Why China May Never Be the World Leader in Science

By Scott L. Montgomery - 12 September 2022
Why China May Never Be the World Leader in Science

Scott Montgomery lays out why science is be better advanced in democratic societies.

China’s long-term goals for global power are strongly linked to its capabilities in science and technology (S&T). Such is obviously the case with regard to its military, space program, surveillance systems, and focus on innovation in what are called “foundational technologies of the 21st century”—AI, quantum computing, 5G networks, microelectronics, biomedicine, and energy. Chinese progress in most of these areas, and in R&D overall, has been so rapid and successful since the 1980s that it has convinced more than a few analysts that the country is now at the leading edge of world science.

Included here is China’s performance in the key domain of basic research, the ultimate source of innovation long-term. In this case, certain measures are used to support the conclusion regarding China’s achievement. One of these emphasizes that China has already exceeded the U.S. and Europe in the annual number of new STEM PhDs, for example. Other metrics focus on  research output and quality, reporting that the Chinese have now overtaken all other nations, including the U.S. in total research papers published in peer-reviewed journals and the number of these rated as “high-impact.” China’s gross spending on R&D, meanwhile, has risen more than five-fold since 2005, reaching $515 billion in 2019, second only to the U.S. at $613 billon, and well ahead of the $391 billion spent by the EU.

Yet, there are major reasons why Chinese achievement in basic research is more limited than such measures suggest. These reasons, moreover, imply that China won’t be truly world class in fundamental research for some time, if ever. They also indicate that the problems involved are not temporary but fundamental, as they were for the Soviet Union.

First, China’s progress in research has been, and continues to be, rooted in intellectual property (IP) from advanced nations, especially the U.S. It is no secret that acquiring research knowledge constitutes a large-scale industry in China, often using obscure methods that include a massive “IP theft by thousands of Chinese actors,” many of them state-sponsored. As well, China’s Thousand Talents Program to attract first-rate researchers, both Chinese citizens working abroad and foreign scientists, using promises of high salaries and research funding, has drawn no small criticism for its lack of transparency and possible goal of IP appropriation. Little regarding such appropriation has changed to any truly significant degree, despite years of U.S. complaints and a recent “Phase 1” agreement with China to alter course. It seems evident, in other words, that the large-scale inflow of foreign IP defines an integrated characteristic of the Chinese research enterprise.

Original ambitions were for such dependence to be temporary. It would be a feeder stage to acquire knowledge and best practices as a base for “leapfroging” to a self-reliant phase of world class achievement. This overall plan appears in the 2006 Medium- to Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (MLP), whose main goal was to make China “an innovative society” by 2020. Yet, its basic research system doesn’t seem to have stopped  feeding. Such is reflected in more subtle ways: government writings reveal a consistent tendency to confuse “science,” with “innovation,” “technology,” or “development.” While the boundary between basic and applied research is today more gradational than ever, China’s guiding vision of progress is strongly focused on the production of new technological capabilities with research at every level serving this purpose.

Detailed studies of the country’s research system, including interviews with researchers themselves, also reveal serious and fundamental problems related to lack of independence in scientific work and the imposition of arbitrary or poorly-chosen performance demands. There is a striking contrast between the reasons Chinese scientists go to study and work abroad and why they return to China: in the first case, the top answers are “to do higher quality research in their field” and to gain “a higher quality of education,” while the main motives for going back to China are “more job opportunities” and “family.” The Chinese government, in fact, has had to work hard to lure back students who chose to be trained in the U.S., but it has had some success. More telling, perhaps, is the high level of dissatisfaction among Chinese PhD students who remain in the country for training.

Another difficulty with China’s research capability concerns how it is measured and rewarded. Between 2009 and 2019, a national appraisal system was utilized such that achieving tenure, promotion and bonus pay for academic researchers were made reliant on publishing in journals included in the Science Citation Index (SCI)/Web of Science. This bibliographic database states it includes around 9,500 of “the world’s most impactful journals across 178 scientific disciplines,” with “impactful” determined by a citation metric called “impact factor.” This is a quantity assigned to a journal or researcher based on average citations per year. Though widely used in the past by western institutions, it has been much criticized by the scientific community and increasingly rejected as a measure of “research quality” or “importance.” A key example is the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, created in 2012 by the American Society for Cell Biology.

This appraisal system, moreover, became itself a source of problems. Most serious has been the widespread existence of plagiarized, content-trivial, and fake studies for publication produced by operations known as “paper mills”. An undercover investigation by Science in 2017 identified a host of related businesses that together comprised a “publication bazaar.” Abundant negative press and comments from Chinese scientists helped convince officials in the Ministries of S&T and Education that existing “SCI-centered” methods of appraisal should be replaced. Yet, little has been done. The effort has lacked seriousness beyond the point of general principles. These principles, moreover, while emphasizing a role for peer-review also prioritize the building “high-quality national journals” and publication in these—in other words, what might be termed scientific nationalism. 

Third and last, China’s routine practices of information control act to politicize research and to put it under selective surveillance. This has included controlling and reducing internet access, and has impacted the communication and sharing of related results, a core dimension to scientific work. The most striking examples here concern the SARS Epidemic of 2002-2003, when information on the disease and its spread was initially treated as a “state secret,” and, more recently, the covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Li Wenliang, the first to surmise a probable viral outbreak in Wuhan, was quickly censured by hospital officials and forced to sign a statement to the effect that he was guilty of false rumors and causing public disorder. The central government reversed this only after Wuhan was put under quarantine and Li himself had died from covid, unleashing a massive public response of grief and anger.

