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Chinese SOEs' tech prowess wows and inspires sci-fi writers

(Xinhua)    13:26, April 19, 2019

XINING, April 18 (Xinhua) -- China's state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are opening doors, and their minds too, to a group of curious visitors -- science fiction writers.

Five state-owned industrial heavyweights, including electricity giants, nuclear firms and construction conglomerates, have invited sci-fi writers to visit their factories, megaprojects and laboratories and, hopefully, find clues for their new stories.

"It has never happened before -- we sci-fi writers visit SOEs to collect material for our works," said writer Ling Chen, who prefers to be identified by her pen name.

"China's technology development has been so fast that sometimes I feel I lag behind. This is a rare opportunity for me to get in touch with the SOEs' advanced technology."

With the support of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), the regulator of SOEs in China, the event is designed to give the public a better idea of SOEs' technology feats through sci-fi works.

The SOEs' tech achievements provide "a solid foundation" for science fiction, as state firms are important players in China's pursuit of innovation-driven development, said Liu Fuguang, deputy head of the SASAC's publicity bureau.

"We hope there could be more elements of Chinese enterprises and technology embedded in the sci-fi writers' works after their visits," Liu said.

On the other hand, sci-fi writers' bold imagination could also be an inspiration for the SOEs' future tech explorations, said Lin Mingzhao, director of the press center of the State Power Investment Corporation Limited (SPIC).

Signature projects of SPIC, one of China's largest electricity generators and a Fortune Global 500 company, were the destinations of the writers' just-concluded first trip, which brought them to the far-flung canyons and plateaus of northwestern province of Qinghai.


During the trip, the eight sci-fi writers and one popular science writer, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were amazed by the striking scenes of high dams wedged into steep valleys, a sea of photovoltaic (PV) panels spanning the sun-bathed wilderness, and red-hot high-purity polysilicon rods quietly developed in the furnaces of a Chinese factory that broke a foreign technology monopoly.

At certain moments of the trip, the boundary between reality and science fiction seemed to blur.

Standing at the bottom of the 250 meter-tall dam of Laxiwa hydropower station, the largest on the Yellow River, Zhang Mengyuan, a 28-year-old sci-fi cartoon playwright, marveled at the engineering skills.

The imposing cement hulk, with nothing on its wall but seven dark water outlets, reminded her of "a base for aliens to hide in," she said.

China outrivals most countries in the hydropower field, with the world's largest installed capacity.

On a sightseeing tower in a local PV industrial park, designed to cover 609 square km, writer Liu Huiying was overwhelmed by the view of vast arrays of PV panels installed by SPIC stretching to the horizon.

"Objects placed in such large quantities provide strong sensory stimulation," Liu said. "Perhaps I could write about similar scenes in my future stories."

Writer Lu Bingwen described the hydro-solar power hybrid generation technology, a world-leading innovation by a SPIC subsidiary that converts volatile PV power into stable, high-quality electricity, as "magic."

"If I could control the alternating current sent from the PV power station and apply machine learning to it in a way that simulates the human brain wave, maybe I would be able to create an AI system in the power grid someday," Lu said.

After visiting the polysilicon manufacturer, the only one in China able to mass produce and sell electronic-grade polysilicon, cyberpunk writer Zhao Lei was impressed by the strenuous efforts made by researchers and engineers undaunted by decades of foreign monopoly over the technology.

"Making technological breakthroughs is like fighting a war against aliens equipped with high-tech weapons. Only with this kind of spirit demonstrated by these researchers could victory be attained," he said.

Lin from SPIC believes any elements of SOEs or their technology appearing in sci-fi works would help rebuild the public images of these companies.

"SOEs should have more connections with people's lives, instead of being a mysterious and distant existence in the eyes of the public," she said.


China's SOEs used to be deemed as torpid, lacking innovation and inefficient. However, with the government push for innovation-driven development and supply-side structural reform, they have made strides in corporate reforms, sharpened their competitive edges and improved their technology strength in recent years.

On the 2018 Fortune Global 500 list, 83 of 120 Chinese firms making the list were SOEs, of which 48 were centrally administered. Central SOEs' investment in research and development account for around a quarter of the national total. Their goal is to become world-class modern enterprises.

The imagination of sci-fi writers, to some extent, could contribute to the innovation drive of SOEs, said Lin from SPIC, who plans to collect the sci-fi writers' ideas on related technology subjects for discussions among the company's tech staff.

During their tour, the writers provided alternative approaches to technical problems.

"Maybe you can use robots to clean the panels," writer Ling Chen told a SPIC tech expert at the PV industrial park, after learning that it takes a huge amount of labor and money every month to clean the PV panels to prevent dust from affecting their efficiency.

Writer Sun Wanglu proposed another solution -- making the panels vibrate at a certain frequency and movement range so the dust could be shaken off automatically.

After discussions with writers on a tour of Laxiwa hydropower station, Sangje Cering, a hydropower expert at SPIC's local subsidiary, said he had never associated the dam with anything surreal but now realized it looked exactly like a robot and could become a real robot in future.

"Hydropower stations may become as intelligent as robots, smart enough to adjust power generations, irrigate and discharge floods on its own," he said. "Now some of our small stations are already able to operate without workers on duty."

Shen Youguo, a PV expert, said the idea of meeting sci-fi writers at his workplace had never occurred to him.

"They are curious and eager to learn, and more down-to-earth than expected," he said. "Maybe some ideas in our discussions could make a difference in the real world, and turn science fiction into reality."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Bianji)

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