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Why Science Dominates China’s Political Culture
“We have the foundation, confidence, and ability to seize the opportunities of the new round of scientific and technological revolution, take advantage of the situation, and do great things.”
Nancy Yu, a research assistant at the Center for Strategic Translation, walks us through the ever-evolving place and prominence of science in China over the past century and a half.
Inasmuch as China stands to seriously rival the United States in scientific and technological prowess, it’s important to understand how China got there — and why, for all Xi Jinping’s return to orthodoxy, China won’t turn away from S&T any time soon.
Science is a national quest in the People’s Republic of China. Following the 20th Party Congress in 2022, science and technology became a mainstay of Party policies: in the political report to the Party Congress, Xi Jinping called on his cadres to build a “national innovation system” by strengthening the Central Committee’s oversight and command of China’s laboratories, universities, and research institutions. He packaged the initiative under the slogan “saving the nation with science and education.”
It’s no secret that nationalism is a driver behind the PRC’s technological advancement. In the eyes of Chinese leadership, achievements such as the lunar exploration programs, the installation of particle accelerators, and the completion of world-ranking supercomputers are potent symbols of national prestige and power. In addition to techno-nationalism, however, Xi Jinping’s push for a national science system is also the fruit of an ideology that transforms science into a grand narrative of human history and ascribes disproportionate value to scientific achievements in the evaluation of national power. And Xi is not alone among Party leadership: throughout its rule, science and technology have been central to the CCP’s grand narrative.
But how did the Chinese leadership’s obsession with science and technology come about? To answer this question, we’ll trace the concept of science in modern Chinese thought to the early years of the nation’s modernization.
In the beginning of the twentieth century — when China had just overthrown the Qing empire and was torn between countless political factions and ideological trends — “science” gripped people’s imagination both as a comprehensive doctrine of the objective world and as the means to wealth and power. From the liberal reformers of the republican era to the communist apparatchiks of the present day, Chinese statesmen have reimagined science as the omnipotent method to obtain absolute knowledge and the quickest way to national revival. As Chinese philosopher Yang Guorong 杨国荣 observes, science has been elevated from a mere technique to Dao 道 — the heavenly Way to harmony and justice — in the long march of China’s modernization. This culture of scientism is playing an ever-important role as Xi Jinping demands greater international prestige for the country today.
The Rise of Scientism in Modern China
In The Metaphysical Dimension of Science: Scientism in Modern China (2009), Yang Guorong distinguishes scientism from the intellectual system of science. While science is simply the study and application of natural phenomena, Yang says, scientism is a value system centered around technological progress. Defined broadly, scientism is an intellectual tendency that collapses various cultural, historical, and economic aspects of the world into a single, material dimension. To someone who views the world through a scienticist mindset, everything is measured in relation to its ability to benefit scientific and technological progress. In a political context, such a person tends to treat a society’s level of technology as the ultimate metric of its success.
The emergence of scientism in modern Chinese consciousness is closely connected to the nation’s modernization, which progressed from a conservative phase under the Qing empire to a radical phase after 1911, when imperial court ceded authority to China’s first republican government. While the Qing reformers treated the import of Western technologies as means to an end — things such as munition were certainly useful to strengthen the empire’s military — radical reformers in the Republican era linked the proliferation of scientific knowledge with a new moral authority to replace the country’s Confucian tradition.
The first phase began in the 1860s, when the Qing empire imported Western technologies to modernize its military and industry. Stunned by the overwhelming power of British military technology, the Qing condoned regional efforts to organize militias equipped with British weapons and encouraged the establishment of foreign language schools and scholarly associations to study Western technology. Even so, most Qing officials during the Self-Strengthening Movement 自强运动 made a distinction between instrumentality and cultural essence: while China could appropriate Western technology for its use, it should keep its essence as a Confucian civilization.
The more cautious approach of the Qing court gave way to a comprehensive reform agenda in 1905, when the news of Japanese victory against Russia swayed the imperial court. That same year, the empire abolished the millennia-long imperial examination system that focused on the teaching of Confucian classics. Reformers urged the teachings of the scientific disciplines along with traditional subjects in the newly sprouted schools, universities, and military academies.
