Science Fiction World topples its editor-in-chief


Science Fiction World turns 30

On the morning of April 1, the website of the magazine Science Fiction World posted an announcement that included the following decision: “Li Chang is suspended from his positions as director and editor-in-chief, and day-to-day agency operations are turned over to vice-director Liu Chengshu.”

The preliminary decision made by the Sichuan Association for Science and Technology, the magazine’s sponsoring organization would seem to bring to a close a staff revolt that has been playing out in the public eye since March 21.

On that day, an open letter addressed to all Chinese science fiction fans was released on Douban, a culture-oriented social networking site. In the letter, magazine staff charged Li Chang (李昶), who came on as director at the very end of 2008, with short-sighted management practices that bordered on incompetence. Their complaint, written in a style reminiscent of Cultural Revolution-era rhetoric, laid out seven points of disagreement (excerpted):

  1. Chinese-language editors would replace authors to write stories, foreign-language editors would replace translators to translate stories, and art editors would replace artists to do illustrations;
  2. Li Chang attempted to turn the cover of Science Fiction World into an advertising photograph for a school;
  3. He emphasized nothing but cutting costs and switched Science Fiction World to poor-quality paper. At the same time he pressed all the publications to lower their manuscript rates, and even asked for poor-quality, 200-yuan artwork to be used on the cover. He severely reduced the fees owed to copyright agents and authors, and repeatedly delayed or refused payment to authors;
  4. He outsourced Science Fiction World advertising to the company of a personal friend, [which] forced large amounts of advertising onto the pages of all of the agency’s magazines beginning in January 2010;
  5. He sought all kinds of excuses to delay or refuse to sign labor contracts with editors…He even attempted many times to bring in people he knew (people who were utterly ignorant of science fiction and who lacked even a basic understanding of the publishing industry) to work as SFW editors;
  6. He brooked no dissent…trumpeted his backing, flaunted his borrowed power;
  7. He took the magazines under Science Fiction World and rented them out under a “one license, multiple publications” scheme to totally unqualified individuals and companies where editing and publication was utterly uncontrolled, dealing a serious blow to the agency’s legitimate publications and causing grievous harm to the agency’s brand image.

Immediate media reports on the open letter quoted unnamed editors who affirmed that it was all “basically true.” The editors followed through by filing a grievance with SAST, reproduced in part by the March 25 issues of the Oriental Morning Post (which misidentified it as a web posting) and the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily. The text included the following demands:

1. We request that Comrade Li Chang be suspended for investigation, perform a self-criticism, and cooperate with the inspection work of the discipline and inspection teams;

2. Because on multiple occasions Comrade Li Chang claimed to have a special relationship with key leaders in the Discipline and Inspection Commission at SAST, we request that the Commission recuse itself from the investigation and that the Provincial Commission immediately send a work team to the magazine agency;

3. We request that the Sichuan Provincial Party Propaganda Department and the Bureau of Press and Publications send work teams to investigate Comrade Li Chang’s trade in periodical registrations, which has led to the publications exhibiting serious political errors;

4. To prevent retaliation, we will not accept any separate investigation before the Provincial Commission dispatches its work team.

While the mainstream media provided a general picture of the controversy, editors and SF fans were actively discussing the issue online at Douban, Sina’s microblogs service, and for a time, on the SFW BBS. Some editors posted with salary information to counter the notion that they were only griping about money, while others gave more details about life at the magazine under Li Chang’s regime. One such post included these choice quotes:

“High school and primary school students appear far, far too infrequently in our magazine, and this is not good. Think about it: if we run twenty essays by primary students, then those twenty students will be happy and will definitely buy one copy apiece.”

“You think the cover is good, but I don’t see anything good about it. Yours is too expensive. Fix it. Find a student to draw a 200-yuan image if you need to, or a photo. Lots of magazines use photos on the cover. Why can’t you?”

“You talk about how really great this writer is, but I don’t see it. You give him so much money….you say your writers are good, but I have my own writers.”

“What’re you paying that writer for? You editors come over here. Xiao Li, write the first part; Xiao Zhang, write the second part. Everyone writes and then it’s done, right? Why are SF writers so great? I can write science fiction. I can write film scripts.”

