The Legislative Body Problem: GOP Senators Criticize Netflix Plan to Adapt Liu Cixin Hugo-Winner

Liu Cixin

Five Republican senators sent a letter to Netflix challenging the company’s plans to produce a series based on Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem because the author, in a 2019 New Yorker interview, defended Chinese repression against the Uighurs.

The letter to Netflix is signed by Martha McSally (R., Ariz.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Rick Scott (Fla.), Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.), and Thom Tillis (R., N.C.). The Republican members “ask Netflix to seriously reconsider the implications of providing a platform to Mr. Liu in producing this project” due to Liu Cixin’s 2019 comments, and pose the question, “Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?”

The full text of the Senators’ letter says:

We write today with questions regarding a decision by Netflix to adapt and promote “The Three-Body Problem” by Mr. Liu Cixin as a live-action series on your network.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is committing atrocities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), also known as East Turkistan to locals, including mass imprisonment, forced labor, thought transformation in order to denounce religion and culture, involuntary medical testing, and forced sterilization and abortion. These crimes are committed systemically and at a scale which may warrant a distinction of genocide. Sadly, a number of U.S. companies continue to either actively or tacitly allow the normalization of, or apologism for, these crimes. The decision to produce an adaptation of Mr. Liu’s work can be viewed as such normalization.

In an interview with the New Yorker last summer, when asked about the ongoing atrocities in XUAR, Mr. Liu parroted CCP talking points accusing all Uyghurs of being terrorists, then stating, “If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty…If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.” When the interviewer draws similarities to Mr. Liu’s trilogy, in which Australia’s population is enslaved and find that they prefer totalitarianism to democracy, Liu implies that she has been brainwashed by the West and that she, “with [her] inflexible sense of morality, was the alien.”

While Congress seriously considers the systemic crimes carried out against the Uyghurs, we have significant concerns with Netflix’s decision to do business with an individual who is parroting dangerous CCP propaganda. In the face of such atrocities in XUAR, there no longer exist corporate decisions of complacency, only complicity.

In light of these concerns, we respectfully request answers to the following questions:

1. Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?

2. Were Netflix senior executives aware of the statements made by Mr. Liu Cixin regarding the CCP’s genocidal acts prior to entering into an agreement to adapt his work? If so, please outline the reasoning that led Netflix to move forward with this project. If not, please describe Netflix’s standard process of due diligence and the gaps therein that led to this oversight.

3. Does Netflix have a policy regarding entering into contracts with public-facing individuals who, either publically or privately, promote principles inconsistent with Netflix’s company culture and principles? If so, please outline this policy. If not, please explain why not.

4. In order to avoid any further glorification of the CCP’s actions against the Uyghurs, or validation of the Chinese regime and agencies responsible for such acts, what steps will Netflix take to cast a critical eye on this project – to include the company’s broader relationship with Mr. Liu?

Netflix’s company culture statement asserts that “Entertainment, like friendship, is a fundamental human need; it changes how we feel and gives us common ground.” This statement is a beautiful summary of the value of the American entertainment industry, which possesses innovation largely unmatched in the global market. We ask Netflix to seriously reconsider the implications of providing a platform to Mr. Liu in producing this project.

We appreciate your swift and detailed response to these inquiries.

The opening novel of a trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, for which Liu became the first writer in Asia to win the Hugo Award in 2015, is set during the Cultural Revolution when humans establish contact with an alien civilization on the edge of extinction. After the aliens invade earth, humans split off into two camps: one in favor of takeover by the superior aliens and the other determined to resist.

The controversial passage of the June 2019 New Yorker interview, “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds”, says this:

…When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs—around a million are now in reëducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang—he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”

I looked at him, studying his face. He blinked, and continued, “If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.” I remembered a moment near the end of the trilogy, when the Trisolarans, preparing to inhabit Earth, have interned the whole of humanity in Australia:

“The society of resettled populations transformed in profound ways. People realized that, on this crowded, hungry continent, democracy was more terrifying than despotism. Everyone yearned for order and a strong government. . . . Gradually, the society of the resettled succumbed to the seduction of totalitarianism, like the surface of a lake caught in a cold spell.”

