Three Gorges Probe

How Chinese science lost its backbone

(September 23, 2010) This China Media Project piece discusses the political and commercial interests skewing Chinese science today – and the lack of scientists like Huang Wanli with the backbone to say no to foolish mega-projects.

Zhang Ming
Chinese Media Project
September 3, 2010

August 27 marked the ninth anniversary of the death of engineer Huang Wanli (黄万里). And I’d like to offer a few remarks about Huang Wanli that touch on my own role, that of an intellectual at an academic institution.

Like the vast majority of Chinese professors today, Huang Wanli was an intellectual inside the system, who drew his wages from the government and engaged in highly technical work. In his own discipline, perhaps, he was far superior to most of us intellectuals today, but his basic identity was the same. I often wonder, if there were similar doubts raised today to those Huang Wanli raised in his own day about building the Sanmenxia Gorge Dam Project, would anyone at all dare to speak up? I would venture to say NO — that even if people understood that the dam project could not be built, they would not openly oppose it, and probably would not even secretly voice their objections.

Just look, there is no fear today of being branded as a political blackguard, and there is no chance either that one would be struck down as a “rightist” But still, each discussion meeting our experts hold [for a potential project] is a completely ridiculous affair. Does anyone at all dare utter the word NO. No, not a soul. Our experts look to their colleagues, to government leaders and, more importantly, to the hefty consulting fees, and then they decide what those organizing the evaluation want, what the leaders want, and that’s what the experts say.

Huang Wanli was an intellectual with backbone. This is beyond any doubt. And his pluck came actually from two things. One was from his sense of professionalism as a scientist. The other was his sense of responsibility. The latter, in fact, was more important. As a professional, a true scientist can do without political views, but they must respect the rules of science and the results of experimentation. They cannot disregard their own knowledge and training and speak against their own conscience. They especially cannot speak this way for the sake of certain political goals. Which is to say that if a scientist’s research tells him something is white, then he cannot, no matter how intense the pressure that comes to bear on him, say that something is black. To his mind, doing so would be a great burden on his conscience.

Read the full article here, or at Chinese Media Project.

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