A Seed exclusive from Beijing

From the OCT/NOV 2005 issue of Seed:

madeinchina.jpg Credit: Michele Junior

When a patient arrived in the neurosurgery ward of Shanghai’s Fudan University Huashan Hospital with a chopstick protruding from one eye, surgeon Zhu Jianhong was not surprised. He knew that Shanghai dinners are long affairs, lubricated with shots of 110-proof grain alcohol, and that when tensions boil over, chopsticks can become weapons. As Zhu extracted the utensil, it occurred to him to culture the brain tissue that was stuck to it. At the time, scientists thought cells from only two regions of the brain were expandable; this tissue was from neither. But Zhu’s experiment worked. The next few times he was confronted with a head wound, Zhu took his work one step further, transplanting the expanded neural cells back into the patient’s brain. The six patients he treated over the next three years showed better recovery than untreated patients. A delegation of British scientists who visited Zhu last year was uniformly impressed, calling the study “ground-breaking” in a government report. “There’s nobody else in the world who’s even close to doing that,” said Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology lab at King’s College London. Indeed, much of the work the Chinese are doing with stem cells simply could not be conducted in most other parts of the world: The proliferation of chopsticks notwithstanding, China has one of the most liberal environments in the world for stem cell research. While the ethical debate over the use of embryos in research continues to rage in much of the West, researchers like Zhu have the Chinese government and popular sentiment firmly behind them.

For decades, China was barely a blip on the scientific radar. Communism’s arbitrary appointments, combined with the Cultural Revolution’s disdain for education, crippled Chinese science. But today China is in the midst of a scientific revolution. China’s current economic and political strategy, as named by President Hu Jintao at a recent Central Committee meeting, is the “scientific development concept.” The idea is to balance economic growth with attention to China’s growing social issues, many of which could be better tackled with the tools that science and technology provide. On the ground, it means that China is developing the sciences now, in the same rapid, breathtaking way that China overhauled its economy. The Chinese government is pouring money into everything from biotechnology to its ambitious space program, which culminates this month in the launch of the manned shuttle Shenzhou VI. And as with most things, timing is key. The steaming Chinese economy, combined with greater opportunities for professional advancement than in the West, is convincing many of the 600,000 students China has sent overseas since the late 1970s that now is the time to return. All of the principal scientists on China’s Human Genome Project team—and half of the scholars in the Shanghai branches of the Chinese Academy of the Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the major Chinese science institutes—are returnees. The government increased its funding to domestic education by 600% between 1991 and 2001, and it continues to go up. According to research done by Rice University, by 2010, if current trends continue, more than 90% of all scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia, and many of those in China. Equipped with fluency in English, Chinese scientists now publish in the international journals that are the barometer of scientific success in the West. Between 1988 and 2001, article output grew by a factor of five (in the same period it only increased by 10% in the U.S.).

The mood in Chinese science is energetic, buoyant and even, as one Western science administrator described it, “euphoric.” China is determined to show the West that it can develop scientifically even as it does so economically—that it can turn out impressive achievements with less than half the funding allotted to the sciences in the West. And that it can do so, in some cases, more efficiently.

China has the habit of appending “with Chinese characteristics” to its new theories and ideologies—as in, most famously, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the term for China’s breed of authoritarian capitalism. The young, ambitious, and highly-educated Chinese who are spearheading China’s scientific revolution are not only doing science at a world-class level. They are making it their own. This is science with Chinese characteristics. And it may very well change the world of science as we know it.


