Why the Culture War Must END — Part 4: Exposing Western Culture to its Enemies

Robert B. Marks
9 min readDec 12, 2023

NOTE: This was originally intended to be a single article. However, as the word count grew ever higher, it became clear that it would need to be divided up into bite-sized chunks. So, there are five parts, and you can read the others here:

Part 1: The Death of Nuance

Part 2: Psychological Harm

Part 3: The Normalization of Bullying and Abuse

Part 5: Ending the Culture War

Western culture and classical liberalism have offered a great deal to the world. It was in the fires of the American and French Revolutions that ideas of equality and liberty took proper root. The idea that all people are created equal, that everybody should be equal before the law, and that nobody should be discriminated against based on their race, religion, sex, or sexuality is a Western one. The Western tradition of democracy not only requires leaders to serve the public, but holds them accountable with regular elections — they must not only convince the voters that they should be given a chance at governing, but every few years they must convince voters that they should continue to be allowed to govern.

Western media, across all genres, is built upon these values. Fighting against government corruption is a well worn trope, as is taking arms against tyranny and fighting social injustice. Part of the battle against American slavery prior to the Civil War was fought in fiction, with books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin using narrative to show readers the plight of slaves. It is subversive, and this makes it very dangerous to authoritarian regimes, which do not want the citizens they are oppressing to get “dangerous” ideas from the media they consume.

The end result is a culture war of a very different sort, with much higher stakes. One of the belligerents in this type of war is China, which uses the prospect of access to its large market to silence criticism against their genocide against the Uyghurs, their territorial ambitions towards Taiwan, their occupation of Tibet, and other human rights abuses. And, in 2023 we saw it play out over what was once a cornerstone of pop culture — Worldcon and the Hugo Awards.

As much as the Chinese government would love to be conflated with the Chinese people, they are not one and the same. The Chinese government is an authoritative regime that uses repression to control its population, many of whom are fleeing for countries such as Canada and the United States. Political dissidents are often “disappeared,” with some being murdered and harvested for organs. Homosexuality is not illegal, but heavily suppressed. This is not a regime that values diversity or the free expression of ideas, but when Worldcon came to China, it presented itself to the world as one that did, wrapping itself in the cloak of Worldcon’s legitimacy.

To understand how this happened, one must go back to the Puppy Wars and their aftermath. I have covered this before, but one aspect was left out of that coverage that is very relevant now — what the Sad Puppies had recognized was an unfortunate truth of Worldcon and the Hugos: that compared to the growth of the science fiction fandom community, they had been slowly withering for many, many years. On a good year, they would be lucky to break 2,000 members sending in their Hugo Award nominees, with some years, such as 2013, not even breaking 1,500 nominating ballots, and some, such as 2012, not even breaking 1,200. While these represented an improvement from years such as 2001, 2002, and 2003, all of which had under 800 nominating ballots, this was still far too small to be considered representative of a fanbase that usually packed over 130,000 attendees into San Diego Comicon. An influx of new, enthusiastic people who would carry the convention, and what was still regarded by many as one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, was needed just for both to maintain any relevance as they were carried forward into the future.

The Sad Puppies campaign had bringing in new blood as one of its goals, and between their efforts and the media firestorm that erupted out of them, it seemed to have some success. The number of nominating ballots for 2015 rose to 2,122. The year after the Puppy Wars saw this number almost double — fuelled by the attention created by the media coverage of the battle over the Hugo Awards, Worldcon received 4,032 nominating ballots. This represented a high point for nominating ballots — the numbers once again began to fall, dropping to 2,464 in 2017, 1,813 for 2018, 1,800 for 2019, and 1,584 nominating ballots for 2020.

It is within this drop-off and its aftermath that the Chinese bid to hold Worldcon in Chengdu, China emerged.

As many noted at the time, even if the bid had been initiated by Chinese science fiction fans, the Chinese government had to have been involved, if not outright organizing it. The vote to select the site at the 2021 Worldcon business meeting appeared to contain both ballot stuffing and even potential corruption — some 1,950 pre-convention ballots arrived in favour of Chengdu, giving it a massive lead over Winnipeg, Manitoba. Of these, 1,591 ballots had only an email address instead of the required mailing address, making them improper ballots that if disqualified would give the victory to Winnipeg. A non-binding motion to disqualify these ballots was passed, but this was then overruled by the convention chair. Chengdu won the bid.

As the convention drew near, the evidence that the Chinese government was the real organizing body mounted. The convention was abruptly relocated to a new and under-construction science fiction museum, the date postponed until construction could be completed. An industrial design development summit was folded into the convention. By the time the Chengdu Worldcon started, the government involvement was out in the open, with one spokesperson describing the convention as a “capitalistic initiative, coming top-down from the Chinese government.”

While several people (including myself) expected the Chinese government to use the convention to game the Hugo Awards, what happened was far more subtle, and far worse. Gaming the Hugo Awards would have been about controlling the present — China, however, was playing for the future.

