How China is trying to change 2,000 years of Confucian thinking.

In 2005, President Hu Jintao unveiled China’s 15-year plan for science and technology. Within two decades, he said, China would join global innovators to achieve “science and technological breakthroughs of world influence.”

Of course, China has been pouring money into the sciences since the 1980s, but it has yet to make the kinds of pioneering discoveries that Hu and other leaders crave. Now, it is shifting resources away from massive, state-directed research projects and funneling them into initiatives designed to stimulate zizhu chuangxin, or “indigenous innovation.”

To that end, China has made creativity central to the science and technology plan, which outlines changes to 2020. The plan, unveiled last year, prioritizes areas of research, including infectious diseases, mobile communications, and space, while pledging a commitment to nanotechnology and other emerging fields.

The government realizes that it needs to “foster an innovative spirit and culture,” says Gang Zhang, administrator of the OECD’s science and technology directorate, which in 2005 was approached by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology to evaluate the country’s potential for innovation. Several of the conclusions of that survey are expected to target institutional and cultural baggage left over from China’s planned economy. “The challenge now is to translate investment in science and technology into a social good,” Gang adds. “It’s important to China’s long-term competitiveness.”

And therein lies the challenge: To achieve zizhu chuangxin, the government has to break with the past, engineering nothing short of a cultural sea change. And it’s not just socialist planning that is to blame. Cultural barriers extend back to Confucianism, which has shaped China’s educational and intellectual environments for more than a millennium.

From an early age, Chinese students are discouraged from challenging authority or asking critical questions. Both within academia and outside it, plagiarism is widespread — even, in some cases, condoned. And China’s research culture deters risk-taking.

“Young scientists need to feel like they can spread their wings a bit,” says Denis Simon, vice president of the State University of New York’s Levin Institute and a veteran observer of Chinese science policy. He cites American entrepreneurs who fail nine out of 10 times but continue to try new ideas. “In China, a tolerance for failure is still not embedded in the system.”

No one is more aware of these issues than Chinese scientists. Hu’s 15-year plan follows decades of soul-searching in Chinese science. In 2004, neuroscientist Mu-ming Poo, who shuttles between Berkeley and a post at Chinese Academy of the Sciences in Shanghai, voiced a common opinion when he reflected on the deficiencies of the Chinese system in an article for Nature.”The most urgent task in building research institutions in China,” he wrote, “is the creation of an intellectual atmosphere that is conducive to creative work.”

The 15-year plan addresses such concerns with provisions designed to promote cultural change at the ground level. To combat institutional rigidity and plagiarism, China is overhauling its evaluation system for scientists, tightening intellectual property protection, and offering financial incentives for start-up companies. To effect educational change, it is building schools connected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, strengthening the research component of graduate programs, and even investing in science-themed high schools. “This is a multifaceted plan involving multiple agencies,” says Simon, who oversees US-led programs designed to stimulate innovation in China. “They’re going to touch all parts of the system, to really put innovation at the center.”

Creativity is, of course, difficult to mandate. But some of the barriers to innovation in China are also economic and developmental. As the government strengthens intellectual property protection, scientists may be more willing to share and debate their ideas. And as China grows richer and its researchers no longer have to work on developing-world-level salaries, they may be more prone to take risks. With such changes in place, a cultural shift may not be so far off.

Originally published December 12, 2007

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