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The Hope for China

4. Science needs free exchange of information. China’s Communist leaders began to deny this premise as soon as they could. In the 1950s they introduced a system of “internal” circulation of books and periodicals under which all but the most politically sanitized items were restricted to people who had elite political status, or, in the case of scientists, who needed specialized materials in order to do their work. The more sensitive the material, the smaller and more elite the group to which it was limited.

But in practice this net was not tight enough to achieve the regime’s purposes. During the 1960s, when China was fairly well sealed off from much of the world, the library at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) still carried all of the major international scientific journals. Fang Lizhi was able to read there nearly every issue of the American Physical Society’s journal Physics Today. From the photos, advertisements, and letters from readers he also got the impression that ordinary life in the West might not be the “morass of misery” that official publications in China claimed it to be. (On this point Stalin was better at controlling information than Mao was; in Moscow the non-science pages of Physics Today were torn out.) When the Cultural Revolution erupted in the late 1960s, young Red Guards raided caches of “internal” books and passed them around among themselves. It is no coincidence that, by the time Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s, scientists and former Red Guards were two of the groups hardest to fool.

Today, according to recent reports from visitors to China, the Internet is the hot new item both for those who seek information and those who are charged with controlling it. With particle physicists leading the way, Chinese users of the Internet have increased from about one thousand in April, 1994, when the Web arrived, to perhaps ten thousand or more by late last year.6 In China ten thousand people are not quite 0.0009 percent of the population, yet even this number was enough to provoke China’s rulers into action. In February 1996, the official news agency announced that only the state is in charge of “overall planning, unified criteria, classification management and promoting development” of international computer networks, and that all users, institutional and individual, must be registered with the police.7 Chinese scientists have recently reported sharp increases in the fees they must pay to use the Internet, and some believe that the main purpose of the increases is to limit access. Beginning last January, scientists at CAS had to pay 66 yuan per megabyte to download information from the Internet.8 This rate is well above international standards for scientific use of the Internet, which in many countries is free.

5. Science is universal. Scholars of Chinese literature normally think of themselves as working in a different field from colleagues who work on Indian or French literature. The same generally holds for fields of history, philosophy, or art. But there is no such thing as Chinese or Indian science—or, as the Nazis once seriously claimed, “German science.”

For Fang Lizhi and his current students in Arizona, this point is so obvious it need not be stated. Fang taught relativity and quantum mechanics in China using some of the same text-books he now assigns in Tucson. His students assume that what they learn holds in exactly the same way everywhere, even light-years away. These students come from Russia, Germany, China (both mainland and Taiwan), Latin America, Saudi Arabia, and many other places, as well as the US, and they joke that they could provide the best single place on campus for interpreting services.

Li Xingmin, the plain-speaking editor at the Bulletin of Natural Dialectics, whom Miller discusses at length, has taken considerable risks when he argues that scientists tend to approach human values similarly to the ways in which they search for truth in nature. Any serious inquiry, Li argued in 1990, begins with individual “independence” and “tolerance.” Then:

From these basic premises…arise step by step a series of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, impartiality, honor, and human dignity and self-worth. These are the human values that science embodies, and people who espouse them promote both the development of science and the progress of society.

But it is important to note the limits of Li’s claim for the power of science. He says the human values that the scientific method encourages scientists to adopt can “promote” society’s progress. He correctly stops short of promising that scientists alone can bring big changes.

Scientists are, first of all, only a tiny part of China’s population; even if they all were ardent democrats, the hope for political progress could not depend on them. And they are not all democrats. The regime’s formula “You row the boat, we’ll hold the tiller” has been successful in many cases where scientists have been willing to conform so long as their needs for professional equipment and reasonable living conditions have been satisfied, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union showed that science could be controlled politically and China has followed a similar pattern. Young scientists who feel the attraction of democracy also know that speaking out in favor of democratic values can endanger their scientific careers and personal comfort. Older scientists who have settled into China’s system enough to gain some power and status are, like human beings elsewhere, subject to the corrupting effects that power can bring.

Political pressures can undermine not only a scientist’s social conscience but scientific work as well, as has often happened when Chinese scientists return from abroad and are prevented, not just by lack of information or equipment but by orders from political authorities, from continuing with the work they do best. When he was studying in England in the 1940s, the Beijing University professor Huang Kun had begun some outstanding work in the theory of condensed matter. After returning to China and joining the Communist Party in the 1950s, he was assigned to help set up and run a factory to produce semiconductors; that marked the end of his contributions to science.

The Communist elites of both the Soviet Union and China have included a number of former scientists. The physicist Qian Xuesen, who worked on rockets for Mao, eventually joined the ruling group of Party officials. In 1959 he endorsed the “scientific basis” of Mao’s disastrous theory that crop yield could increase tenfold or more by close planting. In July 1989, a month after the Beijing massacre, he wrote a letter to American scientists warning of “exaggerated and unreal reports” in the international press and explaining that, “in truth,” the Chinese government had suffered attack by “a handful of rioters, engaged in beating, looting, robbery, burning, and murdering.”