At the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), the center that delivered China’s contribution to the Human Genome Project, white-coated researchers grab watermelon slices as they brush through the lobby. Next to the plate of fruit is a ceramic piggy bank. “It’s empty,” jokes a smiling Bin Liu, the center’s assistant director. Liu, who earned his doctorate at McGill University and did postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health, doesn’t seem fazed. The institute is housed in a dirty white-tile building near the airport; it keeps a Wednesday to Sunday workweek because electricity in its industrial park is rationed. On walls throughout the building are signs in block capital letters that read “Get it Done,” alongside the Nature and Science covers depicting BGI’s grand-slam of genome sequence drafts. When Liu talks about BGI, he focuses on this work. He admits that much of it was performed under “impossible circumstances” but he objects to the suggestion that the Chinese sciences are still developing. “In nanotech we are actually ahead of America. Would you say that America is developing? The scenario has changed.”

shanghai.jpg Soon cities like Shanghai could become meccas of science and technology.  Credit: Andrew Wood

What’s perhaps most significant about this realignment is its potential: what it might mean in 10 or 15 years if China consistently leads the field. And, certainly, China is not just interested in pulling off a series of quick tricks; it also has a policy-linked plan for the sciences, mapped out to 2020. Wu Yishan, a senior researcher at the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, a governmental advisory agency, says that, compared with the US, China excels at developing long-term plans for scientific development, in part because it doesn’t have an election every four years to hold it back. The moves it has made to encourage biotech and nanotech clearly indicate that someone in the Chinese government has been considering the long term says Shere Abbott, chief international officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Commenting on the difference between what she saw on visits to China in 1995 and in 2005, Abbott was impressed: “It’s huge,” she says, “It tells you a lot about their ability to sit down and develop a national strategy.”  Robert Lanza, VP of scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology said he was “blown away” on a recent trip to China. “In many ways their thinking was more advanced than our own.” If China maintains its current pace, the impact could move quickly beyond science to have a wider cultural impact. “China’s right on the verge,” says Lanza, “and the culture goes hand in hand with the science and the economics.”

But, to be sure, more than one Chinese science administrator has complained about budgetary shortfalls and debt, and while some Western scientists who have toured Chinese labs suggest that they are, in some cases, better outfitted than Western ones (“It was like going to Cambridge,” said Minger from King’s College), funding remains a very real concern for many institutions. Despite its consummate planning, Wu says, China lags behind the West in commercializing and profiting from its science. More-entrepreneurial researchers have developed fluid relationships with private Chinese companies and many successful government institutes have a commercial arm. But many projects remain underfunded.

Because of this, perhaps, the government has opened its doors to a variety of ambitious foreign projects. Last year, France’s prestigious Pasteur Institute established a center on emerging diseases in Shanghai, and Germany’s Helmholtz Association, a consortium of research entities, set up a center focused on energy, environment and space in Beijing—its first outside of Europe. Denmark’s Centre for Clinical and Basic Research will soon establish a center in Beijing. And a host of multinationals—including giants like Microsoft, Intel and GE—have established R&D facilities in China, with more poised to follow suit.

Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk occupies a wing of a sleek, slate gray building with mirrored windows in plush Zhongguancun, China’s Silicon Valley, a half-hour drive from Beijing’s research universities. Its labs are eerily quiet, as if half of the researchers are on vacation. They have, in fact, not yet arrived; the company plans to double the center’s staff in the next three to five years. Companies like Novo Nordisk are in China because the country has a large pool of cheap, educated labor, with Ph.D.s receiving annual salaries under $10,000. Indeed, China is listed as the top destination for future R&D spending by many multinationals. But China, as any Western entrepreneur who has tried to set up shop here can attest, is hardly a country that lets itself be exploited. Niels Blume, director of the cell biology department at Novo’s Beijing center, says the government insists that the company give back to the community; Novo Nordisk has bankrolled a Ministry of Health diabetes education initiative and spearheaded an insulin donation program. The company’s greater impact, however, will be in the way it trains the next generation of Chinese scientists. The empty offices in Novo Nordisk’s building—which Blume says the government sees as “an incubator for Chinese biotech companies”—may eventually be filled with researchers who cut their teeth at Novo Nordisk. In this sense the foreign labs play a role similar to that of overseas universities, offering Chinese scientists a chance to acquire specialized knowledge which they can then go on to apply at Chinese companies. Indeed, a recent industry report by Blackwell on managing R&D in China highlighted the high turnover experienced by many multinational research centers in China.