Around the time of the Republican revolution in 1911, science became increasingly associated with the goal of national salvation. In 1914, a group of overseas Chinese students established the Science Society of China 中国科学社 with the goal of “saving the nation with science.” Their work began with the publication of Science 科学, one of China’s first academic journals aimed at the popularization of scientific knowledge. In a eulogy of Chinese scientist Ge Linman 葛林满, one of the founders of the Science Society of China wrote:
Our country is the last to develop science. Mr. Ge hoped that once the Chinese people realize that science is the only tool to save China, [and once] more and more people engage in scientific work, the country will be quickly renewed. Important contributions will be made, not only to the country, but also to the world!
The scientific revolution in China creeped into its radical phase during the May Fourth Movement 五四运动. Starting in 1919, progressive intellectuals rallied under the banner of science and democracy to eradicate the hidebound Confucian tradition which kept the nation backward. Here, science captured the imagination of Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries as an all-encompassing value.
Chinese intellectuals started to treat scientific progress as an absolute value to be used to criticize or negate other values. For instance, Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan 冯友兰 — then a student of John Dewey at Columbia University — in 1922 published an essay titled “Why China Has No Science” 为什么中国没有科学. The question he posed captured the ethos of his time:
If we compare Chinese history with the history of Europe of a few centuries ago, say before the Renaissance, we find that, although they are of different kinds, they are nevertheless on the same level. But now China is still old while the western countries are already new. What keeps China back? What keeps China back is that she has no science.
Defining science as the power to understand and control natural phenomena, Feng argued that China never developed science because its traditional philosophy had no use for it. While Chinese philosophers sought internal harmony of one’s soul, science is an exercise of seeking certainty and power in the natural world. With that analysis, Feng made his sweeping indictment against Chinese tradition:
The Chinese conception of life may be mistaken, but the Chinese experience cannot be a failure. … The mind energy of the Chinese people of four thousand years will yet not have been spent in vain. The failure itself may warn our children to stop searching for something in the barren land of human mind.
In other words, if China’s tradition kept the nation backward, then the advancement of science demanded a decisive rejection of that tradition. Enchanted by the Nietzschean call for the “transvaluation of all values,” Chinese radicals sought to free the Chinese mind from the shackles of old values. The chief among them was Chen Duxiu 陈独秀, who pioneered the anti-tradition cultural movement and later led the foundation of the Communist Party of China. In 1919, Chen outlined the mission of the May Fourth Movement:
To defend Mr. Science, we must oppose old art and old religion. To defend both Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science, we must oppose the national essence and old literature.
The rejection of old cosmology and philosophy required a replacement to fill the void. To Chen, that replacement was science. Chen was especially taken by the French enlightenment thinker Auguste Comte, whose positivist philosophy divided human history into three ages: the religious age, the philosophical age, and the scientific age. To Chen, China’s experience since the 1860s confirmed Comte’s theory. China had entered the age of philosophy when Western learning challenged Confucian thinking, but it needed to leap into the age of science with continued reform. In this new scientific understanding of history — what Chen called “historical materialism” 唯物史观 — the advancement of scientific understanding would propel Chinese society into a new and higher stage.
Scientism flourished in China in the decades that followed the republican revolution. Hoping to destroy the authorities of old religion, customs, and political order — which the radicals believed were the roots to China’s backwardness — reformers appealed to the authority of science to legitimize their social and political agenda. Under their influence, science morphed into a comprehensive doctrine that determined people’s values, cosmologies, and grand narratives in the May Fourth Movement. As Hu Shih 胡适 wrote in his introduction to an anthology of scientism in 1922:
Over the past thirty years, one name has achieved almost supreme dignity in the country; no one, whether knowledgeable or not, whether old-fashioned or new, dares to openly express a contemptuous or teasing attitude towards it. That name is “science.” Whether this almost unanimous belief in science has any value is another question. We can at least say that, since China has been talking about the reform and change of the law, no self-appointed modern man dared to openly slander “science.”
Humanist Pushback: A Clash of Two Cultures
Scientism was not without its critics. Stemming from a humanistic concern to maintain China’s tradition and social fabric, the cultural conservatives despised the radical’s agenda to replace tradition with science. Indeed, scientism’s materialistic ethos was an affront to Confucian ethics that placed a high value on personal cultivation, veneration of ancient sages, and the reading of the classics.
