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China-Chapter 9 - Science and Technology

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IN A SPEECH to the National Science Conference in March 1978, then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping declared: "The crux of the Four Modernizations is the mastery of modern science and technology. Without the high-speed development of science and technology, it is impossible to develop the national economy at a high speed." For more than a century China's leaders have called for rapid development of science and technology, and science policy has played a greater role in national politics in China than in many other countries. China's scientific and technical achievements are impressive in many fields. Although the World Bank classified it in the 1980s as a low-income, developing country, China has by its own efforts developed nuclear weapons, the ability to launch and recover satellites, a supercomputer, and high-yield hybrid rice. But the development of science and technology has been uneven, and significant achievements in some fields are matched by low levels in others.

The evolving structure of science and technology and frequent reversals of policy under the People's Republic have combined to give Chinese science a distinctive character. The variation in quality and achievements stems in part from a large and poorly educated rural populace and limited opportunities for secondary and college education--conditions common to all developing countries. The character of Chinese science also reflects concentration of resources in a few key fields and institutions, often with military applications. In more politically radical periods--such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76)- -efforts were made to expand the ranks of scientists and technicians by sharply reducing education and certification standards.

China's leaders have involved themselves in the formulation of science policy to a greater extent than have the leaders of most countries. Science policy also has played a significant part in the struggles between contending leaders, who have often acted as patrons to different sectors of the scientific establishment. Party leaders, not themselves scientifically trained, have taken science and scientists quite seriously, seeing them as keys to economic development and national strength. Party efforts to control science to "serve production" and generate economic and military payoffs, however, have met with repeated frustrations. The frustration in turn has contributed to frequent reversals of policy and has exacerbated the inherent tension between the scientific and political elites over the goals and control of the nation's science and technology. In any economic system there are likely to be tensions and divergences of interest between managers and scientists, but in China such tensions have been extreme and have led to repeated episodes of persecution of scientists and intellectuals. Science in China has been marked by uneven development, wide variation in quality of work, high level of involvement with politics, and high degree of policy discontinuity.

In the post-Mao era, the anti-intellectual policies of the Cultural Revolution have been reversed, and such top leaders as Deng Xiaoping have encouraged the development of science. But China's leaders in the 1980s remained, like their predecessors over the past 100 years, interested in science primarily as a means to national strength and economic growth. The policy makers' goal was the creation of a vigorous scientific and technical establishment that operates at the level of developed countries while contributing in a fairly direct way to agriculture, industry, and defense. The mid-1980s saw a major effort to reform the scientific and technical system through a range of institutional changes intended to promote the application of scientific knowledge to production. As in the past 100 years, policy makers and scientists grappled with such issues as the proportion of basic to applied research, the priorities of various fields of research, the limits of professional and academic freedom, and the best mechanisms for promoting industrial innovation and widespread assimilation of up-to-date technology.

Data as of July 1987

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