[In this interview, Strange Horizons co-ordinating editor, Gautam Bhatia, talks to Chen Qiufan about his novel, Waste Tide, extractivism and global supply chains, waste and collective action. This interview was conducted through a collaborative Google Document in September 2022.]
Gautam Bhatia: Your novel, Waste Tide, is set on Silicon Isle, an island off the south coast of China that is also a giant e-waste recycling centre. In interviews, you’ve mentioned that Silicon Isle is inspired by a real-life place. Could you tell us a bit more about the “real-life” Silicon Isle?
Chen Qiufan: Guiyu, in Chinese, means “the precious island.” It’s about one hour’s drive from Shantou, the city where I lived before I turned eighteen. It was called the “center of world electronic waste recycling” by the media since the late 1990s. Basically, what I’ve described in the novel exactly reflects the real scenes in Guiyu: toxic environment, unprotected immigrant workers, numb residents, and a GDP-driven local government. As I’ve seen in Guiyu, most of the e-waste was shipped from the developed countries in the EU or from the USA, and dumped in developing countries in East and Southeast Asia, Africa, and in India. Sometimes these were traded as normal goods, and sometimes they just got in through smuggling.
But Guiyu also experienced a dramatic change in the twenty-first century, with the shifting geopolitical situation. For example, in an effort to deal with its fast-growing domestic waste problem, the Chinese government has blocked all imports of twenty-four types of foreign trash since 2018.
The policy has forced recycling centres like Guiyu to step up their efforts to transform informal, backstreet industries into fully regulated, more technologically advanced, and environmentally friendly ones. The air and water quality are much improved, while the soil is still under recovery in Guiyu.
GB: The trash would still need to go somewhere—I’m presuming, to other Guiyus in other parts of the world, where regulation is laxer because of the imperatives of political economy. To paraphrase a famous line, is the problem going to be that we will eventually run out of the Earth?
CQ: Currently, 80 percent of the world's population is covered by national e-waste management laws. The large increase is mainly attributed to India and China. The most populous countries in Asia currently have e-waste rules, whereas only a handful of countries in Africa have enacted e-waste-specific policies and legislation. However, it must also be noted that countries with laws do not always enforce the law. Many countries lack measurable collection and recycling targets, which are essential for effective policies.
In Waste Tide, I tried to stir up the awareness of the truth that all of us are equally responsible for the grave consequence of mass pollution happening across the globe. Waste is profoundly shaping and changing our society and our way of living. Our daily mundane world always treats waste as a hidden structure, together with its whole ecosystem, and places it beyond our sight, to maintain the glories of contemporary life. But unfortunately, some are advantaged by this, while others suffer. So we have to see the reality, and it has to be on an international scale. Otherwise, we will find ourselves ultimately trapped in a trashy planet, as WALL-E described it. And I don’t believe Elon Musk’s Mars-escapism can save most of the population, other than a handful of the super-rich and the elite.
GB: Staying with the idea, one of the themes of Waste Tide is the limits of twenty-first century environmentalism, as it is presently framed, to adequately deal with the complexity of global supply chains and the structure of global attraction. What do you think of the intersection between present-day environmental movements, and the reality of the climate crisis?
CQ: In Waste Tide, I described a bunch of old-fashioned radical environmental activists who behave almost like luddites. But it did not fully reflect the latest trend of activism in the area, and maybe exaggerated a little bit (or maybe not!). Now we are in a transition period, where we are realising how complex climate change really is, and what kinds of human activities are influential in contributing to it.
It is always easier to destroy something rather than invent something new. Global pandemics, extreme weather, and species extinction really urge us to change the mindset: how can we address all of those challenges in a more positive, smarter, constructive way? How can we leverage the power of technology to build a more sustainable society and reshape our culture to adapt it?
There is no easy answer, but I will choose to stay on the brighter side of the green spectrum.
GB: While in Waste Tide, you deal with the end of the extractive process (i.e., e-waste), extraction itself begins with—for example—mining for rare earth minerals (whether in Latin America or in Africa), and then the production and distribution process. Was this in your mind when you were writing Waste Tide?
CQ: I did some research across the field, on pollution and exploitation in the rare earth mining process. Also, because of the concentrated geographic allocation, certain countries and people suffer much more than the others in the cycle. And now people are talking about seabed mining without carefully evaluating the consequences of biodiversity and environmental impacts. There is a lot of research, and many articles discussing the issue from a scientific perspective. What I will do is to exposure the complexity of reality with story-telling in my future novels.
GB: Waste Tide exhibits an acute awareness of the global character of extraction: for example, you show both how China is an advanced technological society, but that it is also a waste disposal link in the global supply chain. What are your thoughts about how global supply chains dictate this uneven development of capitalism?
CQ: In 2016, The Basel Action Network (BAN) placed GPS trackers in obsolete equipment in the USA. One of these studies showed that around one-third of the e-waste in the US ended up in developing countries. From exports, 93 percent went to developing countries in Asia where no proper recycling is performed. 7 percent moved to countries such as Mexico, Canada, and Australia. Since 2018, China’s example demonstrates a wider affliction gripping Southeast Asia. Neighbouring countries have picked up the slack. The history of so-called “progress” continues, and those vulnerable are treated even more unfairly. So as we can see, NIMBY is the philosophy while maximum profit is the nature of capitalism. However, all of those implicit or even invisible costs are totally neglected and wiped out from the paycheck: the water, the air, the soil, the people and the other species.
We need to design a better system on tracking, evaluating the collateral damage within the capitalism value chains from extraction to recycling, and give it a price to compensate whoever suffers from the whole process.
GB: In Waste Tide, you are sceptical about the possibilities of heroic individual action as a solution to the many (environmental and other) problems of global extraction. In the story, it is collective action that finally succeeds in making some incremental progress. Do you think that science fiction is yet to fully explore the possibilities of collective action as a response to global problems such as extraction?
CQ: Fiction needs characters, protagonists and antagonists, otherwise the readers wouldn’t resonate with it. So it makes a collective POV narrative so difficult. Of course there are some successful cases like Vernor Vinge, but not many. What I am trying to say is that even collective action is founded by individual drive; the goal or the approach could vary. On global problems such as extraction and climate change, it is so important to reflect as many diverse and legitimate perspectives; that is, with the magic of story-telling, to reconcile the differences, create the emerging consensus, and then to evoke the action against the status quo.
With every future we wish to create, we must first learn to imagine it. To me, that’s the true value of science fiction.
GB: Finally, is there any forthcoming writing of yours that carries these themes forward? Anything we should look out for?
CQ: The new novel I am currently working on, entitled Cipher Gaia for now. It’s the sequel to Waste Tide, loosely connected with previous characters and storyline, but definitely going deeper and further on the same theme of extraction, climate change, new forms of environmentalists, oceanic biodiversity, indigenous culture preservation, and of course, the metaverse (albeit from a different, critical angle).