World War I gave the conservatives a cause to voice their concerns. In 1920, the scholar-statesman Liang Qichao 梁启超 was profoundly shaken by the political, moral, and spiritual destruction he witnessed in Europe during his travel to the Paris Peace Conference. To him, Europe’s devastation was a consequence of its excessively materialistic culture, which robbed society of all moral precepts — and he worried that the same fate would befall China if it did not resist the radical’s war against tradition:
“New authority” has difficulty establishing itself, and yet old authority is abolished beyond restoration. Consequently, the entire society is thrown into skepticism, despair, and fear, just as a ship without a compass caught in a storm and enshrouded with a heavy fog at the same time. No one has any idea of what the future will be like. The Europeans had an enormous dream about the omnipotence of science, and now they began to decry its bankruptcy.
Following Liang’s lead, neo-Confucian scholar Carsun Chang 张君劢 delivered a speech at Tsinghua University in 1922 that contrasted science with “outlook of life.” While science was a useful discipline to advance human understanding, it could not — and should not — dictate questions related to society’s outlook of life, including fundamental questions about gender equality, political regimes, religion, and so on; for those concerns, China needed to seek wisdom from its ancient teachings. In other words, science is a tool to strengthen the nation on the global stage, not a doctrine for the human heart.
Immediately after Zhang made his speech, however, prominent geologist and scienticist Ding Wenjiang 丁文江 attacked Chang for “resurrecting the ghost of metaphysics” that belonged to a former age. For him, Chang’s attempt to carve out a “subjective” and “metaphysical” realm of morality, art, and religion was fundamentally misled. Instead, Ding asserted that since all things were reducible to matter, science was universally applicable. As the human mind and social connections were phenomena of the material world, they, too, could be rationally reconstructed with the proper application of science.
Chang and Ding’s debate polarized the Chinese intellectuals in Beijing and beyond, marking the onset of the “Debate Between Science and Metaphysics” 科玄论战. While the ostensible division in this debate was about science and its limitations, the debate underscored a much deeper division:
On the one hand, supporters of scientism exalted the omnipotence of science, rejected tradition in the name of science, held that scientific knowledge and technological progress were unquestionably good for human society. Scientism’s proponents were especially attracted to science- and technology-centered grand narratives of human progress. Further, they tended to justify the proliferation of science and a scientific outlook of life based on the need to propel the nation to a higher stage in history.
On the other hand, supporters of humanism hoped to carve out a moral domain set apart from science. They believed in the necessity of scientific education, but rejected the claim that science could become a moral authority. Most of the humanists were cultural conservatives. To Liang Qichao and Carsun Chang, for example, China’s Confucian tradition should be reformed and updated for the modern age — but it should also be preserved and treasured as guidance for people’s hearts in a time of tumultuous political changes.
While scientism upheld the understanding of the objective world as the absolute moral and epistemic authority, humanism looked to the condition of people’s heart and the immaterial forces of culture, art, literature, and religion for value. This tension between scientism and humanism would continue to characterize Chinese thinking in the century to come.
Scientism and Humanism in the PRC
The rise of scientism and its pushback from humanists in the early decades of the twentieth century captured a dynamic that has replayed itself time and time again in China’s political and social development under the People’s Republic.
Scientism had a particularly strong influence on senior political leaders in the CCP during the reform era. After Mao’s death and the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, the Party had to renegotiate its ruling foundation — and unable to rely on Maoist charismatic leadership and populism, the Party turned to scientific progress. In particular, concrete achievements in science and technology programs could demonstrate that the Party’s rule would bring rejuvenation to the nation.
One way that scientism permeated the thinking of CCP leaders was through the party-state’s scientific network. As Evan Feiganbaum recounts in China’s Techno-Warriors (2003), the Soviets helped the CCP organize their scientists into legions headed by generals and bureaucratic officials during the Cold War to work on strategic weapons such as the atomic bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile. Within this framework, scientists occupied prestigious positions and coalesced around political sponsors to form powerful special interest groups. And to secure funding and their position in the party, these groups intentionally elevated the importance of technological progress in national development. These strategic weaponeers thus further perpetuated a political culture which placed technological achievements at the center of national success.
Beyond these special interest groups, foreign ideas also shaped the leadership’s perception of science and technology in the reform era. In “The Futurists of Beijing” (2019), Julian Gewirtz outlined the influence of American futurist Alvin Toffler on Chinese policies in the 1980s. Toffler’s idea of a “third wave” of technological revolution reached the highest levels of the CCP. For example, in a speech he delivered in 1983 to the National Science Conference, then–PRC Premier Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳 said,
Whether we call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution or call it the Third Wave, [these writers] all believe that Western countries in the 1950s and 1960s reached a high degree of industrialization and are now moving to an information society. … This will bring a new leap in social productivity and thus a corresponding set of new changes in social life. This trend is worthy of our attention and must be carefully studied, based on our actual situation, in order to determine the next ten to twenty years of long-range planning.
