Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’ Draws Fire in China, Praise From U.S. Conservatives

Netflix’s acclaimed new sci-fi epic 3 Body Problem is getting some heated reactions from viewers in China, while its opening scene is drawing praise among some conservatives in the United States.

The big budget adaptation of Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award-winning 2008 novel tells the story of humanity preparing for an alien invasion. The show’s opening is set in 1966 and depicts a Chinese Cultural Revolution struggle session at a Beijing university where a physics professor is brutally beaten by Red Guards for his refusal to conform to government beliefs before a jeering crowd.

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It’s a sequence that’s crucial to the story and direct from the novel but was notably not depicted in the 30-episode Chinese adaptation of the book by Tencent which was released on streamers last year. (The Chinese Communist Party has been accused of trying to erase the Cultural Revolution and its atrocities from history and pop culture.) The scene was also buried halfway through the Chinese version of the novel but was brought to the beginning of the book for the English version — with the author’s blessing.

The scene has been getting strong reactions on social media in China, where some have managed to find ways to view the show illicitly (Netflix is not distributed in China). Some conservatives in the U.S. are likewise zeroing in on the scene, calling it a rare example of Hollywood showing what happens when collectivist ideologies are taken too far.

In China, the show was trending on social media on Friday despite its lack of official accessibility, according to Reuters. “The first scene made my jaw drop,” wrote one user on Weibo. “Even though I had anticipated this, the scene still startled me.” According to CNN, the show has sparked “nationalist anger” in China and some accused its Red Guard depictions as Hollywood deliberately trying to make the country look bad. Others slammed “politically correct” changes to the story, as the Netflix version features a more diverse international cast and centers the story in London (the novel is set in China). The tag “China version wins” was also reportedly trending, referring to the Tencent version.

Some conservatives in the United States are heralding the opening scene on X, where an elderly professor refuses to acquiesce to demands by young revolutionaries to change his thinking. A sample of the reactions include: “To understand what the left is doing, I suggest watching the opening of the Netflix series 3 Body Problem. The scene of the Cultural revolution demonstrates what is taking place. Learn history or be doomed”; “Just watched the opening scene of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem depicting a Chinese cultural revolution lynching, and it is scarily reminiscent of where Woke is taking us: no freedom of speech or thought, toe the party line or be eliminated, don’t even think of counter-revolution”; and “The opening scene depicts our current ant-human cult perfectly. Apply anything to that opening scene, COVID, the Climate Cult, Transfuckwitism etc.” Conservatives are also criticizing the show overall for some of the same “woke” casting moves that have annoyed some viewers in China.

David Benioff — who is the co-showrunner of 3 Body Problem alongside Dan Weiss and Alexander Woo — was asked about the progressive authoritarian vibe in the opening scene during a set visit to the show in 2022. At the time, the production community had recently come off an extended shutdown due to COVID-19.

“This isn’t a commentary on cancel culture,” he told Hollywood Reporter (in a previously unpublished quote). “But we do tend to move in cycles in terms of human history, and we’re going through a certain period of the cycle right now. There are many very significant differences between the current time and the Cultural Revolution. But there are also some similarities. It was never something where we were like, ‘We should do this show because we want to make a commentary on that.’ But it is interesting that the parallels are there and are hard to ignore.”

3 Body Problem actress Rosalind Chao, who plays the adult version of Ye Wenjie in the show, spoke to THR about the show’s Cultural Revolution scenes and adaptive changes: “I think it’s important to have an international version of the story. Narrow-mindedness drives me a little bit nuts. Am I OK to say that? I love that this has been made more international for a wider audience. You’ll probably get me more blacklisted in China for saying this, but I have a cousin who was isolated and lived with pigs for 10 years [in China]. He’s in America now, and I only found this out at Thanksgiving when he didn’t want to eat ham. They don’t talk about [the Revolution]. It’s so ingrained not to discuss it, whereas it’s a huge part of history and the fact that it can be told here in a way that also embraces the sci-fi genre, it’s kind of exciting. It’s important for people to understand world history and what makes people the way they are.”

Co-showrunner Woo recently told The New York Times about the scene: “It’s a part of history that is not written about in fiction very much, let alone filmed, and my family lived through it, as did the family of Derek Tsang, who directed the first two episodes. We give a lot of credit to him for bringing that to life, because he knew that it had not been filmed with this clinical eye maybe ever. He took enormous pains to have every detail of it depicted as real as it could be. I showed it to my mother, and you could see a chill coming over her, and she said, ‘That’s real. This is what really happened.’ And she added, ‘Why would you show something like that? Why do you make people experience something so terrible?’ But that’s how we knew we’d done our job.”

Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is considered a big swing for the streamer. The brainy drama reportedly cost more than $20 million per episode, making it Netflix’s most expensive first season show ever. Critics have been very mixed, but some reviews have been outright superlative and some viewers are praising the show as one of the best sci-fi programs they’ve ever seen. Overall, the story is considered quite progressive — one of the book’s early champions was Barack Obama — and many consider its tale of how humanity deals with an existential threat a perfect allegory for the climate change crisis (a comparison that’s also given a nod in the show).

Even some on Chinese social media are heralding Netflix’s adaptation (including the opening scene, noting that it is true to history). As one viewer in China quoted by CNN said: “Why do some people always need to make an enemy out of a cultural product? Our version can be good, theirs can also be excellent. Why do we always have to fight about it?”

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