With sound expertise in commercialization added to its repertoire, China will be equipped to further define the “Chinese characteristics” of its science. And chances are the outcome won’t look much like Western science. In 19th-century China, imperial leaders promoted the slogan zhong xue wei ti, xi xue wei yong, or “Eastern learning for foundation, Western learning for application.” Many Chinese still subscribe to that maxim. By most indications, China intends to draw on the West for practical knowledge, while turning out science with a distinctly Chinese flavor. BGI’s draft sequences read like a survey of Chinese staples: rice, chicken and silkworm genomes. Wu, whose job includes monitoring foreign science, says the agency is pushing Chinese scientists to focus on what he calls “appropriate technology,” such as animal-powered farm machines and other tools that could be used in small-scale rural agriculture. Peasants still account for over half of the Chinese population and unprofitable farming techniques are forcing many to abandon the land to search for work in China’s cities. This October, the Shenzhou VI astronauts will carry on board with them a container of pig sperm—not as a strange stunt but as an experiment directed at better engineering pork, which is at the center of the rural Chinese diet. All of these pursuits derive from an issue that is of great importance to China: feeding a growing population with a mounting food supply problem. (The World Watch Institute predicts that by 2030, China’s population alone will consume more than the total amount of grain available on the international market.) When Novo Nordisk’s researchers leave for Chinese companies, then, they will not end up simply reproducing the work their Western employers gave them. More likely, they will find a way to apply Novo Nordisk’s E. coli protein sequencing to Chinese needs—developing inexpensive diabetes medications that can be easily distributed in the countryside, for example.

Economically and diplomatically, China has already positioned itself as a leader of the developing world. Now it is doing the same scientifically, strengthening its own research foundation and honing its expertise. This puts China in the unprecedented position of being a developing country that has resources to call upon. It’s country whose business leaders rank among the Fortune 500, and whose biotech and nanotech labs are some of the best in the world, where 130 million people still live below the poverty line. China’s rapid economic growth allows it the opportunity to tackle development issues in a way that the West never could. It has the tools to think big and to do it right the first time. And when it comes to the kind of research that will make a difference here—studying pollution reduction and agricultural technologies—the West doesn’t feel the same immediacy. This is where science with Chinese characteristics becomes an investment in the future of developing nations, as well as a saleable commodity; this is how China becomes positioned to do no less than shape the future of the five billion people living in the developing world.

But China has to win the home game first. Realizing this, the government has made sure that its science initiatives incorporate the far more intangible and emotional issue of national pride—one of the few forces that can transcend the contradictions of the country and manage to make it feel like a whole, instead of the sum of very disparate parts.


The space-themed Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a vertical string of hot-pink baubles in Shanghai’s financial district, is purportedly the tallest tower in Asia, at 1536 feet. Since its completion in 1994, its image has cropped up on everything from cigarette packages to the opening credits of various TV shows. Many now tout it as the symbol of new China. On any given day, tour groups from the Chinese interior and migrant workers who have splurged on the 100 yuan ($12) ticket—a week’s pay in rural China—throng the lower bauble, where they wait for as long as two hours to ascend the tower. Eventually, young women dressed like futuristic flight attendants show them to the “space cabin,” the uppermost bauble, and leave them to stare out the windows at other skyscrapers or examine the gifts and plaques to China from around the world. The message is two-pronged: China is launching itself to new heights; the world loves China.

pearltower.jpg The Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai.  Credit: Wang Sanjun

