China: What’s Going Right?
A ChinaFile Conversation
On a recent trip to China, meeting mostly with former colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I got a dose of optimism and hope for one aspect of the motherland. In terms of science, or laying down a solid foundation for better science to come, things are going really well in China.
I was told that salaries for scientists have grown exponentially over the last couple of decades. Funding has reached a level competitive with Western countries and China now has a lot of big science facilities. They’re colliding electrons and positrons to discover new particles or creating sustained 100-million-degree environments to test the nuclear fusion technology many Chinese scientists hope ultimately will solve the problem of an energy shortage for humanity.
I don’t have enough scientific expertise to know whether some of these million dollar projects eventually will deliver the intended results or help solve mankind’s many challenges. But the sense of optimism and confidence from this generation of scientists in China is a total facelift from a generation ago, when most of them rode bicycles to their labs, scraped by on meager salaries and dreamed about having computers and facilities of any kind to do their work. Now they dream much bigger dreams—dreams I don’t hear even from American European scientists.
Given China’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades, it’s no surprise to the country’s scientists are working in communities flush with wealth and means. But I’m also impressed to hear many talk about becoming experts on issues not only in China, but around the world. For some time, a lot of Chinese were happy to sort out China’s problems alone. Now, things are starting to change. While Chinese scientists may not compete with their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe any time soon, some of them are branching out into studies in Africa and Latin America. So many of these people speak fluent English that pretty soon they will become more prominent on the world stage.
It’s more than the increased appearance of individual Chinese names in journals like Science and Nature—it’s the fact that the Chinese government has been really visionary in its long-time generous investment in science and technology. And Beijing is not really asking for a pretty quarterly earnings report. China’s leaders seem to be in it to develop a long-term boost to the country’s overall competitiveness that could play out in the national interest for decades to come.
It’s probably true that not every dollar put into those expensive instruments will work magic. But China now is in a position where it has the luxury, at least financially, to afford to make mistakes before striking gold.
The other thing that I invariably notice every time I go back, is that wherever I go in China the infrastructure is being built fast and right. I went to Xishuangbanna, in China’s southwestern corner bordering Myanmar, and the airport is a 21st century marvel, though still far smaller than those in Beijing and Shanghai. Meanwhile, back in New York, where I live, when I posted a photograph of the disrepair at the subway stop where I start my daily commute to a Chinese online social network—noting that my home station’s been under construction for two years—someone jokingly replied that it’d be a good idea to import some Chinese workers to get it fixed by tomorrow.
This anecdote may not be a faultless illustration of “what’s going right” in China, but I think it’s important that Americans understand who their future competitors are. China’s population is eager to get ahead and works really hard. They work so hard that every time I go back, I have to meet people on the weekends to get work done.
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