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Liu Yadong, Mr. Science, and China’s Shaky Modernity

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Liu Yadong, Mr. Science, and China’s Shaky Modernity

The editor of a state-affiliated magazine laments the lack of “scientific spirit” in Chinese society.

Liu Yadong, Mr. Science, and China’s Shaky Modernity
Credit: Pixabay

Nearly four months of painful introspection have passed since the U.S. Department of Commerce levied their ban on Chinese telecom manufacturer ZTE. While now already lifted, the ban turned out to be a watershed moment in China’s discourse on its science and technology sector and the anxieties attached to the reliance on foreign technology. In other words, a piece of Chinese of modernity was questioned.

Subsequently, many have come to criticize what they have seen as an undue enthusiasm for the country’s science and technology achievements. Among the few high-profile detractors to what has come to be viewed China’s science and technology hype, Liu Yadong, the chief editor of Science and Technology Daily — a publication affiliated with the Ministry of Science and Technology and the China Academy of Sciences — has emerged as one of the most vocal. Liu became widely cited when he, during a science conference in Beijing, stated that unrealistic expectations of China’s science and technology capabilities were leading to mistakes being made by the country’s leadership, as well as fueling unease among observers abroad. The statement was circulated widely in foreign media, being seen by some as a concession after several years of technoscientific hyperbole. The Global Times charged Liu with extolling “Western technology.”

Last month, coming on the tail end of a series of articles and forums held by the magazine that surveyed the condition of science in today’s China, Liu caused another stir when he, in a second speech, bemoaned the position given to science in Chinese society.

In the speech, Liu charged the country’s science institutions with being subpar, with weak basic science fundamentals and rampant academic fraud and corruption. All these difficulties, he argued, came from the deep lack of a “scientific spirit.” He then went on to posit that the absence of scientific thinking was not limited only to academic and industrial institutions. Rather, the paucity of this scientific spirit and the consequences extend to the whole of society.

Colloquial narratives of science in China are often occupied with describing the cultural obstacles hampering creativity and innovation. Historical accounts draw attention to the unsuccessful attempts at industrialization and modernization through the Self-Strengthening Movement, a national movement that grew out of the Opium Wars of the 19th century. In recent decades, the calls for “self-reliance” and “indigenous innovation” have reflected, somewhat contradictory, the confidence of a techno-nationalist “going at it alone” attitude, but also insecurities attached to the country’s science, technology, and security capabilities.

Liu contends that in the century separating 1919 and 2019, “China has continuously remained lacking scientific spirit.” Although he does not mention this explicitly, the year 1919 is significant for being a climactic year in modern China’s early nation-building efforts, and in turn, for being the start of a negotiation with science and democracy that continues to this day.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, in the first decades of the new republic, Chinese intellectuals were mapping the possible pathways of a Chinese modernity. This period, culminating in the May Fourth Movement in 1919, saw a myriad of different political programs spar against each other. One overarching concern was the relationship between democracy and science — or rather, a discussion of whether a wholesale importation of European Enlightenment values was necessary for ensuring China’s own modernity. Taken as two fundamental elements of modernity, science and democracy became personified as Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy in the writings of Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science, it was thought, would replace old Confucian modes of organization, jettison traditional epistemologies, and promptly help usher in a truly modern China. For Chen, China’s political, intellectual, and moral ailments could all be cured by a comprehensive adoption of scientific and democratic values. In the magazine New Youth, Chen asked the reader to consider the “many upheavals” that had occurred in the West “in support of Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science, before these two gentlemen gradually led Westerners out of darkness” and argued that only these two forces could “resuscitate China.”