Thus for Zhao and other Chinese officials, China’s economic and social transformation depended on its ability to adapt to this New Technological Revolution.
The narrative of a world-historic technological revolution propelled the Party’s S&T policy — the risk that China would once again lag in a global technological revolution was too grave to bear. This anxiety compelled the Party to launch the 863 Program 863计划 in 1986, a multibillion-dollar technology research and development program that prioritized fields such as laser science, manned space flight, and high-energy physics. But China’s 1986 goals in science and technology were noteworthy more for their glamor than for their relevance to China’s immediate needs. As Evan Feiganbaum noted, the 863 program mystified foreign analysts: China in the 1980s lagged behind other nations in so many basic technologies, including infrastructure and training, that analysts wondered why it sunk so much money into esoteric areas such as gene splicing and complex new materials. The answer can again be found in the CCP’s political culture.
The arguments of the strategic weaponeers and Alvin Toffler wouldn’t have resonated with the CCP leadership had they not been primed to judge political value based primarily on technological progress. Yet this techno-supremacist way of thinking didn’t originate from the communists themselves — it came from China’s tumultuous struggle for modernization and its radical destruction of the Confucian tradition in the name of science. Ultimately, the CCP leadership came to believe that progress in science and technology was China’s ultimate national purpose — as one communist directive put it, technological advancement was “a matter of life and death of the nation” — and that they alone could steer the country forward.
Since humanism challenges the CCP’s moral authority — which insists on a materialistic orthodoxy — it sprouts up whenever censorship loosens, and dies whenever the Party mows the ground. With the relative intellectual freedom of the 1980s, Chinese philosophers strove to continue the efforts of Liang Qichao to preserve ancient values in modern times. Li Zehou 李泽厚, for example, incorporated traditional Chinese philosophy with the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant to promote a new value system centered around human beings. Others, such as Gan Yang 甘阳, sought to resurrect Confucianism and devise a new political ideology according to Confucian ideals. But when this humanistic resurgence started to demand democratic reform and regime change in 1989, these efforts came to a halt.
Beyond the CCP’s intentional suppression, humanism remains weak in part because it is unable to propose a clear vision for China’s rejuvenation. “Confucianism has been thrown on the ground for so many times in China,” writes techno-nationalist Wang Xiaodong 王小东. “It has lost its original sacredness as a cultural symbol. Without it being sacred, it could not unify people’s hearts.” For young patriots today, the only sacred symbol for strength and national salvation is science.
Today, Xi Jinping’s initiative for “innovation-driven development” continues the trend of scientism in modern Chinese thought. To him, science is a common endeavor of the Chinese people, and achievements in science bring glory not just to the individual scientists but also to the people collectively. In March 2023, he established the Commission on Science and Technology to strengthen the Central Committee’s unified and centralized leadership over the nation’s science and technology activities. Indeed, Xi believes that China must catch the tide of yet another technological revolution. The success of the CCP’s science and technology capacity will determine the nation’s fate.
In a speech to the Chinese Academy of Science in 2021, Xi located China’s technological mission in a world-historic scientific revolution:
At present, the world is experiencing a new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation. From macroscopic domains of celestial movements, galaxy evolution, and the origin of the universe to the microscopic domains of gene editing, particle structure, and quantum control, [these topics] are at the frontier of the current scientific development in the world.
And after listing a hodgepodge of research topics he believed were at the cutting-edge of human knowledge, Xi then indicated where China ranked in this epistemic race:
After years of hard work, the overall level of our state’s science and technology has improved significantly. We have the foundation, confidence, and ability to seize the opportunities of the new round of scientific and technological revolution, take advantage of the situation, and do great things.
Inasmuch as the CCP’s current S&T policy is derived, at least in part, from a culture of scientism, this raises questions for analysts of contemporary Chinese politics:
To what degree is Xi Jinping’s S&T policy a product of rational calculation to improve China’s scientific and industrial capacity, and to what degree is it a product of nationalism and scientism?
If the CCP does have a value system centered around science, will their values resonate with China’s allies in the Belt and Road Initiative?
Is the culture of scientism conducive or obstructive to China’s technological progress?
And under what conditions could humanism form an effective check against the excesses of scientism in modern China?
These questions demand serious reflection in shedding light on the trajectory of China’s progress over the coming decades.
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