“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

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 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.

  1. 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.

This Issue

October 17, 1996