Science and State Power in China

Manoj Kewalramani February 19, 2019

In May 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping placed an ambitious proposition before the leaders of the country’s scientific community. He called on them to “aim for the frontiers of science and technology” and emerge as the “vanguards in innovation in the new era.” The overarching objective, he said, was for China to become a “major world centre for science and innovation.” This, for Xi, is one of the “responsibilities bestowed by history” upon China’s scientific community. For him, the development of science and technology is a strategic imperative. It’s what will drive future growth and ensure China’s security, overall competitiveness and global standing.

At the heart of Xi’s emphasis on and investment in science and technology, therefore, is the goal of enhancing state power. This perspective is not exclusive to the current Chinese leadership. It is the product of historical debate over the role of science and technology in Chinese society. The origins of this conversation can be dated back to the last few decades of the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1912. Since then, while strengthening state power has remained the core objective of the pursuit of scientific advancement, each generation of leaders has adopted a different pathway.

Birth of Mr Science

The twilight decades of the Qing Dynasty witnessed a vigorous debate over the need to pursue wealth and power, i.e., fundamentals that enhance state power. For that generation of Self-Strengtheners, living in an era of foreign invasions and growing development and technological gap between China and other world powers, catching up was a matter of existential concern.

Yet, such change in a rigid, hierarchical and feudal system, which emphasised knowledge of the classics, was to prove to be a difficult proposition. This is evident in the experience of Shanghai’s first railway track, which was built in 1886 by Westerners. The track was ripped out within a year — actions that were a mix of nationalistic, financial and superstitious concerns over dis­rupting feng shui and disturbing ancestral spirits.

What ensued the fall of the Qing was a period of intense social and political churn. Thinkers, writers and activists rallied against traditional governance systems and social structures, which they claimed had fostered dogma and weakness. What China needed was a new approach and thinking. What China needed, as Chen Duxiu argued, was to look toward Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy. For Chen, a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, it was only these two gentlemen who could “save China from the political, moral, academic, and intellectual darkness.”

This formulation fed what’s called the New Culture movement, which was catalytic in the May 4, 1919, protests. Among other things, this movement brought science and the scientific method — i.e., rational thought over superstition and experimentation and exploration over the unquestioning authority of the classics — at the heart of the discourse over state power.

Populism and power

This view found favour with Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, despite his revolutionary ideological leanings. The journey of scientific and technological advancement in Maoist China, however, was a bumpy ride, to say the least. Much of the discourse around scientific development in the Maoist era tends to be dominated by the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) along with an emphasis on self-reliance. If one were to conduct an opportunity-cost analysis, Mao isn’t likely to fare well. Despite that, there were significant developments in Chinese science during his rule.

Joseph Needham in his seminal work, Science and Civilisation in China, tells us that Mao had extended a great deal of state support for the development of pure and applied science. The ‘mass science’ program that Mao launched took the spirit of scientism to the broader public in a bid to enhance productivity and national security. The program, as Mason Ji explains, “attempted to engage each individual in the scientific development process, emphasizing the need to debunk the myth that science is only for the elite.” However flawed Mao’s approach, it did lead to a number of key advances. This is evident in the advancement of China’s missile, nuclear weapons and satellite programs. The PRC conducted its first nuclear test in 1964. The country launched its first satellite, The East is Red, in 1970. Another field that developed rapidly was medical research and healthcare. Tu Youyou’s 2015 Nobel award for extracting artemisinin, which helped in combating malaria, and the ‘barefoot doctors’ movement are products of Maoist scientific populism.

The above informs of a pattern of Mao’s approach to science and technology. First, there was an emphasis on the development of science and technology for the purpose of national security, which included improving China’s authority and bargaining power in international affairs. The second was the approach of taking science to the masses, in part driven by an ideology of anti-intellectualism and in part by the need to tackle immediate problems faced by society. At the end of the day, for Mao, while science and scientists were important, what mattered more was whether they were ‘red.’

Red and expert

For Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, however, that was not the only characteristic that mattered. On March 18, 1978, Deng addressed the National Conference on Science in Beijing, setting out a vision for the future of scientific development in China. It was a speech that resonated with themes debated in the late 1800s. Deng lashed out at the ‘Gang of Four’ — a faction of the Chinese Communist Party — for seeking to “wantonly sabotage the cause of science.” He bluntly acknowledged that China had fallen behind other world powers in scientific advancement, while emphasising ancient achievements, i.e., the “four great inventions” of paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. In doing so, he outlined a pathway for the future, proclaiming science and technology as productive forces.

Deng’s vision was of four modernisations that China needed to pursue — agriculture, industry, national defence and science and technology. “The key to the four modernizations,” he said, “is the modernization of science and technology.” Once again, the utility of science was defined from the broader prism of increasing state power, with catching up being the key objective. Deng’s roadmap for this was to build a workforce that was ‘red and expert.’ What this meant was that China needed high-quality scientists, engineers and technicians dedicated to the socialist scientific enterprise. That was a marked shift from the Maoist ‘mass science’ approach.

Another key break from that strand of thought was approaching science and technological development within the broader Reform and Opening Up framework. Therefore, Deng advocated against “shutting the door on the world” and “blind opposition to everything foreign.” This led to the beginning of a collaboration with global partners. In addition, Deng’s maxim of the not bothering about the colour of the cat as long as it catches the mice underscored a result-oriented attitude that encouraged competition and contention. The products of this approach over the decades that followed were reduced ideological constraints, increased professionalism, and a focus on commercialisation.

Strategic perspective

Under Xi, what appears to be emerging is a blend of the Maoist and Dengist approaches. State power remains at the core, but there is a deeper strategic significance to scientific advancement. Xi has often spoken about China’s historical achievements in the form of the four inventions, retaining the historical narrative of how past glory was lost.

At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, he said he wanted China to become a “country of innovators.” He views science and technology as key to addressing people’s problems, boosting economic development and enhancing national security. The Made in China 2025, AI strategy, robotics plan and so on are all geared towards addressing some of these challenges. Xi desires international collaboration but also wants self-reliance, emphasizing that the initiatives of innovation and development are to be “securely kept in our own hands.”

More importantly, science and technology development, for Xi, is the next frontier of global and great power competition. Hence the call for a “sense of urgency and crisis” when it comes to achieving breakthroughs in fundamental research, amid the deepening technology friction with the West. What remains to be seen is whether such an approach is optimal and sustainable.

Manoj Kewalramani, Associate Fellow-China Studies at The Takshashila Institution, writes a monthly column, Sino Circuit, on China and the factors powering its tech prowess


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