Liu closed his eyes for a long moment and then said quietly, “This is why I don’t like to talk about subjects like this. The truth is you don’t really—I mean, can’t truly—understand.” He gestured around him. “You’ve lived here, in the U.S., for, what, going on three decades?” The implication was clear: years in the West had brainwashed me. In that moment, in Liu’s mind, I, with my inflexible sense of morality, was the alien.

And so, Liu explained to me, the existing regime made the most sense for today’s China, because to change it would be to invite chaos. “If China were to transform into a democracy, it would be hell on earth,” he said. “I would evacuate tomorrow, to the United States or Europe or—I don’t know.” The irony that the countries he was proposing were democracies seemed to escape his notice. He went on, “Here’s the truth: if you were to become the President of China tomorrow, you would find that you had no other choice than to do exactly as he has done.”

It was an opinion entirely consistent with his systems-level view of human societies, just as mine reflected a belief in democracy and individualism as principles to be upheld regardless of outcomes. I was reminded of something he wrote in his afterword to the English edition of “The Three-Body Problem”: “I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.”

37 thoughts on “The Legislative Body Problem: GOP Senators Criticize Netflix Plan to Adapt Liu Cixin Hugo-Winner

  1. SIGH
    I’m at a loss for words. The idea that Republicans now express thoughts of concern over how the Chinese government is treating Uighurs makes me wonder what universe I’m in!

  2. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the GOP is so concerned about Chinese oppression of the Uighurs.

    Trump held off sanctioning Chinese over Uighurs to pursue trade deal

    The president’s comments were made in an interview last Friday, which was then published by the US news website on Sunday.

    Axios says that when Mr Trump was asked why he had held off imposing further sanctions on Communist Party officials over the issue of the camps, he said: “Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal.

    Gimme a break. Trump can’t put human rights ahead of his trade deal, but it’s an unspeakable outrage that Netflix follows his lead.

    I mean, I’d like to see Liu speak out against this, but he’d be risking a lot more than Republicans who dare not speak out against Trump lest he tell his supporters to vote for the Democrat instead. Or to stay home and not vote.

  3. Yeah, there’s more than a bit of hypocrisy going on here.

    I don’t think a Netflix adapatation is a good idea, but that’s because I thought the book was not well-written.

  4. I think it’s within the realm of possibility that it’s one of those books that would be improved by a competently made screen adaptation.

    But I won’t be placing any bets on that.

  5. I’m surprised by this interview given the extended description of a Cultural Revolution era reeducation camp in the book. I wish the the interviewer had asked him why he thought today’s camps were different from those camps.

  6. @Lis — It’s hard to tell what you think about this other than you have contempt for Republicans. Were the senators wrong? Should Netflix give a platform to an apologist for the Chinese policies on Uighurs? Or should Trump have deliberately antagonized China in the midst of trade negotiations? Recall that he did sign the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020”, authorizing sanctions on China, just before the article you linked.

    Trump has been far more confrontational with China (see Taiwan, Navy operations near the Spratley Island and other “disputed” territories, tariffs, intellectual property, closing the Chinese consulate in Houston, embargo on Huawei equipment, cracking down on academics and universities for accepting unreported Chinese funds, etc.) than the Democrats were when they were in power. What did Obama do on behalf of the Uighurs?

  7. I think the next step is for these five Senators, and the Pres, to understand what’s involved, is to read the book. (And submit to a 10 minute proctors oral quiz, to make sure they didn’t skim or just falsely claim to have read it.)

  8. Daniel Dern: I think the next step is for these five Senators, and the Pres, to understand what’s involved, is to read the book.