If science is to help bring democracy to China, it will do so not because of particular scientists but because Chinese society itself will, at least to some extent, adopt the spirit of science. This may sound like an impossible ideal, but it seems less so if we recall the considerable momentum that the same ideal had in the early part of the twentieth century in China. Hu Shi, a philosopher, essayist, and leading figure in “the Chinese enlightenment” known as the May Fourth Movement, wrote in 1923 that:

During the last thirty years or so there is a name which has acquired an incomparable position of respect in China; no one, whether informed or ignorant, conservative or progressive, dares openly slight or jeer at it. The name is Science.9

For Hu and his May Fourth colleagues, the scientific method had applications far beyond the natural sciences; it could be applied to society, politics, indeed everywhere. In a 1916 essay Hu wrote that:

We may find it hard to accept that God is omnipotent, but we certainly can believe that the scientific method is omnipotent and that mankind’s future has no limits.10

Democracy and science” became a rallying cry among Chinese intellectuals, who assumed that there was a central connection between the two.

How did science attain such status? The beginnings of the answer lie in China’s history of humiliating military defeats in the mid-nineteenth century, when Chinese sabers and spears proved no match for the gunboats and muskets that Britain and other European powers brought to the China coast. Chinese leaders decided that China needed to build its own modern arsenal and shipyard. But to build guns and gunboats, China needed engineering; for engineering, it needed modern science; the quick route to science was through Western-style education, and that eventually meant learning foreign languages, sending students abroad, and so on. For any culture to give ground to another can be unsettling, but for China, after its many centuries of largely isolated splendor, this erosion of the core of Chinese tradition was especially distressing. Until the end of the nineteenth century Chinese modernizers were guided by the notion of “borrow the minimum possible, and keep as much Chineseness as you can.”

This formula began to collapse after 1895, when Japan—which had been China’s younger brother in the traditional Confucian world order—became the latest nation to thrash China in a one-sided war. There followed a “scramble for concessions,” in which Britain, Russia, Germany, France, Japan, and other powers competed for spheres of influence in parts of China. In Chinese the phrase “divided like a melon” expressed a common fear. In 1898 Thomas Huxley’s “On Evolution” was published in translation, setting off a panic that China might lose in the “struggle to survive” among nations.11

In this atmosphere some Chinese intellectuals, including Lu Xun, the leading writer of the time, Chen Duxiu, a founder of the Communist Party, and Hu Shi, began to conclude that radical surgery was China’s only hope. No longer should China “borrow the minimum and protect the core”; the core itself needed replacing. By the late 1910s there were increasing calls to jettison tradition, to “knock down Confucius and sons.” But what was to take its place? In 1920, the Chinese Communist movement, which eventually provided the answer to this question, was only a small study group that met in the Beijing University library. Among educated Chinese, the most popular answer at the time was “democracy and science.” Another slogan, “Science to save China,” expressed the idea that China needed science not just for technological supplements but as the foundation of a new kind of Chinese civilization.

During the late 1910s and much of the 1920s it looked as if the ideal of “democracy and science” might have a chance. Eventually, though, more powerful tides in Chinese history overwhelmed it. With the sweeping away of Confucianism, there arose a strong cultural presumption that whatever replaced Confucianism would have to do what the Confucian system had done—provide a set of fixed and authoritative rules for the proper living of life. For some, science itself came to resemble a new ideology or religion more than a way of thinking grounded in doubt and individual freedom. The Communist movement, for example, claimed the mantle of “scientific” Marxism even as it began, in practice, to distort Chinese understanding of what science actually was. Hu Shi and others persisted in trying to keep the spirit of science alive with slogans like “Hypothesize boldly, seek evidence meticulously.”

But people wanted quick answers, not meticulousness. With the Japanese attacks on China in the 1930s, “democracy and science,” along with other ideals, were displaced by all-out resistance efforts. After the war, Mao Zedong’s success brought back “scientific” communism, but, as Miller’s book shows, both Mao and Deng in fact insisted that politics dominate science. Could any ideal survive five decades of such neglect and ostracism?

It seems, in fact, that the “democracy and science” movement of the early part of the century seeped fairly deeply into the thinking of educated Chinese about society, and has quite remarkably survived. During the student democracy demonstrations of 1986 and 1989, there were explicit references to the liberalism of the May Fourth movement. At Beijing University, where the movement had crested in 1919, students whose parents were not yet born in 1919 made a point of reviving the idea of “democracy and science.” The phrase also has turned up in places far removed from Beijing. Last May President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan used it in his inaugural address to highlight the successes of his island republic.12

On the China mainland today, the democracy movement is at low ebb. Xu Liangying, a retired physicist at CAS and the translator of Einstein’s works into Chinese, continues to speak publicly in opposition to the current political system and in favor of democracy and human rights. But Xu’s voice seems lonely within an atmosphere of money-making, rising nationalism, and a continued dictatorship in which less prestigious dissenters suffer in prison. For most professional scientists, the two biggest problems are shortage of funds and the drain of talent, either overseas or into the business world inside China. Although funds for science are being cut back in many countries in the post-cold war era, in China, where the infrastructure for science—libraries, communication equipment, offices and laboratories, and machines for typing and copying—has never been strong, the problem is unusually severe. Today only about 40 percent of CAS funds come from state support; the rest is raised from grants from China’s own Natural Science Foundation, or, more commonly, by business enterprises run by the scientists themselves. The Beijing Observatory, for example, makes and sells television satellite antennae. The largest business at Beijing University today is selling hardware and software for printing machines.