The Pearl Tower’s long lines are not the only sign that science is fueling Chinese nationalism. China’s array of profit-driven tabloids, glossy magazines and Internet portals breathlessly report cloned pigs and new vaccines. Stories abound about what the Shenzhou VI taikonauts will be eating (kungpao chicken and soy-braised beef are among the dozens of new space foods developed for this mission). Children list Yang Liwei, the first man China sent into space, as one of their top 10 heroes, alongside Jackie Chan and Mao Zedong. Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst at CNA Corporation, a Virginia-based think tank, says he’s watching out for a product that will bring scientific advances into average citizens’ homes—what he calls the “Chinese equivalent of Tang.” China’s Nobel laureates for science enjoy celebrity status, even though most of them live abroad. When 82-year-old physics laureate Yang Zhengning married a 28-year-old graduate student last December, he set off a media blitz worthy of a J.Lo marriage.

The importance of pride is difficult to underestimate in a nation that has been waiting for a millennium to reestablish its dominance. Even when China’s initiatives follow Western precedents, it makes sure they are bigger and better than anyone else’s. China is now home to the world’s two largest malls, the tallest hotel and is at work on the tallest building. So when the Chinese sent Yang Liwei into space in 2003, he stayed in orbit longer than John Glenn or Yuri Gagarin—a move that, according to Cheng, has little to do with improvements in technology. “The Chinese firsts are different from other people’s firsts,” he says, suggesting that the Chinese push to outdo everyone else has more to do with prestige than with scientific fundamentals. “Why are the Chinese doing this now? They want to be viewed as a global player in science.”
Of course, these are all elements that the Chinese government can manipulate and control. The tricky part is that, in order for the people’s enthusiasm to transfer into a meaningful understanding of science’s vital role in their country’s development, there needs to be open discussion. So far, the authoritarian Chinese government is fairly uncomfortable with that idea. But if science is to flourish, it may have no choice.

China’s breakneck pace of development is creating a slew of problems that cannot be managed without creative scientific thinking. But thinking outside the box is not China’s strong suit. Confucianism, long the guiding philosophy of the country, has instilled generations of Chinese with a reverence for learning, family and tradition. It has also bequeathed a rigid, hierarchical education system in which the exchange of knowledge is governed by strict attention to social rules. Chinese universities function like Imperial China’s civil service system once did, with intense entrance examinations that are designed to identify the most promising students. Although the system is extremely rigorous, many say that it fails to emphasize creativity and intellectual debate, and fosters a hyper-competitiveness that makes it difficult for students to work in groups. (The emphasis on competition carries over to the selection process for Shenzhou VI, in which two astronauts will be chosen from a pool of six at the last minute. This way, Cheng says, “you’re going to keep your astronauts on their toes.”) One director of a multinational research and development center here said that whenever possible, he hires Chinese scientists who have studied abroad. His company goes so far as to court Chinese doctoral students from Western universities. “In the Chinese system you learn endless amounts of stuff by heart, but you don’t have the discussion that is so important to science,” he said.

Orville Schell, a renowned China scholar who is dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, pointed out that the world’s best scientists are deeply interested in other disciplines. Until Chinese scientists enjoy complete intellectual freedom, he said, their thinking will be inhibited.  “Read Einstein on War and Peace. This is a truly creative mind in more ways than one. You don’t just wake up one morning after 40 or 50 years of Marxism and Leninism and, because the economy is freer, turn into Einstein.”

Berkeley neuroscientist Mu-ming Poo, who spends three months a year in Shanghai directing China’s Institute of Neuroscience, has been a vocal advocate of institutional reform. The primary obstacle to Chinese scientific progress, he said, is cultural. In the Chinese science world, the Confucian tradition plays out as a top-down administration of funding and assignments, an atmosphere of “undue courtesy” and a dearth of scientists willing to question existing research. In the worst examples, it means that bad science goes unquestioned and seemingly “good” science gets a free ride. In an interview with the Chinese state news agency in August, Harvard mathematician Shing-Tung Yau said that plagiarism is rampant in Chinese academia, noting that a student of his who had plagiarized a professor’s article had been given membership to the Chinese Academy of the Sciences and appointed head of a science foundation. But more often, the problem is that the culture prevents the development of new ideas. “Innovation has to come from a spirit of free pursuit,” says Poo, “and the Chinese tradition and environment doesn’t encourage the free pursuit of one’s own ideas.”

