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The real story behind Netflix's 3 Body Problem series involved a murder, censorship and China's darkest past

11:11 20/5/2024

By Wing Kuang

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 17: Saamer Usmani, Marlo Kelly, John Bradley, Zine Tseng, Liam Cunningham, Jess Hong, Benedict Wong, Eve Ridley, Sea Shimooka, Rosalind Chao, Alex Sharp and Jonathan Pryce attend the Los Angeles debut of Netflix's "3 Body Problem" at NYA WEST on March 17, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.   Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Photo: AFP / Getty Images / Matt Winkelmeyer

For Netflix and its global audiences, the 3 Body Problem tells an extraordinary story of humankind preparing for a 400-year war against aliens that are far more sophisticated and technologically advanced.

But for people in China - one of the five countries where Netflix is not available - the television show adapted from the country's bestselling sci-fi series reminded them of a traumatic period of history that Beijing wants its people to forget.

As it opens, viewers see physicist Ye Zhetai being questioned on stage in front of a frenetic crowd.

He is forced to bend down by two young Red Guards - a student-led paramilitary unit endorsed by Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1960s - with a blood stain on his forehead.

The professor is asked why he taught Albert Einstein's theory of relativity in a physics class at Tsinghua University, whose alumni created China's first nuclear weapons.

Soon, his daughter Ye Wenjie - a key character throughout the series - watches her tormented father take his last breath after being beaten by a young girl with a belt.

What the scene illustrated was China's Cultural Revolution, a decade-long political and ideological campaign launched by Chairman Mao in 1966.

The Communist Party leader feared losing his power and promised to inject new life into socialist causes, but instead brought untold turmoil and bloodshed.

Today, there is still no official number of deaths during this period.

The scene sparked a furious debate among Chinese viewers - who watched the series either through virtual private networks or piracy - on Netflix's illustration of one of the Chinese Communist Party's darkest chapters.

Some argued Netflix had been faithful to the original books, while others blamed the streaming service for "defaming China".

And the debate eventually activated China's censorship system.

Less than a month after the Netflix series was launched, China's most famous film critic website Douban suspended its review and comment functions for the series, while wiping out all previous comments from viewers.

The saga about Netflix's 3 Body Problem - which now has more than 3.2 million views on the streaming platform and is ranked top five in Australia for the fifth week - is just one chapter of the Chinese sci-fi series' challenging journey to the West.

Besides Netflix's $460 million investment, the series seems to be the story of China that Beijing is hesitant to tell to the world - especially when it also involves a murder.

The death of a Chinese billionaire

In 2006, writer and engineer Liu Cixin began serialising The Three-Body Problem on Science Fiction World, a 45-year-old sci-fi literary magazine in China that targets a niche group of readers.

With the rise of the internet and social media as well as Liu's creative imagination, the series received praise beyond the sci-fi reader group.

In 2008, the first two books of the trilogy were published, with the final instalment released in 2010.

In 2014, the series was translated into English and one year later, it won the Oscar of sci-fi fiction, the Hugo Award, for best novel.

Liu Cixin was the first Asian author to win the prize.

In the same year, a young Chinese businessman was plotting a bigger plan for the trilogy.

Born in 1981 in Wenzhou - a southern city known for rapid growth of private capital since China's market reform - Lin Qi turned his teenage passion for gaming into a $430 million listed game production company, Yoozoo.

In 2014 - the same year that The Three-Body Problem started gaining international buzz - Mr Lin established Yoozoo Pictures, making his own way to Hollywood amid the growth of Chinese investment in the sector.

On the top of his agenda was to acquire the exclusive right to adapt The Three-Body Problem trilogy, as he envisioned turning the literary series into movies, TV dramas, animation and even games.

In 2018, Mr Lin even established a new company, The Three-Body Universe, to manage the copyrights related to the series, while he reached out to Netflix for adaptation.

The two struck a deal in September 2020, one year after Netflix purchased another Chinese sci-fi blockbuster, The Wandering Earth, which was also adapted from Liu's work.

The company recruited some of the best from Hollywood, including David Benioff and DB Weiss from Game of Thrones, Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman from Star Wars, and Alexander Woo from True Blood.

It was also the year when Mr Lin ranked 43 in Hurun Global's list of 40 and under self-made billionaires, with an estimated $1.8 billion in wealth.

Then a murder happened.

The tragedy traces back to 2017, when Mr Lin decided to hire a new executive to support his ambitious dreams for The Three-Body Problem.

He chose Xu Yao, an experienced corporate lawyer with a PhD in law from the University of Michigan, and appointed him as Yoozoo's chief risk officer.

One year later, Xu became the chief executive of The Three-Body Universe. But as time passed, Mr Lin and Xu began to disagree over how to run the business.

Court statements from China detail how on December 14 and 15, 2020, Xu mixed Mr Lin's food with poisons, which led to him being sent to hospital.

Mr Lin died one week later.

The court also found that three months prior to the fatal poisoning, Xu had been adding poison to drinks at the office, which made four other people sick.

In March, just as 3 Body Problem - a slightly altered title from the original - was aired to the world on Netflix, Xu was given a death sentence in Shanghai.