At the convention, the Tianwen Program was announced — a program that “aims to discover new sci-fi talents and bolster the sector,” including an award for new writers called the Tianwen Awards, to be presented alongside the Hugo Awards every year going forward. While this sounds fine on its face, it is, in fact, a means for the Chinese government to control the future of science fiction media. On the Chinese side, the program is spearheaded by China Writers Association, which is not an independent or private organization — instead it is “people’s organization,” an organization that is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front, which has the specific goal of promoting “Beijing’s preferred global narrative, pressure individuals living in free and open societies to self-censor and avoid discussing issues unfavorable to the CCP, and harass or undermine groups critical of Beijing’s policies.” This places the Chinese Communist Party in the proverbial driver’s seat of upcoming science fiction, filtering new and upcoming authors science authors such that only those who support the goals of the CCP’s United Front are highlighted.

It also allows the CCP to use the Tianwen Program, and particularly the Tianwen Awards, to put pressure on Worldcon and the Hugo Awards to comply with CCP narratives and priorities. The CCP is now in a position to use keeping the Tianwen Awards attached to the Hugos as leverage to force the removal of authors and media that do not support CCP values from consideration, just as they have used access to their market to silence criticism in other areas of Western media.

However, what happened in the business meeting in amendments to the Worldcon constitution was arguably even worse. It was at the Chengdu Worldcon business meeting that the Chinese government arguably not only gained control of Worldcon-related conventions across all of Asia, but also made it possible to remove English language media from the Hugo Awards entirely.

The first to fall was language eligibility. For a very long time, the Hugo Awards have had a diversity problem — for eligibility, the nominees had to have been published in the English language, or translated into it that year. This cut out any media that had been published in a foreign language and not translated into English, even if the Worldcon was being held in a non-English speaking country. The solution to this is simple: open up the eligibility to all languages. However this was not the solution that was put in place. Instead, the eligibility was changed to works published in the main language of the host country’s Worldcon and the host country that had held the prior year’s Worldcon. This means that in order for English language literature to remain eligible for the Hugo Awards, Worldcon must be held in an English-speaking country at least every other year. This also means that all the Chinese government has to do to disqualify English-language media — with its tradition of subversion and battling corrupt governments and tyrants — is engineer Worldcon to take place in a non-English speaking country two years in a row. As the Chengdu Worldcon bid demonstrated, this is something they are quite capable of doing.

The second to fall was in regards to Worldcon-related conventions. Not every attendee can afford to travel around the world, and as such there was a North American Science Fiction Convention that could be held when Worldcon was being held farther afield. Two proposals for modifying this were presented. The majority proposal was to create Regional Science Fiction Conventions, allowing these to service multiple areas (so you could, for example, have one in India, one in Japan, etc.). This was, however, turned down in favour of a single Asia Science Fiction Convention that would cover the entirety of Asia and the Indian subcontinent. With the skill the CCP demonstrated in engineering the Chengdu Worldcon bid, this effectively gives them control of the location and nature of any Worldcon-related convention in the entirety of Asia.

In a very real way, with the Chengdu Worldcon, the amateur culture warriors of Worldcon had their first encounter with the professionals, and got trounced. China secured leverage over the Hugo Awards, control over new and upcoming Chinese (and perhaps even some foreign) science fiction authors and media, the ability to remove the entirety of subversive English-language media from award eligibility, and control over any Worldcon-related convention held in the entirety of Asia. As the Human Rights Foundation noted, the Chinese government also used Worldcon to “to launder its reputation, legitimize its genocide, and promote dubious research.” While there were some who objected, an open letter from authors and human rights organizations, as well as authors who boycotted the convention, it is quite possible that many of the Worldcon supporters never even realized they were in a battle before they had lost.

It did not have to be this way, however. The science fiction fandom is huge, and there was a group of fans who would have recognized the threat immediately and fought against it. They would have rallied support to prevent the Chinese government from stuffing the ballot box and buying the convention. If the Chinese government had succeeded in stuffing the ballot box, they would have pressed for changes to the Worldcon constitution to invalidate the bid and insert protections preventing the convention from being hosted by states engaged in genocide. But they weren’t there to help.

They weren’t there to help because they were the community of moderates and conservatives associated with the Sad Puppies. They had tried to join Worldcon under the promise that it was supposed to be for all of SF fandom in 2015, but then they were attacked, slandered, vilified, and the Worldcon clique elected to blow up entire award categories instead of even considering their selections. Even worse, the media joined the attacks, framing it as battle for the soul of science fiction. So, while the awards saw a brief influx of people from the publicity, their interest waned within a couple of years. The Dragon Awards were founded, and those fans disgusted with what had happened over the Hugos supported them instead. While the “Hugo defenders” congratulated themselves for fending off the “wrongfan” threat, they had left themselves open to an oppressive and genocidal authoritarian state. But when this foreign power made its move to capture the convention, Worldcon’s relevance had waned so far that even the complaints and protests saw little coverage. In the end, almost the only people who cared about it at all were the Chinese.

NEXT: Ending the Culture War



Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.