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The Hope for China

Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge

by H. Lyman Miller
University of Washington Press, 370 pp., $18.95 (paper)


Some people,” declared Mao Zedong in 1959, “say that we have become isolated from the masses.”1 By “some people” Mao meant Peng Dehuai, a subordinate who had dared to criticize Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” which was just then creating in China the largest famine in world history. Throughout the Communist movement in China, “some people” has always been code for “people up to no good politically.” During the military exercises in the Taiwan straits last March, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that “some people”—meaning Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui and his associates—are “attempting to make use of foreign forces for Taiwan independence,” while “some people”—meaning the US—are making “a show of force…that will be futile.”2

In view of how the phrase has been used, we might wonder at its appearance in a seemingly arcane 1982 academic article called “The Four Great Achievements of Twentieth-Century Natural Science Have Enriched the Dialectical View of Nature,” by a philosopher named Zha Ruqiang. “Some people,” wrote Zha, doubt that matter is endlessly divisible; they refuse to believe in things smaller than quarks unless they find one. “Some people,” moreover, do not accept that the universe is infinite; they call it “finite but unbounded.” Why the heavy political hand here? Can one side on these scientific questions be so seriously wrong as to become the ominous “some people?”

Lyman Miller’s book shows in great detail how scientific questions have been made into political issues in China. The Communist Party’s power depends importantly on its claim to “correctness”; the foundations of this claim lie in classical Marxism-Leninism; Engels and Lenin held that matter is infinitely in both time and space. But modern astrophysicists have produced other views. Whether or not the universe is best conceived as infinite in volume is still moot among them; but since the 1930s, when astronomers found the universe to be expanding, the view that it had a beginning, and thus is finite in age, has become widely accepted.

On this point, a philosopher of science as astute as Zha Ruqiang certainly must have realized that his Marxist faith and modern science had diverged irreconcilably. Yet, as Miller shows, it remained Zha’s task in Beijing to claim the opposite, to devise a modern synthesis of science and Marxism, and to impugn dissenters as people trapped in “bourgeois” thought. When his work was done, its political significance was not just to glorify Marxism by demonstrating the prescience of its founders; it also gave to the Party in the 1980s a new interpretation that it could insist upon as the “correct” one. Authoritarianism needs authoritative statements in order to exercise its power.

Miller’s book also discusses some of the responses of Chinese scientists to life in a dictatorship, where certain answers are given and certain questions cannot be asked publicly, yet there is always one or another kind of work to do. Some have resisted these conditions, some have adapted to them, and many have done a little of both.

Mao Zedong was no friend of the scientific method, but he knew that he needed scientists. When China exploded its atom bomb in 1964, the event was advertised throughout the world as “another great victory of the invincible thought of Mao Zedong.” But Mao himself certainly knew that building the bomb had nothing whatever to do with the thought of Mao and everything to do with the thought of a physicist named Qian Sanqiang and the group he worked with. Rockets to deliver the bomb were the project of another physicist, Qian Xuesen, who had been trained at Cal Tech and frightened away from California by America’s own flirtation with authoritarian politics during the Joseph McCarthy era.

Mao’s use of these physicists epitomized the attitude of the Communist regime toward all Chinese scientists: “You row the boat, we’ll hold the tiller.” Elite scientists were allowed relatively privileged lives on the premise that they would stay quiet about political matters. During the great famine between 1959 and 1961, for example, they were given special allocations of precious soybeans.

Today a Chinese scientist typically lives more or less as other skilled urban workers do, which is to say in a two-room apartment of about 200 square feet inside a large institutional dormitory. The quarters include a small kitchen and a toilet, and are equipped with a television set and maybe a small refrigerator. There is not much room for a desk or books, especially if the scientist has a family, and many scientists do not have an office at work, either. Higher-ranking scientists, or those who become officials, can get living space two or three times this size, and can request use of an institute or university automobile. Most scientists travel only by bicycle or bus.

A recurrent problem with this arrangement, however, has been that scientific methods and assumptions tend to pull the thinking of scientists outside its prescribed bounds. “Science” and “dissent,” the two key concepts in Miller’s book, turn out to have some intrinsic connections. Sensing as much, Chinese authorities have always been leery of science, especially “pure” science; the spread of scientific ideas among the Chinese public could make authoritarian rule more difficult. Mao warned that physicists from Newton to Einstein were all “bourgeois,” and, although he had no understanding of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, or the concept of the finitude of the universe, he labeled all these as “reactionary” just to be on the safe side. Deng, although including “science and technology” among his Four Modernizations, ordered cutbacks in science enrollments at elite universities following the student demonstrations for democracy in 1986 and 1989. And, although the Chinese economy has grown at double-digit rates in recent years, the Deng government has put limits on spending for science.3

What is it about science that makes Chinese scientists think about democracy? As will be noted below, there are important historical connections between democracy and science in China. But Miller’s book leads one to consider more essential connections between science and such things as dissent, democracy, and human rights; at least for scientists who live in an authoritarian society like China’s, scientific thinking seems to involve some premises that naturally pull a person toward democratic assumptions. At least five such premises emerge from Miller’s account.