    If they did, I believe they’d find the book’s ‘Dark Forest’ (if I’m remembering the term correctly) mindset to be more or less in line with their own. America First, and all that, along with its implication that everyone else is out to get you.
    I think that Liu’ books were masterpieces, but he wrote them from a very pessimistic viewpoint. And the justification of locking up great numbers of Uyghurs because a tiny, tiny fraction commit acts of terrorism is just B.S.

  9. My suggestion is: Go ahead and let Netflix sink a fortune into the screen adaptation–and then laugh loudly at them when the thing flops miserably due to boycotts, leaving them with egg all over their faces and red ink all over their balance sheets.

  10. I have read all three novels. They are epic. Yes, the author is Chinese. I don’t remember being offended by the novels. I doubt if Netflix can do it justice but the GOP worrying about human rights seems to be unevenly applied.

  11. Jeanne (Sourdough) Jackson says My suggestion is: Go ahead and let Netflix sink a fortune into the screen adaptation–and then laugh loudly at them when the thing flops miserably due to boycotts, leaving them with egg all over their faces and red ink all over their balance sheets.

    First I seriously doubt the average Netflix viewer will give a damn about a possible boycott over this film. Or probably even know there is one if it happens.

    Second given the size of Netflix today it’d take millions decided to drop it over this issue to make them red ink over their balance sheets.

    Third I doubt that anyone at Netflix will be concerned about egg over their face given a boycott will neither impact their bottom line nor effect them in the court of public opinion.

  12. @bill–

    @Lis — It’s hard to tell what you think about this other than you have contempt for Republicans. Were the senators wrong? Should Netflix give a platform to an apologist for the Chinese policies on Uighurs? Or should Trump have deliberately antagonized China in the midst of trade negotiations? Recall that he did sign the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020”, authorizing sanctions on China, just before the article you linked.

    What I have contempt for is the hypocrisy.

    Trump always claims to be The Toughest on everything, but he’s very selective in his “toughness.” His “toughness” on China has alternated between the same kind of belligerance he initially showed to North Korea, and praising Xi, as he has praised Kim Jong Un, for being a dictator. Added to this is Ivanka getting lots of Chinese trademarks for no apparent reason (she’s a “presidential advisor,” and isn’t supposed to be doing private business like this.)

    And Trump didn’t want to push the Chinese on putting the Uighurs in concentration camps by the hundreds of thousands because the trade deal (which sort of but not really fills the gap created by the trade deal he killed because it had Obama cooties on it, and doesn’t undo the damage done by his tariffs, which, no aren’t paid by China and other target countries, but by Americans buying Chinese goods). Pressure on the Chinese government might have some effect on Chinese policy, but, hey.

    But pressure on Neflix, and Liu Cixin, isn’t going to have any effect on how China treats the Uighurs at all. Liu is in good odor with the government currently, because they like his international success, but he’s got no power, and this deal isn’t big enough to matter.

    It’s just bullying an easy target to try to look tough.

    Any administration has to decide how to balance different issues in international relations, and yes, the Obama administration made compromises on human rights that I wish they hadn’t, too. What they didn’t do is then turn around and pretend bullying some media company over a deal with some artist to make a program based on the artist’s work.

    But, of course, Neflix has Obama cooties on it too, because of a deal that, contrary to some raving I’ve seen in various online fora, just isn’t big enough to give Obama much influence with Netflix.

  13. Lis Carey says But, of course, Neflix has Obama cooties on it too, because of a deal that, contrary to some raving I’ve seen in various online fora, just isn’t big enough to give Obama much influence with Netflix.

    Netflix is a trans global media corporation that’s worth billions of dollars. Boycotting it over this proposed film is going to be as effective as the boycott proposed some years against Apple for removing the earbud jack which is to say most consumers don’t give a damn about boycotts if they like a product it’s aimed at.

