Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge
“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.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.