1. Science begins with doubt. In order to make a scientific advance, one must begin by wondering about the received version of things. But this is also called “dissent.” Miller quotes Li Xingmin, an outspoken editor at the Bulletin of Natural Dialectics, who wrote as follows in 1990:

In the history of science, only when recognized and accepted ideas are publicly challenged in dissent (as, for example, Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein did) can there be progress. Dissent is the instrument of intellectual progress and is the inborn activity of scientists. Without dissent. there is no science.

Even an elementary course in physics takes up the problem of error. Students are taught that the only defense against error lies in the scientist’s willingness always to question; they are also taught how the grand theories of physics themselves have changed, sometimes radically, because of advances that originated in doubt.

From assumptions like these, it is hard to swallow an authoritarian’s command to “believe X and don’t ask why,” even when one’s countrymen are accustomed to such acquiescence. A famous anecdote in China tells of a despot in 207 BC who tested his ministers’ obedience by showing them a deer and daring them, on pain of punishment, to contradict his stated opinion that it was a horse. In Deng’s China the “four basic principles”—adherence to the Communist Party, socialism, Marxism-Leninism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat—are similarly held above all questioning, even though by now the words are only empty shells. Taken together they amount to a single message: “Don’t do anything you are told not to do—or else.” This is called their “guiding role.”4

2. Scientific doubt leads to individual independence. For one of us, Fang Lizhi,5 the path from physics to democracy began with “independence of thought.” While still a student at Beijing University, Fang reached the conclusion that science placed the burden of finding truth upon each individual person. In 1955, at a convention of the Communist Youth League, he gave a speech on “independent thinking” and drew a stern warning from his Party secretary. To develop skill in political study, said the secretary, one had to achieve “ingenious repetition” (qiaomiao de chongfu) of the tenets of Marxism, but not to question the tenets themselves. Individual creativity was appropriate only in finding different ways to express known truths. That the secretary could appreciate that something more than “ingenious repetition” was possible for a thinking mind shows that even he had intellectual standards that extended beyond Marxism. But he had consciously chosen to sacrifice those standards, whereas, for Fang, the pull of science in the opposite direction was too strong. In Fang’s view a conclusion that was confirmed only by repetition was, no matter how ingenious, not science. Eventually faced with arrest for publicizing such views, he left the country in 1990 and now teaches general relativity and quantum field theory at the University of Arizona.

3. Science is egalitarian. Zhong Weiguang, an ardent Red Guard when he left high school in the late 1960s, later became so disillusioned with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism that he turned to the study of physics in an attempt to refute all of “natural dialectics” and replace it with science. In 1986 this campaign led him into polemics with Party theorist Zha Ruqiang in the pages of the Bulletin of Natural Dialectics. To Zhong, the most basic connections between science and democracy are epistemological. Any person’s view of something, Zhong argues, is necessarily from that person’s angle, and thus by itself “subjective.” Objective scientific truth is something that lies beyond the variety of subjective views; statements of objective truth are formed only by a consensus of many observers, and are confirmed by independently repeating experimental results. No single observer is privileged; anyone may form hypotheses, and any hypothesis has to be tested by others before “truth” emerges.

For Zhong and others, this theory of truth and its knowability had analogues in democratic theory: one person’s vote, like his or her subjective view, contributes to a public consensus without determining it; the public consensus, once formed, tolerates and protects questioning voices, which are the sources for ideas that will make future advances possible. Just as everyone stands equal before the truth, similarly everyone should be equal before the law. These political analogies, although based on the most elementary principles of the scientific method, are revolutionary in the context of Chinese authoritarianism.

In 1978, for example, Deng Xiaoping announced in a much publicized statement that “practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.” This maxim, long accepted by most scientists, was useful to Deng for exactly two years. Deng needed to undo some of the Maoist dogma that he had inherited—especially as it concerned markets, money-making, and foreigners—because it was blocking the road down which he wanted to lead China. By 1980 the dismantling of Mao had gone far enough (to take it too far would have undermined Deng as well as Mao), and so the emphasis on the slogan advocating “practice to test for truth” was dropped. Deng’s own doctrines, ever since 1980, have been held to be immune to that test.

  1. 1

    Mao Zedong, “Speech at the Lushan Conference,” in Stuart Schram, editor, Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters: 1956–71 (Penguin, 1974), p.133.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, March 12, 1996, p.A6, and March 18, 1996, p.A3.

  3. 3

    China’s investment in science and technology, which has lagged behind not only the rates in the industrialized world but in most developing nations as well, last year was only 0.6 percent of gross domestic product. About two thirds of this relatively small amount went to education and one third to research and development. Of the funds for research and development, only about 7 percent went to basic research, the other 93 percent to applied research and development. See June Kinoshita, “The Long March to Top-Notch Science” and Zhu Lilan, “The Role of Chinese Science and Technology in Economic Development,” in Science, Vol. 270 (November 17, 1995), pp. 1135 and 1154.

  4. 4

    Chinese who know both English and the official hanyu pinyin system for romanizing Chinese can enjoy the irony that guiding spells the Chinese word for “require.”

  5. 5

    Fang, a prominent Chinese scientist and dissident, and a frequent subject of Miller’s book, is also co-author of this review. Readers are asked to excuse the unavoidable awkwardness of the occasional third-person reference to him.

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