Red moon rising: China’s march as a science superpower
Should the rest of the world worry? We are about to find out if technological greatness requires freedom of thought
Ahundred years ago, a wave of student protests broke over China’s great cities. Desperate to reverse a century of decline, the leaders of the 4 May Movement wanted to jettison Confucianism and import the dynamism of the West. The creation of a modern China would come about, they argued, by recruiting “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy”.
Today, the country that the 4 May students helped to shape is more than ever consumed by the pursuit of national greatness. China’s landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon on 3 January, a first for any country, was a mark of its soaring ambition. But today’s leaders reject the idea that Mr Science belongs in the company of Mr Democracy. On the contrary, President Xi Jinping is counting on being able to harness leading-edge research even as the Communist Party tightens its stranglehold on politics. Amid the growing rivalry between China and America, many in the West fear that he will succeed.
There is no doubting Mr Xi’s determination. Modern science depends on money, institutions and oodles of brainpower. Partly because its government can marshal all three, China is hurtling up the rankings of scientific achievement. It has spent many billions of dollars on machines to detect dark matter and neutrinos, and on institutes galore that delve into everything from genomics and quantum communications to renewable energy and advanced materials.
An analysis of 17.2 million papers in 2013-18, by Nikkei, a Japanese publisher, and Elsevier, a scientific publisher, found that more came from China than from any other country in 23 of the 30 busiest fields, such as sodium-ion batteries and neuron-activation analysis. The quality of American research has remained higher, but China has been catching up, accounting for 11 per cent of the most influential papers in 2014-16.
Such is the pressure on Chinese scientists to make breakthroughs that some put ends before means. Last year, He Jiankui, an academic from Shenzhen, edited the genomes of embryos without proper regard for their post-partum welfare – or that of any children they might go on to have.
Chinese artificial-intelligence (AI) researchers are thought to train their algorithms on data harvested from Chinese citizens, with little oversight. In 2007, China tested a space-weapon on one of its weather satellites, littering orbits with lethal space
The looming prospect of a rule-breaking, dominant, hi-tech China alarms the West
debris. Intellectual-property theft is rampant.
The looming prospect of a dominant, rule-breaking, hi-tech China alarms Western politicians, and not just because of the new weaponry it will develop. Authoritarian governments have a history of using science to oppress their own people. China already deploys AI techniques like facial recognition to monitor its population in real time. The outside world might find a China dabbling in genetic enhancement, autonomous AIs or geoengineering extremely frightening.