“Again with the copyrights? Don’t believe those foreign authors. They just want to scam some cash out of us.”

Lest you believe that these lines are fabrications by editors with an axe to grind, here is an exchange from an in-depth report that ran in the March 31 issue of China Youth Daily‘s Freezing Point supplement:

When asked about the issue, [Li Chang] replied, “If the magazine put one of your photos on the cover, wouldn’t you give it another look if you passed it on the newsstand?”

“Of course, but I’m just one person,” this reporter said.

“That’s better than having no one look at it at all, right?” said the man in charge of a magazine with a monthly circulation of 130,000 copies.

The China Youth Daily article, which appeared just one day before the magazine announced that Li Chang had been suspended, looked into each of the seven complaints cited in the open letter and found that they were all justified to some degree. Even Li himself did not argue with most of them; he just interpreted the opposition differently.

Science Fiction World is just a magazine. Does everything need to be discussed from morning till night?” Then he emphasized that he actually “had no patience for taking part in editorial meetings.” But this did not prevent him from proposing all kinds of ideas that upset the editors, things like, “Let the Chinese-language editors write stories, let the foreign language editors translate, let art editors do paintings.”

Even though Fly! (“Fantasy World”), another of the agency’s magazines, was not the main focus of Li’s reforms, it became a battleground for the war of ideas. Li asked the magazine to “use one quarter of the page count to run a selection of rejected stories,” an idea that one editor rudely termed “bullshit.” Ultimately, after a “lengthy fight” by the editors, this was changed to “selected excerpts.” Unable to accept the leader’s ideas about how to run a magazine, the editor decided to resign.

Li’s focus on circulation and the bottom line may have been justified, even if his methods would have turned Science Fiction World into a mass-market digest magazine whose readership skewed even younger than King of Science Fiction, SFW‘s low-circulation, subscription-only competitor aimed at a junior-high audience.

A number of reports noted that Li Chang was not solely to blame for Science Fiction World‘s declining circulation. The magazine actually experienced an unexpected bump in popularity owing to a story that accurately predicted a college entrance exam essay one year, and circulation has been falling from a height of 400,000 (or 300,000, depending on whom you believe) ever since. It currently stands somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000, or roughly the level it stood at in the mid-nineties.

While Li may have clashed with editors over his approach to running a magazine, more serious for his fate as agency director may have been the deals he made to let other magazines piggy-back onto the periodical licenses belonging to SFW‘s stable of magazines.

According to the China Youth Daily article:

“We started getting calls from readers saying that they had seen a new magazine from the Science Fiction World agency on newsstands.” That was when the editors realized that the Science Fiction World brand may have been pirated. They poured their efforts into finding out just how many “unauthorized magazines” there were, and ultimately discovered that apart from the four main publications (Science Fiction World, Science Fiction World: Translations, Fly! and Newton Kid (小牛顿), there were five previously unheard of publications on the market that had “Editor in chief: Li Chang” and “Sponsored by the Science Fiction World magazine agency” on the masthead.

These magazines dealt with real estate, parenting, and education. Looking through them carefully, the editors discovered that the registration for the agency’s monthly Business (商) magazine had been changed to three times a month, and in addition to the Sichuan Business (商•蜀商) partnership, there were two additional “illegal publications” using the same periodical license: Moment (商•瞬) and Price (商•成都买房). They suspected that Li Chang had privately rented out or sold off a periodical license belonging to the Science Fiction World agency.

If this suspicion panned out, it would be a serious violation of the State Regulations on Periodical Management. Article 36 reads, “Periodical publishers may not sell, rent out, or transfer their own name or the registration numbers, names, and pages belonging to the periodicals they publish.”

On March 27, a Moment staff member wrote an impassioned defense of the magazine, arguing that Science Fiction World‘s efforts at self-preservation should not include sacrificing an innocent publication.

And in China’s restrictive press and publication climate, Moment‘s situation is actually not at all unusual: the vast majority of new magazines are launched by piggy-backing onto the license of an existing publication because legitimate licenses take considerable time and effort to obtain. Authorities generally look the other way, but when they want to punish a magazine for some other reason, the violation makes it very easy to do so.