The returnees, along with their education and their expertise, have brought back with them a greater capacity for the unconventional and the adaptive. And in the ideal scenarios their sensibilities represent a hybrid of their two worlds. When Harvard-educated Zhu Jianhong cultured cells from a chopstick that he extracted from a patient’s eye, he was thinking creatively. But, according to his colleagues, he also acted out of obligation—he felt he needed to make his work useful.

The importance of this best-of-both-worlds approach is perhaps best measured against the dire state of China’s environment. The country’s supply of coal, on which it relies heavily for fuel, will run out by the end of this century. China is home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. At the same time, 350 to 400 million people are forecast to migrate from the countryside to cities in the next 25 years, which will vastly increase the already staggering number of cars that China adds to the road each year. Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations says China has thoroughly “degraded” its environment, to an extent unparalleled in the West. Indeed, the total cost of environmental degradation and resource scarcity is widely held to be 8 to 12 percent of GDP each year. Environmentalists worry that while the Chinese government has developed a plan for the sciences that looks ahead 15 years, it has no parallel plan for the environment. China’s signing on to Bush’s “Kyoto alternative” doesn’t inspire much hope among environmentalists here.

chinaflag.jpg Credit: Emma Holmwood

But China’s rise presents a unique opportunity to change the way development looks, applying solutions that have never been tried in the West. “There is a fundamental difference between China and the US and Europe,” Economy said. “China has access to policy approaches and technologies that were not available when the U.S. and Europe were going through similar changes.” In some cases, China appropriates these technologies for its own use. The government is starting to show interest in renewable energy; it has plans to quadruple its use of wind power by 2010, with Chinese companies providing most of the technology. In other cases, China serves as a laboratory for ideas that would be difficult to carry out on a large scale anywhere else.

The village of Huangbaiyu, for example, was once like any other northeastern Chinese outpost: a place where people fish, plant corn and tend goats on rolling land surrounded by jagged mountains. Now a joint design team, led on the American side by the architect William McDonough and on the Chinese side by Shanghai’s Tongji University, is converting it into a forward-looking experiment in sustainable living. As of August, they had only built one house—a one-story cube with straw walls, a compressed earth frame and a 1000-watt solar panel on its roof—but when construction finishes, close to 200 such houses will be laid out in clusters around Huangbaiyu’s school. The village will operate on a closed loop material model, with waste, in the form of biomass, being used to generate methane for fuel or used as compost in the fields.

Huangbaiyu grew out of an unusual 1999 agreement between the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the Oregon state government to work together on issues of sustainability, as the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. Its ultimate goal is to address China’s internal migration by building six sustainable urban developments, or New Towns, in cities throughout China. Ultimately, its organizers hope, the New Town approach will be adopted by other developers—abroad as well as in China. “The China-U.S. Center has the potential to be a beacon in terms of demonstrating state-of-the-art environmental technology and thinking that is also cost-effective,” said Economy, who serves on the Center’s board of directors. “The difficulty that the idea will encounter is how do you encourage replication?” The answer would seem to be: with success. The more science demonstrates that is is an integral tool of development in China, the more other developing countries see a success story on which they can model their own plan for progress. China thereby reinforces its global position as an innovator and pioneer—the kind that gets noticed, gets imitated and sets the course for everyone else.

An enormous white statue of Li Shizhen, the father of Chinese medicine, stands in the atrium of Shanghai’s Research Center for Modernization of Traditional Chinese Medicine, looking solemn but content. He is surrounded by dozens of potted flowers that vaguely suggest an altar. For Chinese policy makers, one of the most obvious—and most Chinese—places to take science is to a discipline with a 2000-year history. The country’s next five-year plan will allot one billion yuan ($121 million) toward the development and modernization of traditional medicine. Shanghai unveiled its sparkling modernization center, which houses 2,500 square meters of lab space and 50 full-time researchers, in Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park, Shanghai’s answer to Zhongguancun, last year.