  14. When I spoke of boycotting, I meant boycotting the specific movie, and causing it to flop. Perhaps I don’t understand Netflix very well, but even if it isn’t shown on a pay-per-view basis, I think that if few watch the movie (I’m sure they have ways of tracking how many times a show is watched), it will register as a flop and a waste of bandwidth and storage space. If they sink multiple millions into making the thing, and few watch it, I still think they wouldn’t think it worth the investment.

  15. @Robert Reynolds, @Lis Carey: One thing to take into account is that there are some issues where Republicans, even those in government, are not all in agreement, nor are they all expected to fall into line. One of those issues is how to deal with human rights violations in China. The fact that Trump is less inclined to criticize the way China treats the Uyghurs doesn’t obligate these senators not to speak up about it.

    While I doubt that Netflix will think much about the senators’ letter, much less cancel the “Three-Body Problem” series, the senators’ letter has, at least, brought to public attention Liu Cixin’s anti-Uyghur stance, which I had not known of before.

  16. Julian Barnes’ novel The Noise of Time is mostly about Dmitri Shostakovich’s relations with Soviet power during Stalin’s rule. One of the things he is required to do is to toe the party line in interviews given to Western publications. I don’t have my copy to hand, so here’s what I wrote in my review:

    “Shostakovich is not shot, but he is in disfavor, and nobody wants to run the risk of playing his music. Barnes shows the kind of limbo a person could fall into in Soviet times, even, or especially, someone as high up in society as Shostakovich. The second and third sections of the book follow other, less immediately deadly, perils. In the second, Shostakovich is asked to join a delegation of Soviet representatives to an international peace conference in New York. He demurs, hoping to retain some personal integrity and not to have to parade himself before the world. Power is not so easily deferred. It insists. When Shostakovich plays his final trump, saying that his music is played and admired in the West but is prohibited at home and how should he respond when asked about it, Power replies that it had never given such an order, that there had been a mistake and that there will be a reprimand. And so his music returned to Soviet concert halls. And he went to the West, and duly recited what Power required him to say.”

    Here is what Barnes has to say in an author’s note about a contemporary of Shostakoich:

    “Tikhon Khrennikov did not, as in Shostakovich’s (fictional) apprehension, prove immortal; but he did the next best thing, running the Union of Soviet Composers from its refounding in 1948 to its eventual collapse, along with the rest of the Soviet Union, in 1991. Forty-eight years on from 1948, he was still giving slickly bland interviews, claiming that Shostakovich was a cheerful man who had nothing to be frightened of. (The composer Vladimir Rubin commented: ‘The wolf cannot speak of the fear of the sheep.’) Khrennikov never disappeared from view, nor lost his love of Power: in 2003, he was decorated by Vladimir Putin.”

  17. @Lis Carey

    What I have contempt for is the hypocrisy.

    How is it hypocrisy when the inconsistent opinions are held by two distinct parties? This is like saying “Hillary Clinton is a warhawk, and Bernie Sanders is a pacifist, so they are hypocrites!”

  18. @Doug

    Julian Barnes’ novel The Noise of Time is mostly about Dmitri Shostakovich’s relations with Soviet power during Stalin’s rule. One of the things he is required to do is to toe the party line in interviews given to Western publications.

    This is something that’s often forgotten in cases like this. Authors living in authoritarian regimes are not free to say what they want in interviews, because they or their loved ones have to fear repercussions. Liu Cixin had to parrot the party line, when asked about the Uighurs (ditto for the Mulan actress condemning the Hongkong protesters).

  19. @bill (and Joshua K)–

    How is it hypocrisy when the inconsistent opinions are held by two distinct parties? This is like saying “Hillary Clinton is a warhawk, and Bernie Sanders is a pacifist, so they are hypocrites!”

    These same Republicans had no criticism for Trump throwing the Uighurs under the bus–or any of his other authoritarian stances or actions, or for his open admiration of Xi, Kim, Putin, or any other dictators.