Mr Lin's name was credited as executive producer for the series.

Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 5th China (Chengdu) International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu city, southwest China's Sichuan province, 22 November 2019. (Photo by / Imaginechina / Imaginechina via AFP)

Liu Cixin is the first Asian author to win the Hugo Award. Photo: AFP / Imaginechina /

Selling the 'unadaptable' China story to the world

Before Netflix, Mr Lin's company had already made several attempts at adapting The Three-Body Problem trilogy into movies, animation and a TV series.

Yet many fans of the original books have mixed reviews of these adaptations.

One common complaint is the adaptations fail to capture the books' compelling multiple storylines, characters and wide range of themes - which touch on ethics, world politics and history - on the big screen.

And the adaptation can get even more complicated when it comes to whether certain Chinese elements should be included or not.

In 2014, Liu Cixin authorised award-winning Chinese-American sci-fi writer Ken Liu to translate the first book of The Three-Body Problem.

But Ken Liu didn't just translate the novel. In his version, he restructured the timeline of the book by moving the questioning of the physicist - which is the beginning scene in the Netflix series - to the first chapter.

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 2019, Ken Liu explained the reshuffle was to make it easier for English-speaking readers to follow the history of the Cultural Revolution.

Liu Cixin endorsed the changes and revealed he had always wanted to make the Cultural Revolution scene the novel's opening, since the history was key to understanding the plot.

However, his publisher had rejected the idea, worrying it could cause censorship and political pressure due to the sensitivity of the history in China.

While Netflix followed through on Liu's original vision, the streaming service has drawn criticism from some Chinese viewers for distancing the story from its roots.

They point to how the nationalities of major characters have been rewritten, while the setting of the story has been moved from China to Europe.

Some argue the changes make the series focus on the novel's broader theme of humanity while reducing cultural barriers for English-speaking viewers.

But critics, including staff writing for Chinese state media, say the changes highlighted the West's attempts to defame China, while showcasing "American cultural hegemony".

The opinion piece, however, did not mention the Cultural Revolution scenes.

The criticism of Netflix's decision to shift the story focus from China was also reported in Chinese state media Global Times and Xinhua's English website.

But the authors of both pieces acknowledged the negative feedback reflected the challenges of telling China's stories abroad, with quotes stating the adaptation was "a good first step".

The ABC has reached out to The Three-Body Universe and Netflix for comment.

Can Chinese sci-fi escape from politics?

In an interview with The Guardian after the launch of the Netflix series, Liu Cixin revealed the question he was often asked when travelling to the US and Europe: "There's science fiction in China?"

But in recent years, Chinese sci-fi has received growing attention outside the country's borders.

According to the latest industry report, released this week, the number of media reports about Chinese sci-fi abroad last year was 180 times more than in 2018.

The report also states that in 2023, China's sci-fi sector gained $24 billion in revenue, almost a one-third increase compared to 2022.

Dr Mia Chen Ma, a Chinese literature researcher at the University of Strathclyde, says the growing interest in Chinese sci-fi is in line with the broadening recognition of global literature by readers in Western countries.

Many Chinese sci-fi writers actively participate in international events and public talks, which also help promote Chinese science fiction, according to Dr Ma.

"Also, there are many institutions and organisations in the UK and other countries as well that are eager to introduce more emerging Chinese authors to a global audience," she said.

It's not only well-known male writers like Liu Cixin who are getting exposed to international readers.

A growing number of new, young female authors such as Gu Shi are making a name for themselves within the international science fiction community.

Dr Ma says for Chinese sci-fi authors, crafting a compelling story is essential to attracting international readers.

"At its heart, the universal appeal of a good story captivates us - when a story resonates, people connect with it in their unique ways," she said.

And high-quality storytelling seems to also be a reason why Chinese sci-fi series, such as The Three-Body Problem, attract big investments from Hollywood, according to Dr Yuxing Zhou, a Chinese cinema researcher at the University of Melbourne.

He compared Netflix's 3 Body Problem to Mulan, a Chinese folktale that was adapted into animation by Disney in 1998 and a $200 million live-action remake in 2020.

"A gripping story, the story itself, is the main thing [the Hollywood investors] look for," Dr Zhou said.

He said with China being one of the world's top box office markets, many Western film investors and producers may want to seek collaboration with Chinese creators to secure higher profits.

But for audiences, the quality of stories - regardless of where they are from - is the key to attracting audiences.

"And that's the problem with [the] Chinese government's push for enhancing its soft power through storytelling, because eventually, you can't just force this to happen," he said.

"It's the kind of values or messages behind the stories that would attract audiences."

But can science fiction - a genre known for its boundless imagination and creativity - escape from the reality of geopolitics?

Just one month before Netflix's 3 Body Problem was launched, the prestigious Hugo Awards was reported to have deliberately excluded authors they believed would be "sensitive" to China.

Those left off the list include Neil Gaiman and RF Kuang, author of the bestseller Yellowface.

"Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark," Liu wrote, in the afterword of The Three-Body Problem.

* This story was first published by the ABC.

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