Director De-An Guo, who received his doctorate from Beijing Medical University, recognizes that traditional medicine has an image problem abroad and among younger Chinese at home. His center aims to transform the experienced-based discipline to an evidence-based one through clinical trials and quality control. It is the largest of several facilities around the country that conduct double-blind, placebo-controlled trials for traditional medicine. The next step is internationalization; the center is working with both Chinese and Western companies to develop products for the foreign market. Indeed, Americans spend in the neighborhood of $40 billion on complimentary and alternative medicine every year. As the West explores how to care for the aging baby-boomer generation, these treatment options become ever more attractive.

For China, however, this is an initiative that hits closer to home. Chinese government advisor Wu said that the government’s interest in the field comes out of a very practical Chinese concern: how to foot the health care bill for the country’s own rapidly aging population. But Ming-Wei Wang, the Cambridge-educated director of the Chinese National Center for Drug Screening, says that developing traditional medicine is actually a costly undertaking. Although the medicines are inexpensive, their effects are not immediately obvious; clinical trials can take years. China’s push to develop its medicine, he suggested, has more to do with strengthening the country’s national identity. “It shows the nation’s well-being is not fully dependent on Western medicine, that we can make a contribution,” he said. “It’s part of national pride. We can take care of ourselves.”

Chinese science’s most dramatic reverberations may come from intertwining science with China’s national ego. As much as science drives the development of China, science will also remain inherently global and inherently impressionable. The more science becomes a definitive feature of China’s identity, the more distinctly these inherent characteristics will manifest elsewhere in Chinese culture. Science cannot exist in a bubble and state control of areas not directly connected to science—the press, the arts, political expression—will increasingly be affected. Scientists have figured prominently in several major democracy movements. Andrei Sahkarov, the physicist who designed the hydrogen bomb, became a leading dissident under the Soviet regime. Similarly, the speeches of Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi helped inspire the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Science, Fang wrote in 1999, on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, is “a force for rationality, and, from there, democracy.”

Perhaps the case can be made that, as goes science in China, so will go China. If science is allowed to lead, China will lead. And if China leads, the world’s scientific agenda may change in ways that fundamentally alter everything from the way we eat, to how we treat disease, to what we imagine is even physically possible. We will see a shift in the global scientific agenda and we will witness a change in the way science is performed.

As Zhu Jianhong continues his work at Huashan Hospital, other stem cell researchers are quietly turning out world-class research at other institutions around China—such as Beijing’s Li Lingsong, who is experimenting with techniques to produce human organs for use in transplants or Shanghai’s Sheng Huizhen, who caused an international stir in 2003 with the creation of a rabbit-human hybrid embryo. These scientists worry about competition from the South Koreans, not about being denied funding or being vilified as immoral or murderous. Their work is considered highly ethical within Chinese culture, where Confucianism dictates that life begins at birth and places an emphasis on the collective—in this case, the patients waiting for treatment—over the individual. If the Chinese stem cell research model is reproduced on a global level, the relationship between science and morality could change drastically; the ethical debate as we know it could possibly be rendered moot, inconsequential on the world stage.

“The failure of the US government in areas of science—stem cells in particular—has left a huge void, an opportunity for the East,” says ACT’s Lanza. “We’re all worried about China’s power militarily, but we should be more concerned about it scientifically and culturally—what’s happening here could mean the decline of not only our scientific dominance but our cultural dominance.”

But science is not a zero-sum game. There are certainly more opportunities than not for Chinese science to compliment, rather than replace, Western science. The real challenge becomes knowing how to answer when opportunity knocks.

Originally published November 23, 2005

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