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Backlash Chills Labs In China

The recent political shakeup in China, including the expulsion of several prominent scientists from their university or academy poets, is sending shock waves through the larger scientific community there, according to some Western observers. "What has happened is a serious damper on the scientific and intellectual community in general," said Otto Schnepp, a chemist at the University of Southern California who was science counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 1980 to 1982. "How this will

By | February 9, 1987

The recent political shakeup in China, including the expulsion of several prominent scientists from their university or academy poets, is sending shock waves through the larger scientific community there, according to some Western observers.

"What has happened is a serious damper on the scientific and intellectual community in general," said Otto Schnepp, a chemist at the University of Southern California who was science counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 1980 to 1982. "How this will make itself felt is very difficult to tell."

Student demonstrations in December at the prestigious University of Science and Technology in the eastern city of Hefei later spread to other cities. In the crackdown against "bourgeois liberalization" (Western democratic ideas) that followed, those ousted from their posts have included Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist and vice president at the university in Hefei, and of Lu Jiaxi and Yan Dongsheng, president and vice president, respectively, of the Academy of Sciences, which has jurisdiction over the University of Science and Technology.

With the dismissals, Chinese leader "Deng Xiaoping basically is setting a very clear line between [acceptable] reform that's economic or scientific, and [unacceptable] reform that's political," said Denis Simon of the Sloane School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fang had become popular among many students for advocating independent thinking and democratic ideals. He and university president Guan Weiyan were dismissed January 12.

Party chief Hu Yaobang was ousted four days later. Hu apparently had supported Fang and other intellectuals in a drive for reform that alarmed more conservative members of the party leadership and precipitated a backlash.

The next week saw the dismissal of Lu and Yan. Both men favored more extensive contacts with the West and "were pushing for a much more open environment for science that would have necessitated some political reforms," Simon said.

A Call for Freedom

Lu and Yan were elected to their academy posts in 1982 by senior scientists. Their replacements— Thou Guangzhou and Teng Teng—were appointed by the Standing Committee of the National Peopie's Congress.

"What you're seeing here is part of a larger effort over the last three years in China, of scientists and intellectuals saying, 'We cannot do our work without more freedom," said Simon, an authority on Chinese science and technology. Intellectuals such as Fang have been pushing for democratic reforms— both in and outside the university—that they believe will help China to improve its technological resources, he added. (See accompanying interview with Fang.) Government authorities have sought to limit any reforms to the classroom.

"Lu and Yan wanted to get the party completely out of the scientific realm," Simon said. "They may have pushed too hard and angered the party."

Scientists in China have been among the leaders of the movement to open up Chinese society, Simon said, because science is such an international enterprise. "The experience of having extensive contact with the foreign scientific community has served as a catalyst to force their thinking to be more forward-looking than the actual pace of reform in China," he said.

Some have suggested that science students may have taken the lead in recent demonstrations because they feel that their special skills make them less vulnerable to reprisals. But the recent dismissals of Hu, Fang, Lu, Yan and others may send a gust of cold air through China's laboratories and classrooms.

Over Their Shoulder

"In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, China had to overcome trepidation among many scientists that if they went out and did something intellectually substantive, the political winds might change and they would get their heads cut off," Simon said. It took a long time for those fears to abate, he said, but recent developments have "set back the role that a Chinese scientist might play, because now he'll be looking over his shoulder."

China's commitment to improving its economy is expected to protect against major interruptions in technology transfer and other exchanges with foreign countries. "What's not clear," Schnepp said, "is what will happen to their attitudes toward letting students go abroad."

The number of Chinese studying in the West has increased steadily since the late 1970s. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Chinese are now studying in the United States alone, more than half of them in fields of science and technology. These students embody the hopes and fears of Chinese leaders whose goal, Schnepp said, "is to get the technology they need from outside without importing unwanted foreign ideologies."



'A Force Propelling Society'

Editor's note: An interview by a Chinese reporter with Fang Lizhi in December was reprinted in the Beijing Review, China 's English-language weekly. What follows are excerpts from. Fang's remarks on the role of scientists in bringing about change, as published in The New York Times January 25.
  • Scientists must express their feelings about anything in society, especially if unreasonable, wrong and evil things emerge. If they do otherwise, they will be considered accomplices—those are Einstein's words.


  • Since physicists pursue the unity, harmony and perfection ol nature, how can they logically tolerate unreason, discordance and evil? Physicists' methods of pursuing truth make them extremely sensitive, while their courage in seeking it enables them to accomplish something.

    Let us take a look at the events of the postwar years. Almost invariably, it was natural scientists who were the first to become conscious of the emergence of each social crisis. For instance, in the 1960s, they called the government's attention to environmental pollution; in the 1970s, they pointed out the potential energy crises; in the 1980s, disarmament.

    All this is not accidental. In the first place, science and technology in our modern society occupy a very important position: Major social problems are often unclear to those without a scientific background. In the second place, many natural scientists are aware that their role is by no means limited to technology alone, but that they should consider themselves responsible to the entire society....

  • Marx classified people into different groups according to the means of production they owned. In my view, this was tenable in the last century and the beginning of this. However, in modern society the development of science and technology, knowledge and information, including high-tech and soft science, have become an important force propelling society forward and are bound to involve a change in the concept of who leads in the political and economic fields. Intellectuals, who own and create information and knowledge, are the most dynamic component of the productive forces.


  • Chinese educational methods so far have remained closed and not modern; they give not education but only training. If people with knowledge are needed only for technical progress, and if intellectuals are not expected to have original ideas and contributions to make in other fields, including social and political fields, then education will remain a master-apprentice affair. Einstein said that the aim of education is to develop people with a harmonious character, capable of engaging in independent thinking....



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