An interesting comparison can be made between the rebellion at Science Fiction World and a public campaign launched in 2004 to save Sanlian Bookstore, a prestigious publishing house that runs the influential left-leaning literary journal Dushu (读书), from the misguided leadership of profit-seeking officials.

Here’s a bit of background on the “Defend Sanlian Bookstore” campaign, as narrated by the China Youth Daily:

He (a key Sanlian leader) brought his old gang from the Wuhan University School of Geodesy and Geomatics and Sinomaps Press to Sanlian, but in the discussions of whether to bring them in he claimed not to recognize them. Some of these people had been fired by their former work units, and others were unemployed….these people took over all of the important posts.” “This individual, with his background in cartography, was unqualified to serve as a leader of Sanlian. His summation of Sanlian’s book culture – maps, textbooks, and literature – was dumbfounding.”

“He lacked the ability to grasp or evaluate major topics. Most of the year he rarely showed his face in the editorial offices, and was unable to engage ordinary editors in professional conversation.” “A surreptitious contract sold off two major publications, Dushu and Advantage (竞争力), to an old friend from home….and the editor-in-chief of Philharmonic (爱乐) was let go, and the magazine itself suspended publication for two months….the magazine Dushu: China Public Servant (读书•中国公务员) is chock full of what are clearly thrown-together pieces and paid content.”

“He’s been there for just over a year and has sold off 108 book numbers in six or seven provinces across the country.”

“He’s only been there for a little over a year, and he’s published more than 200 different textbook titles, many of which are black-box printing and distribution outside the normal work flow (A total secret from acquisition to contract signing. The manuscripts come from unclear sources, and he alone handles printing and distribution. The deputy editor-in-chief and the editors are completely uninvolved), and the textbooks are rife with errors….” “The contracts for seven cities’ textbooks that he had in hand just before leaving SinoMaps he quietly took with him to Sanlian, but Sanlian only received 3% of the sale of the book license number and had no final editorial review. It put up the money for printing but had no distribution rights. The distribution department of a fake Sanlian Bookstore on Beiwa Road in Haidian collected the preorder money.”

Most devastating to the reading public is that the magazine China Public Servant is distributed under the periodical registration number of Dushu. This reporter noticed that although the China Public Servant copyright page had a unique advertising license number, its domestic and international serial number, domestic post code, and bar code were identical to Dushu‘s.

What sort of publication is Dushu? Not long ago it was a spiritual garden for Chinese intellectuals.

The China Youth Daily article noted that the actions of the “key leader” sparked public anger and led to a campaign to “Defend Sanlian Bookstore” among Chinese academics and writers, including Yang Jiang, Chen Pingyuan, and Zi Zhongyun.

The uprising at Science Fiction World brought out a similar crop of notable figures of Chinese science fiction, from novelists Liu Cixin and Wang Jinkang to Xinhua journalist and SF author Han Song to the magazine’s retired leadership. Xinhua’s main reporting on the issue was done by Ji Shaoting, who is well-known in SF fandom. And the China Youth Daily article, although written by a non-SF fan, was guided by Freezing Point’s deputy general editor Xu Baike (徐百柯), who translated two volumes of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Back in 2004, one senior Sanlian staff member described the incident as a clash of ideologies:

This affair is unprecedented in Sanlian’s more than seventy year history. It is a conflict between an official-oriented personnel system and an old academic bookshop, a conflict between a cult of mammon and the genteel traditions of an old shop, a conflict between the evils of society and the people of Sanlian who uphold the tolerance and kindness of old literati….in short, this storm arises from a tangle of contradictions.”

Science Fiction World has overcome many obstacle in its thirty years of operation, from the anti-“spiritual pollution” campaign of the early 80s, the transition to a commercial operation in the late 80s and early 90s, and the SF boom and bust in the 21st Century.

The announcement of Li Chang’s suspension has already been removed from the SFW website, but the editors who have posted in discussions on Douban claim that it is not an April Fool’s joke. If that holds up, then the magazine has beaten back another threat to continue to offer a spiritual garden to Chinese SF writers, editors, and fans alike.

Update (2010.04.01, 21:50): Xinhua is now reporting that Li Chang has been relieved of his position, so it looks like it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke after all.

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