    Obama actually got criticized, sometimes quite harshly, by other Democrats and people on the left generally, when human rights were what got compromised in negotiations where several important things were at issue.

    Call me when any of those suddenly-righteous GOP Senators gets even a teeny bit upset in public over Trump’s recent refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses in November. Because yes, this is a really different question from the more mundane, “What happens if you lose?”

  20. @Cora Buhlert: “Liu Cixin had to parrot the party line, when asked about the Uighurs (ditto for the Mulan actress condemning the Hongkong protesters).”

    How do you know they don’t mean it?

  21. Not to defend China, but my understanding is that a lot of the Uighur reports are coming from / filtered through Gordon Chang ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_G._Chang ) who has a bit of an axe to grind here.

    And honestly, after I got suckered by ‘Nayirah’ and ‘Curveball’ and Chalabi I’m a little bit wary here.

  22. A relevant link between our movie industry and the Uyghurs might be Wanda Group, which partners with Sony Pictures and owns AMC theaters on top of being a big investor/player in the Uyghur areas. Why streaming a Liu Cixin flick is more sinister than taking your kids to a Marvel movie in a multiplex is beyond me. Did the swing state Republicans have any comments on that?

    I must say that after these years and failed projects “3Body” has the potential to outperform some of the most notorious SFF genre crappy-movie-out-of-great-book disasters.

  23. I don’t think “failure to criticize another politician who isn’t doing what I’m doing” is the same thing as hypocrisy.

    And I don’t know why you think Trump has “thrown Uighurs under the bus” — the article you linked did say that he signed the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020”. In June 2017 he added China to the State Dept. list of countries practicing human trafficking, in part because of how “officials in Xinjiang coerced Uighur men and women to participate in forced labor”; the 2018 report called out China for having “detained tens of thousands—and possibly hundreds of thousands—of Uighurs and sent them to special facilities for the purpose of “political reeducation.” “; and the 2019 and 2020 reports similarly addressed China’s abuse of the Uighurs. The annual “Report on International Religious Freedom” issued by the administration similarly criticizes China’s persecution of Uighurs. In Aug 2017, his Secretary of State publicly “castigated China for persecution of Uighurs, a Muslim minority (NYTimes 8/15/2017). In 2019, his National Security Adviser publicly did the same.
    I’m not sure what it is you specifically want Trump to do, but China’s mistreatment of Uighurs has been on the administration’s radar since Trump first took office.

  24. John A Arkansawyer on September 25, 2020 at 8:12 am said:

    @Cora Buhlert: “Liu Cixin had to parrot the party line, when asked about the Uighurs (ditto for the Mulan actress condemning the Hongkong protesters).”

    How do you know they don’t mean it

    You don’t, which is the point. That they said such things tell us very little about what they might actually believe given the way the Chinese government has behaved around dissent.

  25. @Brian Z

    Did the swing state Republicans have any comments on [movies]?

    It’s hard to say, without knowing which are the Republicans you consider to be from swing states.

    But, Trump has certainly criticized the NBA for pandering to China. And Josh Hawley (Senator, R-MO) has done likewise.

  26. Why do we need to concern ourselves with whether Liu Cixin has some unspoken, inner thoughts when he is saying out loud whatever he has to in order to enjoy the life of a lionized celebrity?

  27. @ Camestros Felapton — the point is, both of them were apologists for China, whether or not they meant it. As has been pointed out here many times, intentions don’t mitigate actions.

  28. How do you know they don’t mean it?

    I don’t and neither does anybody else.

    But I remember the years before 1989 well enough to remember that a writer, actors, artist from Eastern Europe would never breathe a critical word about the politics of their country in public unless their next words would be, “”I request political asylum”. And if someone explicitly asked them a political question, they would parrot the party line.

    If you got that person alone at the bar, after their handlers had gone to bed (if the handlers ever went to bed), you might get their true opinions out of them. But in public, you’d only get the party line whether they actually believe it or not.

