Chinese sci-fi writer sparks debate on slack in state economy

Author Liu Cixin has published more than a dozen novels since the 1990s.
Author Liu Cixin has published more than a dozen novels since the 1990s.PHOTO: LI YIBO

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's most prestigious science fiction novelist revealed that a lot of his work was written during work hours at a state-owned power plant, sparking debate about the level of slack in the nation's vast state sector.

The comments from Mr Liu Cixin, seen as China's equivalent to Arthur C. Clarke, come from a 2015 interview that began circulating widely on social media recently after the film Wandering Earth, which is based on one of his novellas, took in two billion yuan (S$400 million) in just a week.

"Everyone was sitting in front of a computer, and nobody knew what anyone else was doing," Mr Liu said in the interview. "You have to be in the office. But when you're there, you are free to write."

Re-posted more than 3,000 times in hours on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, Mr Liu's comments prompted a response from the national department in charge of state-owned enterprises at 9.26 pm on Monday (Feb 11).

"Mr Liu, this phenomenon you mentioned - more workers than available work - is exactly why we are deepening reforms," the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission said via Weibo.

"The reforms are good, so the enterprises can focus on their business, and you can focus on writing novels."

In the 1990s, China laid off millions of workers from state businesses, which were criticised for their inefficiency, massive debt and rampant corruption.

In 2013, the government unveiled aggressive new plans to shake up the sector, yet China watchers such as Mr Nicholas Lardy say there's been a resurgence of the state in business, with President Xi Jinping encouraging local leaders to prop up ailing enterprises.

Mr Liu has published more than a dozen novels since the 1990s. He worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi province from the 1980s and identified himself a worker there in interviews until as late as 2014.