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Society & Culture

The Three-Body Problem Has a Problem

Aug 03, 2021

Netflix was hoping to reach for the stars when it began production of Liu Cixin’s epic space novel The Three-Body Problem but US Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee has other ideas. If she gets her way, the ambitious TV series will be grounded before launch.

Why the sudden interest in Chinese science fiction on the part of a science-denier like Marsha Blackburn, whose positions on evolution, climate change and the suitability of Donald Trump for the Nobel Prize amount to magical thinking? How has she gained the support of four other senators to call on Netflix to call it quits with Liu Cixin? 

Marsha Blackburn sent a letter to Netflix written on Senate stationery, posing four prosecutorial questions and a call for the video-streaming giant to “seriously reconsider” its plans to produce “The Three-Body Problem.” The only “evidence” of perfidy is a rather anodyne quote made by the author Liu Cixin in regard to Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang: 

“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.” 

The contentious quote is taken from Jiayang Fan’s profile of Liu Cixin, published in the New Yorker on June 17, 2020. The quote alone would seem weak, gruel, and insufficient to sustain an onslaught against a man on the other side of the world, let alone take down Netflix, but Marsha Blackburn is a master of outrage and has used little words to advance her career before, such as the time she produced an anti-abortion ad that accused Planned Parenthood of selling “baby body parts.” 

Blackburn may be blistering on Liu Cixin, but her most patronizing judgement is reserved for Netflix, which she indicates should disassociate itself from the author.  

Addressed to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, the letter poses withering questions that are a cross between a McCarthyite interrogation and a Maoist self-criticism session. 

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

There are so many things wrong with this question that it’s hard to know where to start, but suffice to say, “interment” meaningburial, is different from “internment,”meaning confinement. Blackburn’s official letter uses the former but probably means the latter.

Or maybe it’s a Freudian slip, since she goes on to accuse China of “genocide.” 

Either way, the “Does Netflix agree” approach reeks of a trick question, if not a loyalty test. 

Not only is there no logical room to disagree, but to agree means to submit, and in submitting, giving life to a lie. 

The putative number range of 1.8 to 3 million is wildly fanciful, and well-informed critics disagree with the scope of that estimate, though big numbers are routinely bandied about as “facts” to bolster an anti-China narrative. Blackburn is coyly asking if internment based on ethnicity is unacceptable and of course it’s unacceptable, but that doesn’t make the random numbers she embeds in the question correct. 

“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.” 

The “if so, please outline” approach is pedantic and schoolmarmish, but the implications are serious and put millions of dollars on the line. The line about the “CCP’s genocidal acts” is a false, inflammatory phrase inserted willy-nilly to ‘strengthen’ the power of a weak argument.

To date there is zero evidence of genocide. 

“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?

Is Mr. Liu not entitled to his opinion? Is it unacceptable that he supports the government of the country he lives in? There’s a whiff of the witch hunt in the demand to cast a “critical eye” and think twice about the “broader relationship” with an individual who has been unfairly singled out for vilification. 

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

Here the interrogator asks of Netflix that it police both the public and private principles of people with whom it enters contract. Un-American much? Again, the pedantic “if so…if not” formulation serves to nail Netflix one way or the other, either by omission or commission. 

The warning letter is a shot across the bow.

Marsha Blackburn wants Netflix to “decouple” with China.

To better understand where all this over-the-top outrage is coming from, one must consider Senator Marsha Blackburn’s own idiosyncratic worldview. Like other leading Republicans, she has been advised “Don’t defend Trump, Attack China.”

Xinjiang is an easy target. It is the site of many alleged human rights violations, vast labor camps, and re-education programs. But it is reckless and irresponsible to make claims of genocide without a reasonable standard of proof and documentation. 

Senator Blackburn’s jeremiad against Netflix is intellectually bankrupt but it will have a chilling effect on those who deal with China nonetheless. Naturally, Netflix is free to adapt any book it wants to; it’s protected by the US constitution. But when righteous indignation rears its ugly head, it doesn’t take much to incinerate a work of art. 

Senator Blackburn’s hysterical reaction is reminiscent of her forbearers in the Deep South who famously tried to ban the Beatles and burn their records because of a flippant comment made by John Lennon about the band being “more popular than Jesus.” 

In today’s hyper-vigilant atmosphere, a single out-of-context comment can go a long way to ruin people’s lives and decimate the work they do, as Mulan star Liu Yifei found out, probably to her regret. Hitting the “share” button on a People’s Daily online comment subjected the star to half a year of relentless hate speech and probably ended up costing Disney tens of millions of dollars. 

If the Netflix project goes forward, the story has the potential to transport viewers to another place and time where the culture wars and hot-button concerns of contemporary earthlings are but a distant, humorous memory.

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