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 protons 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.
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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 that 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.
Michael Zhao makes a good case about reasons to be impressed with what the Chinese government and a wide range of specific Chinese institutions are doing in the hard sciences. This is all the more impressive for Americans who reflect on the idiotic self-inflicted damage the United States is doing to its scientific establishment through the chaos of our current budgetary process, "the sequester" and all.
I bet that other participants in this conversation can think of other specific areas where efforts from North America, Europe, Japan, etc are fitful, under-funded, or tentative, and the Chinese counterparts are by contrast surging ahead. Over the past few years I've followed Chinese and U.S.-based companies as they have pursued renewable energy and other "clean-tech" innovations. The starting level on the American side is generally much higher, and there are important breakthroughs and products coming from U.S. companies and public institutions. Still: there is simply no comparison between the bushy-tailed, can-do, let's-make-this-work, tomorrow-will-be-better spirit that typifies many of the Chinese efforts (even those that are uncoordinated or likely to fail) and the more fatalistic, age-of-limits attitude of many Western institutions.
It's this difference of tone and attitude, more than any specific contrast in investment patterns or growth percentages, that to me represents "what is going right in China." Like anyone who has been in China recently, I can give you a hundred-item list of serious problems for the country and its institutions. But so far, I've always been able to list of a hundred-plus-one strengths, assets, and ambitions expressed by individuals and organizations there. I was in Beijing again last week, and, in addition to being reminded of all the crises, I was exposed again to a sense of national movement and ambition. That may seem a vague reed on which to rest an assessment of a nation, but I think it's unignorable, it's important, and it's part of why it's foolish to bet against the Chinese system's ability to cope with its challenges.