    Another thing I learned pre-1989 is not to blanket condemn people for publicly supporting the party line. Because they have to live under those regimes and they have to do what’s necessary to get by. I do not.

    This is also something to remember, when dealing with certain Worldcon bids. To some questions, you simply won’t get answers that don’t fit the party line, so weigh the answer accordingly.

  29. bill on September 25, 2020 at 3:47 pm said:

    @ Camestros Felapton — the point is, both of them were apologists for China, whether or not they meant it. As has been pointed out here many times, intentions don’t mitigate actions

    Yes, I understood THAT point but I was answering John A Arkansawyer’s question.

    We don’t know what Cixin Liu’s ‘true’ opinion is. So the question of whether people should consider boycotting Netflix etc has to rest on more general questions about engaging with countries who are committing human rights abuses. That is an interesting question and one that I would like to see people take both seriously and consistently.

  30. Cora Buhlert: Thank goodness someone remembers the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s version of Red China. The two countries have improved somewhat, but not much–Putin is somewhere between an uncrowned Tsar and Brezhnev. As for China, the best that can be said of the current regime is that they have refrained from repeating the Great Leap Backward and the Cultural Devolution.

    The best way to deal with “certain Worldcon bids” is to VOTE THEM DOWN. Any time a bid comes from a totalitarian or authoritarian nation, trample it into the dust with your ballots, the way we did with the Sad Puppies a few years ago. This includes Russia, Red China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and the Philippines, just for starters.

    And “if this goes on,” to swipe from a Heinlein title, the rejection list should include all sites in the USA as well.

  31. Why do we need to concern ourselves with whether Liu Cixin has some unspoken, inner thoughts when he is saying out loud whatever he has to in order to enjoy the life of a lionized celebrity?

    You mean calling China’s President weak and ineffectual in the international press? Of course Liu Cixin cares about freedom and autonomy. He thinks citizens in the US or Europe want them enough to get them, but China’s largely won’t fight for them and their government is too fragile to reform without collapsing in disaster.

    As to the non sequiturs inserted from Liu Cixin’s fiction, unlike that journalist last year we don’t have to reach for the Trisolarians to do a thought experiment about reactions to a global crisis, and the East Asians were not the only ones to put up with house arrest, monitoring every movement, restrictions on worship, etc. If authors didn’t think deeply we wouldn’t have any good books for Netflix to ruin.

  32. I’m surprised by this interview given the extended description of a Cultural Revolution era reeducation camp in the book. I wish the the interviewer had asked him why he thought today’s camps were different from those camps.

    According to the official Chinese history the Cultural Revolution was led by the Gang of Four, who were later made into scapegoats, and rank and file Hóng Wèib?ng (Red Guard) were sent to work in rural area – just recall the heroine of the first book meeting tormentors of her father years later. Therefore it is ok to have it in the book, unlike 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

    More important is that in China like in the USSR it is impossible to publish your work without preview of censors, so whom we know as mainland Chinese authors are all, who were monitored to say what is allowed. There can be other talented individuals who aren’t published because they cannot pass censors. Therefore, there is a selection of pro-party writers

  33. Most Democrat and Republican politicians on higher level are hypocrites when it comes to Human Rights. Even supposedly progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just announced the celebration of brutal war criminal Yitzhak Rabin, guilty of ordering the breaking of bones of children, of ethnic cleansing and of organising death marches for civilians.

    I would prefer that politicians of all kinds started with not performing crimes against humanity themselves, then tried to direct their criticisms towards the actors actually in power instead of random authors. And preferably against the actors they themselves support where the criticism actually could have an effect.

  34. @Hampus Eckerman

    Most Democrat and Republican politicians on higher level are hypocrites

    You could have stopped right there . . .

  35. Pingback: Netflix Answers Senators’ Letter About Three-Body Problem Series | File 770

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