A century on, China still lacks the drive for scientific truth, says outspoken editor

Choi Chi-yuk
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A century on, China still lacks the drive for scientific truth, says outspoken editor

A Chinese state newspaper editor who set off a public debate on the country’s overblown technological strength has said scientific spirit remains scarce, despite the nation being in pursuit of it for a century.

Liu Yadong, chief editor of Science and Technology Daily, said a lack of scientific spirit was often the underlying reason for some of the problems facing China, from weaknesses in fundamental innovation and research, to widespread counterfeiting and fraud, and even arrogance in society.

Liu’s public criticism two months ago of media hyping of China’s strength is still reverberating in the country, and has coincided with Beijing’s apparent dialling down of rhetoric on its ambitions for global leadership in advanced technologies – one concern of Washington in its trade war with China.

“Next year will be the centenary of the May Fourth Movement,” Liu said on Sunday at a Beijing forum on scientific and technological innovation.

“In my opinion, China in 1919 lacked scientific spirit, and China in 2019 will still lack scientific spirit.”

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The modernisation movement in 1919, marked by student protests about the government’s weakness on negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, featured calls by intellectuals for adoption of Western-style democracy and science in reviving the country.

In his speech, Liu revisited the ups and downs of China’s modernisation in the past few centuries, and the devastation to intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.

He described scientific spirit as a shared belief, values and norms not limited to scientists but also filtering into the general public, and embracing virtues such as a pursuit of truth, innovation and tolerance of failure.

He argued that people should not measure science only by superficial returns.

“Take [China’s] science and technology sector as an example: its level of original innovation remains low, and its fundamental research is weak,” Liu said. “You can attribute these to a thousand reasons, but the most fundamental reason is the lack of scientific spirit.

“Accompanying this, there comes a host of ugly phenomena like corruption and fraud in academia, as well as arrogance and superficialness.”

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In his speech in June, Liu made a rare open criticism of the overpromotion of China’s technological strength, with some even suggesting China will soon overtake the United States. He said such rhetoric is self-deceiving, fooling government leaders and the public.

While the ruling Communist Party’s flagship mouthpiece People’s Daily ran a series of online commentaries soon after Liu’s speech echoing criticism of overblown rhetoric about China’s global strength, more recent state media commentaries – near the end of the state leaders’ annual summer gathering at the seaside resort of Beidaihe – appeared to adopt somewhat different tones.

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On Monday, People’s Daily endorsed on its official social media account a commentary by Yuan Lanfeng, a researcher with the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China, that criticised both hyping up of China’s strength and views dismissing any Chinese achievements as fake news.

And last week, a signed commentary in People’s Daily’s print edition dismissed criticism that Beijing’s overconfident attitude was to blame for provoking the US into a trade war.

“After over a hundred years of efforts, China is once again close to the centre of the global stage ... with such a huge and massive [economy], it is impossible to hide by being low-key, just like a large elephant cannot hide itself behind a small tree,” the Friday commentary read.


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