Government funds tend to be concentrated on “big science” projects that carry international prestige—for an optical telescope, a new collider, or a fusion reactor—while basic education in science is slighted. The difficulty in finding funds of course worsens the brain drain. Last year the CAS president, Zhou Guangzhao. seemed almost to give up when he said “we encourage our scientists…to join industry or to establish their own company.”13 The generation of scientists in their thirties has been especially depleted, and the shortfall in their numbers will be felt more sorely in a few years when the disproportionately large older generation of scientists retires.14

In one sense the attitude of the Chinese government toward science today is what it was a century ago during the final years of the Manchu dynasty: science is seen as providing instruments to be used by the rulers, without changing the character of Chinese society itself. That approach failed a century ago, and its prospects are not good now. Democracy and science, both intrinsically and for historical reasons in China, should be viewed as linked and not regarded as luxuries but as indispensable to China’s progress.

For example, while widespread debate about democracy has subsided, popular complaints about corruption certainly have not. They have grown more and more intense, while government anti-corruption campaigns have failed for essentially the same reason that foxes fail as guards of henhouses. More and more Chinese people are realizing that only independent public supervision of government—in effect, democracy—can check the systemic corruption found throughout the country. The Chinese government, together with some of its Western advocates, argues that China should get rich first and worry about democracy later. This argument is transparently self-serving, because it is the government leaders and their families (as well, incidentally, as some of their Western defenders) who are in the best position to profit from the current Chinese boom. The claim that economic growth eventually leads to political liberalization finds support in the experience of Taiwan and South Korea, but such an outcome does not follow automatically. Miller cites the argument of Xu Liangying, in a 1992 article called “Reform Cannot Possibly Succeed without Political Democracy,” that the Nazi “socialism” of the 1930s, when the German economy grew by more than 10 percent per year, offers a closer parallel to the situation in China today.

Although economic development will not guarantee democracy in China, suppression of intellectual freedoms will, sooner or later, certainly slow economic growth. China’s recent gains have resulted primarily from its efforts to catch up with more developed countries. Chinese managers have depended heavily on imported technology and a large pool of cheap and docile labor. But as Chinese wage rates rise toward world levels, China will learn (as Japan did) that economic growth at more advanced technological levels is more difficult than catch-up growth, and will demand innovation, originality, and true entrepreneurship. These, in turn, depend on imagination and unfettered inquiry, including the freedom to criticize and dissent, to test hypotheses in practice, and to associate with others as one chooses. No advanced economy in the world today thrives within a dictatorship, and there is no sign that China will be an exception to this rule.

  1. 6

    June Kinoshita, “Scientists Hope Competition Will Improve Internet Access,” Science, Vol. 270 (November 17, 1995), p. 1141.

  2. 7

    Testimony of Michael Jendrzejczyk, Senate Finance Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, June, 1996.

  3. 8

    Officially about $7.75, or roughly 8 percent of the average monthly salary of a Chinese scientist.

  4. 9

    Kexue yu renshengguan xu,” quoted in D.W.Y. Kwok, Scientism in Chinese Thought, 1900–1950 (Yale University Press, 1965), p. 11.

  5. 10

    Women duiyu Xiyang jindai wenming de taidu,” quoted in Kwok, Scientism in Chinese Thought, p. 96.

  6. 11

    Hu Shi’s pen name, “Hu who adapts,” draws upon the Chinese a translation of Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest.” For more on Darwin’s influence in China, see James R. Pusey, China and Charles Darwin (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1983).

  7. 12

    Taiwan has been able in recent decades…to come into wide contact with Western democracy and science….” Quoted in Edward A. Gargan, “Taiwan President Says He Would Go to Beijing for Talks,” The New York Times, May 20, 1996, p. A3.

  8. 13

    Zhou Guangzhao, “The Course of Reform at the Chinese Academy of Sciences,” Science, Vol. 270 (November 17, 1995), p. 1153.

  9. 14

    Between 50 percent and 90 percent of the professors in some institutes of CAS are likely to retire by 2000 AD. See June Kinoshita, “Incentives Help Researchers Resist Lure of Commerce,” Science, Vol. 270 (November 17, 1995), p. 1142. In the physics department at Beijing University, all but ten of the 150 faculty members are within two or three years of retirement.

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