12 January 2006

Part 3 of The Great Chinese Experiment

Part III of The Great Chinese Experiment is available at Technology Review. This well written three part series takes an honest look at the huge challenge facing China in its bid to become a world class scientific powerhouse. China's leaders want their scientist to be tops in the world, to put it bluntly, the political leaders want the scientists to start winning Nobel Prizes.

Famed science writer, Horace Freeland Judson, is able to break through the normal Chinese reticence to reveal some candid concerns of the scientists involved in this great experiment to transform the huge nation's science infrastructure. The task is not an easy one, due to many uniquely Chinese traditions and customs.

Western willingness to get down to business from the very beginning of an enterprise, to spell everything out bluntly and clearly from the first, seems to serve the cause of science in the west. Chinese reticence and humility may obscure many important issues, and make it difficult to clear away potential misunderstandings that might hobble an enterprise later, in its successful phase. Several other stumbling blocks were uncovered in the author's discussions with Chinese researchers.

From my vantage point, China's leaders are placing an almost impossible burden on China's scientists. They are asking them to lead the world in science, to propel China to the forefront of discovery, while at the same time they are undercutting the entire economic enterprise of China through their personal corruption and manipulation of China's banks and state owned enterprises.

A healthy scientific infrastructure rests upon a healthy economic infrastructure and a society with freedom of expression and ideas. China's corrupt and autocratic leaders are offering inducements to the scientists with one hand, while making it impossible for them to be successful with the other hand.

China's leaders made a momentous choice one generation ago, to open China to western ideas and western economic technologies. But they only went partway, preserving the absolute power of the communist party over society. Recent shutdowns of internet cafes and Chinese blogs demonstrates the unwillingness of the leadership to open China to freedom of ideas. This brittleness, hardening of the societal arteries, along with basic economic unsoundness, makes the going very precarious in China.

We can only hope that the basic intelligence and ingenuity of the Chinese people will find a peaceful way through the transition to world harmony on the other side.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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