Historians of Chinese science have noted that following the founding of the People’s Republic, science and technology innovations kept bubbling beneath the turmoil of the Maoist regime. Globally, this period — namely the advent of the atomic age and the first half of the Cold War — saw science, traditionally a highly international enterprise, be treated increasingly as a strategic and national asset. Science played a significant role in Mao Zedong’s mass line programs, which saw thousands trained in how to conduct seismological and meteorological observations, producing legions of “barefoot scientists” — provisionally trained and minimally equipped farmers and other laymen, akin to the more known barefoot doctors. These were in part attempts at creating a form of “socialist science.” In fields concerning national security, science was taken up as the great panacea. The 1960s saw China develop its first atomic and hydrogen bombs, and in 1970, China’s first satellite was launched into orbit. Yet politically, science remained an anomaly, existing as a vehicle of national security and development, even while simultaneously being of Western importation. Mr. Science, having been enrolled in the new authoritarian state, had now been separated from Mr. Democracy.

Later, during the Reform and Opening era, the clout of scientism grew, exemplified by the controversial “One Child Policy.” As anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh has explored, the final policy was devised by Song Jian, one of the country’s foremost missile scientists and cybernetics theorists. The implementation of the policy underscores the turn to science and the growth of scientific governance in post-Mao China. Deng Xiaoping sought to rebuild China’s scientific institutions — institutions which had, despite political protection, fared badly during the preceding Cultural Revolution – and emphasized that “science was to now be considered a productive force.” Shortly thereafter, science was elevated again, this time to be regarded as the “most important of the productive forces.”

According to Liu, these decades — first of failed attempts at industrialization, then later of successful industrialization — transformed science into an instrument that was wielded to produce economic gain. Furthermore, science came to survive at the mercy of the Marxist ideology that fueled national discourse at the time. This made it necessary for Chinese leaders to articulate it within a Marxist political framework. At the same time, growing market pressure shaped how academic and scientific institutions were structured. In short, the scope of scientific institutions was influenced by the pragmatism that came to characterize the post-Mao period. As the country shifted from the ideational to the material, Mr. Science shifted along with it.

Liu sees this process as muddling together the two independent terms, science and technology. The Chinese denotation for science and technology, keji, is an abbreviation of the two terms, kexue (science) and jishu (technology). This semantic convenience, Liu contends, has had real consequences. It has affected not only the general public’s but also the people in power’s expectations of science, producing perceptions of science biased toward its applicable and commercial aspects. It has altered perceptions on how scientific work should be managed.

This problem has been exacerbated by the discursive and political treatment science has received following the 1978 reforms. As an attempt to refill some of the ideological space left after the economic reforms, the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration launched the “Scientific Outlook on Development” slogan. Meant to guide efforts to alleviate growing socioeconomic problems, the slogan turned out mostly empty.

Although the scientific community remains the main focus of his speech, Liu appears to be calling for a rethinking of science’s position in Chinese society as a whole. The decoupling of science and technology could bring a greater appreciation of the independent values of science. Outlining the history of European science, Liu emphasizes the principle of scientific disenchantment. This, in turn, would produce fertile soil in which a scientific community can grow.

Liu references Greek philosophy when he states that a scientific outlook lies as the prerequisite for the conceptualization of the individual, and further, that science holds intimate links with a culture of contractual obligation. Therefore the most important takeaway is the realization that science, as with technology, permeates all facets of society. This amounts to an expansion of what a “scientific spirit” is meant to achieve. By allowing his conceptualization of a scientific spirit to encompass the whole of society, not only those sectors earmarked for industrial and defense-related output, Liu has attempted to recover an understanding of science more akin to its early 20th century iteration, dragging it away from a narrower, more instrumentalist understanding, and salvaging it as a platform for shaping public consensus.

If Liu’s call for a heightened scientific spirit is somehow realized, it would be possible to imagine the opening up of previously blocked avenues for public deliberation. But this, as Liu undoubtedly knows but never mentions explicitly, sheds light on the looming challenge for science in China: that the restoration of Mr. Science would likely necessitate a greater space for his companion, Mr. Democracy.

Trym Aleksander Eiterjord is a graduate student at the University of Oslo, Norway.