nationalism with paper and pen. The power of Liu Cixin’s work is in part due to inescapable conclusion that science transcends borders, even as humans lock themselves into familiar man-made groupings. Liu’s invocation of Cultural Revolution themes adds more than a touch of local color; it’s the age-old story of political madness hobbling human progress, two steps forward, one step back.

And that’s the crux of it, for if you consider how long it took for science to advance to this point, and how precarious things are now, it would be a great shame if retrograde politics and tribal madness were to dash the dream of reaching for the stars in the name of all mankind.

(published on February 13, 2019)

Friday, February 1, 2019

MONA LISA OR HELEN OF TROY?



(published January 31, 2019)
by Philip J Cunningham

Pictures of the photogenic Meng Wanzhou, the “professional face” of the Chinese electronics giant Huawei, after her surprise arrest in Vancouver bring to mind the ambiguous gaze of the Mona Lisa, conveying more bemused puzzlement than fear.

The US had just demanded that Canadian officials arrest China’s best-known female executive as she was changing planes in Vancouver en route to Latin America, and they complied, as per protocol.

Up until this point, all eyes were on the mysterious, fabulously wealthy woman who was only glimpsed but never given voice, adding to her enigma. It was a natural human-interest story laced with schadenfreude - the story of a smug jet-setter snatched by the long reach and long talons of unilaterally imposed US justice.
The Mona Lisa model is fitting for a case filled with ambiguity, but what if it explodes into something else? What would be truly fearful is if political bungling on the part of China and the US transforms Meng into a different kind of beauty - a modern-day Helen of Troy.

How much is China willing to sacrifice to get her back? How badly does the United States want her on US soil? The answers to these questions may determine whether her extradition on the criminal charge of evading sanctions will provoke two uneasy rivals to become enmeshed in Cold War style clashes, or even hot war.

Indeed, the arrest has not only shaken up Huawei, it has shaken confidence in the ability of the US and China to settle the differences between them in a civil and constructive manner. It bodes ill for trade and avoiding a trade war.

Meng's extreme wealth is inescapably part of the optics, but so is her gentle appearance and her gender. How many women make it to the top of powerful corporations? How many rich Wall Street executives were arrested in the wake of the financial wrongdoing that almost tanked the US economy in 2008?

For the US government to win hearts and minds, it wouldn’t do to have media focus on an attractive image of Meng Wanzhou as a person, so the story had to be shifted to the impersonal corporate giant Huawei, of which she is a captive representative. The Trump administration and various security pundits in the US defended the arrest and, as if on cue, a cottage industry of anti-Huawei stories emerged overnight.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted that Huawei is “a Communist Party spy agency thinly veiled as a telecom company” as reported in Politico, while Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said it’s clear that “Huawei and ZTE are a threat to national security.”

Some press outlets took cues from government sources, while others just followed the drumbeat, because all of a sudden, for the herd-minded in the media, saying bad things about Huawei was the thing to do.

The message was simple: Huawei cheats and spies, Huawei must be stopped. Even the Gray Lady had Huawei firmly in her sights. The New York Times ran articles on Huawei’s “wolf culture”, sanctions fraud, and a questionable charm offensive in Europe. Huawei took a concerted beating throughout the mainstream press and in the airwaves.

The shock of the arrest and the media pile-on, in the midst of a messy trade war, apparently stoked Beijing’s anger, which lashed out in an uncharacteristic way. Going against its usual practice of seeking to resolve sensitive disputes behind closed doors, the outsized and incendiary nature of Beijing’s public outrage actually began to lend credence to the possibility that Meng was in fact doing work for government agencies and that Huawei was in fact working in service of China’s cybersecurity commissars. To be fair, it’s not unknown for US tech companies to work with the US government, which is why a shudder of fear went through Silicon Valley firms doing business in China.

But Beijing dropped a stone on its own foot when it started taking Canadians in China into custody, first one, then another, and yet another still. It had the appearance of hostage-taking, redolent of a war without mercy. If the individuals in question were kidnapped as political pawns, it is as shameful as it is appalling.

The apparent hostage-taking was followed by the cruel and unusual verdict of a death sentence for a Canadian who was appealing a stiff sentence for a drug charge. This marked the darkest phase of the dispute to date. While it is theoretically possible that China’s unseemly crackdown on Canadians was coincidental rather than strict tit-for-tat, careless babble by Chinese diplomats and self-incriminating media commentary suggest that Canadians were singled out intentionally, as China legal scholar Donald Clark convincingly argues in the Washington Post.

The other high-heeled shoe fell when, in the face of retaliatory threats from Beijing, the US complacently asserted its right to press for formal extradition. The chance for a face-saving resolution came and went. If the US had taken no further action, the writ for Meng’s detention would have expired at month’s end, and the crisis would have been alleviated.

Ambassador John McCallum, Ottawa’s envoy to Beijing then suggested in some offhand comments that extradition was neither desirable nor a sure thing. McCallum, a seasoned politician who used to represent a large Chinese constituency in parliament, freely spoke his mind over dim sum with a reporter eager for a scoop. His wistful comments, along the lines of extradition not being a done deal, and ‘wouldn’t it be nice to drop the whole thing,’ were reported. Soon, anti-China hardliners on both sides of the 49th parallel were up in arms, aghast at the subversively soft stance. His conciliatory comments suggested there existed a crack of daylight between the US and Canadian positions, and for that he got fired.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton, a bellicose hawk on both Iran and China, and one of the architects of the whole intrigue, framed the Huawei dispute and the trade war in shallow, opportunistic rhetoric, telling the Washington Times that China is converting its wealth into military capability, so economic warfare is part of the game.

If the US is selectively humiliating Huawei, the world’s second largest maker of mobile phones, precisely because it is an awesome economic rival, it represents a new low for US diplomacy and raises the question about the legality of the Meng Wanzhou arrest in the first place.
Citing Edward Snowden’s revelation that the NSA had infiltrated Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen, a David Sanger report in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New York Times makes a belated concession to the Chinese side of the story:
“The Americans were trying to do to Huawei the exact thing they are now worried Huawei will do to the United States.”

This remarkably concise summation of the case underscores a US policy stance that is not only hypocritical, but hypocritical based on a hypothetical, since it suggests that Huawei has yet to do what the US is already doing.
If so, Huawei is under the gun for a future crime that it has not yet committed.

Tensions brew unabated. If the enigmatic face of Huawei should launch a thousand ships, let it be air cargo and freighters carrying mobile phones, not missile-carrying jets and destroyers.


(first published as A Face to Launch a Thousand Ships in China-US Focus)