Authoritarian shift undermines China’s science moonshot

Stuttering reforms and party control of academics hinder country’s extraordinary scientific rise

August 7, 2019
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China’s aspiration to be a science superpower is being thwarted by intensifying Communist Party control over universities, as funding decisions are placed in the hands of bureaucrats and academics’ fortunes are determined by their personal politics, a study says.

Australian National University political scientist Andy Kennedy said that China had made extraordinary improvements in its research performance, with its Nature Index score almost doubling in six years on the back of two decades of 20-plus per cent annual increases in basic research spending.

China has built some of the world’s fastest supercomputers, constructed the world’s biggest radio telescope and launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite, among many other achievements. It has moved to improve its research system by consolidating uncoordinated funding schemes, boosting performance monitoring and giving academia and industry an advisory voice on national research strategy.

It has also moved to overcome shortcomings such as short funding timetables that discourage risk-taking and foster misconduct such as plagiarism, fraud and faked peer review.

But the reforms have been hamstrung by bureaucracy, while internet censorship and an overbearing Communist Party are undermining China’s goal of constructing one of the world’s best university systems by 2050, according to Dr Kennedy.

In a forthcoming paper, Dr Kennedy says that mounting authoritarianism risks prioritising ideology over science and blunting efforts to bring top Chinese-born researchers back home.

One example is last year’s takeover of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, an independent funding foundation, by the Ministry of Science and Technology. “It has raised concerns that the autonomy the NSFC has enjoyed will be circumscribed,” said Dr Kennedy, an associate professor at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

The change was reportedly described by a Peking University physics professor as “like asking a pedestrian who has never had their hands on a steering wheel to drive a car along a massive highway”.

Dr Kennedy says that a clampdown on foreign websites has stifled internet speed and triggered complaints that scientists cannot access vital information. When a senior official recommended more targeted censorship that avoided important research sites, his comments were deleted from Chinese news portals – leading to a claim that anti-censorship proposals had themselves been censored.

And while the party’s power over university leadership appointments was demonstrated in last year’s ousting of Peking University president Lin Jianhua, Dr Kennedy says party influence runs deep in academia. He cites the establishment of “teachers’ affairs” departments at prominent universities such as Peking to monitor academics’ ideology and political attitudes.

“To the extent that ideology becomes a criterion in hiring and promotion, you’re not looking at academic excellence,” he said.

In a December 2016 speech, Tsinghua University party secretary Chen Xu said that academics’ political stances would be given top priority in their performance evaluations. Particular emphasis would be placed on “strengthening the ideological and political work of young teachers”, especially those returning from overseas.

The party committee will “regularly report and judge the ideological and political status of young teachers” and “build a party branch battle fortress”, according to a translation of Tsinghua’s summary of Dr Chen’s presentation.

Her remarks followed a widely reported speech by Chinese president Xi Jinping that called for universities to be “strongholds” of party leadership and teachers to be “staunch supporters” of the party. His speech in turn followed 2015 efforts by arms of the Communist Party to impose stricter political discipline and control in academia by “forcefully raising the ideological and political quality of higher education teaching teams”, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Dr Kennedy said that the increasing authoritarianism was part of a cycle of liberalisations and crackdowns dating from the 1980s. “When they loosen up, they start worrying about ideological conformity and anti-party sentiment. But when they tighten up, it tends to compromise economic growth and scientific and technological progress.”

His paper cites former Nankai University president Gong Ke’s warning against efforts to “clean up, purify and reorganise teaching staff” in a 2015 People’s Daily interview cautioning against extreme policies.

Dr Kennedy said that the authoritarian backlash could be undermining China’s efforts to bring back star researchers through schemes such as the Thousand Talents Plan. His paper lists five top scientists who have returned to China only to leave again, including two molecular biologists and a computer scientist who have left Tsinghua for the US and Germany over the past two years.

In Chinese slang, the word “haigui” – denoting China’s “sea turtles” who return from overseas stints of study or work – has been inverted to create a new term,guihai”, meaning “return to the sea”.


Print headline: State control stifling research excellence

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Reader's comments (3)

'Western' Universities need to sit up and take notice, the effects are likely to spread with less students being sent out (vital income generators for too many Universities) and yet more 'control' being applied through the Confucius Institute and embedded party officials.
"China’s aspiration to be a science superpower is being thwarted by intensifying Communist Party control over universities," I call bs on this. China is on a tear in science and technology, and the Party is leading the way, not inhibiting it. Official data indicates that the number of research and development (R&D) personnel in China approached 4.2 million in 2018. The “Economic and Social Development Accomplishment Report for the 70th Anniversary of China’s Establishment” (中国成立70周年经济社会发展成就报告) released by the National Bureau of Statistics on 23 July indicates that in 2018 China was host to an R&D workforce of 4.19 million people in terms of full-time work volume.According to the report the figure marks a 6.2-fold increase compared to 1991, and marks the sixth consecutive year since 2013 that China’s R&D workforce has been the world’s largest. The report further indicates that Chinese patents are seeing a sharp rise, with 4.323 million patent applications submitted and 2.448 million authorised in 2018, for 86-fold and 98-fold increases respectively compared to 1991. According to the Japan Science and Technology Agency, China now ranks as the most influential country in four of eight core scientific fields. 38 million Chinese post-secondary students have enrolled in Chinese universities and colleges, a number that rivals the entire Canadian population. The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Ai2) examined not just the number of AI research papers coming from China but the quality of those papers—as judged by the number of citations they receive in other work. The study suggests that China will overtake the US in the most-cited 50% of research papers this year, the top 10% of research papers in 2020, and the top 1% by 2025. China is already ahead in the number of AI patents filed, AI venture capital invested, and research papers cited worldwide. The number of Chinese students studying AI and graduating from universities worldwide exceed the total number of other countries’ AI students combined China has overtaken the US to become the world’s largest producer of scientific research papers, making up almost a fifth of the total global output, according to a major new report. The World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO, ranked 167 universities and public research universities for the top 500 patent applications. 110 of the patents were from China, 20 from the United States and 19 from South Korea. China dominates a global ranking of the most-cited research papers published in the 30 hottest technology fields.
I had a fascinating conversation with a Chinese colleague recently, who described Chinese academics as being very 'top down' in their approach. At faculty meetings, everyone waited for the senior individual to express an opinion, then the rest would line up behind that opinion whatever they actually thought about it. Increasing involvement of the Communist Party is going to intensify this habit, which my colleague felt was part of the national psyche, an approach they felt comfortable with even if they did not agree with whatever was being proposed. Apparently they prefer the stability and orderliness of such an approach.