Chinese officials closed and sanitized the Wuhan live animal market site at a very early stage, destroying essential evidence. They also misinformed the World Health Organization (WHO) that no live mammals were sold there, while stalling any investigative access for a year. When access was finally allowed, Chinese officials demanded controls on which foreign researchers could be included and what data would be made available. Despite unresolved questions from the WHO study, no further visits have been permitted. To date, despite much evidence—some published by Chinese researchers themselves—government officials in China have rejected any possibility that the virus originated within the country.

These facts are well-known in the global biomedical community. Less well-known is that the Ministry of S&T issued an announcement in early 2020 critical of Chinese researchers who had published the first covid-related analyses in international journals. They were advised, instead, to publish such information in Chinese journals (and the Chinese language, not English) for the cause of “epidemic-prevention.” This was challenged by a statement in the journal Lancet, by Chinese researchers from universities in Macau and Hong Kong, emphasizing the necessity for global sharing of such research.

Efforts to quash or monopolize research information represent a clear rejection of fundamental scientific ethics. Claims that international communication define a western norm, not a universal, show a deep misunderstanding of modern scientific standards, indeed of science itself. This is especially evident in the case of a pandemic, where data on the origin of a virus can lead directly to prevention of outbreaks due to related pathogens. Research nationalism may well be part of the reason the vaccines China produced—a critical test of the country’s research capabilities—proved much inferior to those created in advanced nations. The Sinovac vaccine, for example, showed a 50.4% effectiveness in preventing infections compared to 95% for the Pfizer and Moderna versions. Despite this, an agreement allowing Chinese pharmaceutical company Fosun Pharma to distribute and manufacture the Pfizer vaccine in the PRC has been officially blocked for more than two years.

The Core Problem

What has been said suggests that China has tried to mold modern science to its authoritarian system, not the reverse. As often pointed out, China continues to pursue a highly centralized, top-down model for STEM development, including basic research. It is an approach planned, implemented, and monitored by the Communist Party of China (CCP), the ultimate authority, for whom research is not a benefit on its own but defines part of a national mobilization of resources and personnel toward nationalist goals.

What has resulted is a revealing mixture of success and failure. While China (pursued a whole-of-nation approach to erecting) one of the largest national S&T systems in the world, capable of significant innovations in certain areas, the achievements of fundamental research have remained weak, according to the testimony of many researchers themselves. “Leading Chinese scientists, says a recent analysis, “[question] both the approach’s premise and execution, particularly with regard to its effectiveness in promoting advances in science.” Interference by officials for non-scientific reasons is a primary reason European researchers, too, become disenchanted with work in China in a fairly short time and leave.  

Fundamentally, the CCP views S&T as servants of the state. In a foundational sense, its plan for science isn’t a “grand experiment,” seeking an original path to modernization, but closer to an upgrade or revision of the Soviet model. That approach was largely isolationist and bound to fail, while China’s research enterprise is highly connected with global S&T and markets and thus bound to succeed in certain ways, unless tensions with the U.S., EU, and Japan continue to increase and a more intensive period of research nationalism arrives. But either way, both Soviet and Chinese efforts exist under the penetrative control of a political system that exalts the state above all else, aggressively suppresses freedom of expression, and employs secret police, disinformation, and advanced methods of surveillance to enforce compliance.

These realities, together with the problem of IP appropriation, reflect the truth that China’s limited capabilities are indigenous to its political system. They reflect a totalitarian state failing to bend modern science to its will. This situation has four endemic aspects: 1) lack of political freedom in “sensitive” areas for the CCP becomes lack of research freedom; 2) politicization of research redefining researchers as political actors in China’s whole-of-nation effort to succeed as a global power; 3) recasting the research community as a potential source of disloyalty, due to the lure for it to obey standards of openness in global science; and 4) the tendency to talk of “basic research” but actually mean the concentrating of resources in areas deemed especially important to defined national goals.

These comments recall early post-war discussions about whether science could be better advanced in a democratic or autocratic society. Despite its failing under Stalin with the Lysenko episode, the Soviet Union later shocked the West with the success of Sputnik. Time, however, provided the final answer: the Soviets advanced greatly in some mega-project areas favored by the government and in theoretical fields more distant from politics (mathematics, theoretical physics). Otherwise, as Loren Graham and others have made clear, it failed to keep pace, falling behind in most fields, not least computer S&T.

In July 1945, only days before a nuclear detonation over Hiroshima, a report arrived at FDR’s desk written by wartime Director of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush. Science, The Endless Frontier would prove epochal as a blueprint for the post-war research enterprise in the U.S. Giving the topic wide scope, Bush was especially concerned with basic research, the necessity to release it from wartime government command. The aims of government, he said, would overlap but never coincide with the knowledge-seeking goals of basic research. More than 75 years of history have not altered this conclusion.

It is notable that in Science, the Endless Frontier, the word “freedom” occurs more than 200 times. In China’s MLP document for S&T development, it appears once. As Graham wrote in the early 1990s, “science may be a social construction, but it can be socially constructed in strikingly more and less effective ways…The need for political freedom is not a cliché but a reality.”



Photo by ThisIsEngineering

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