Same bed, different dreams

31 Oct 2013

AS a historian, I was once invited to an event in China marking the contributions of Chinese students and researchers who had returned to their homeland since the founding of the old Republic. The event was at a time of high tension in China over contested islands in the South China Sea.

A speaker affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, took to the stage and recited a list of the significant achievements of returned students, including the indigenous grafting of nuclear and missile technologies from the United States and the former Soviet Union, before pointing with dismay at the restrictions some countries now placed on the transfer of sensitive technologies.

He called for renewed efforts by Chinese researchers going abroad to acquire new skills and technologies despite the obstacles placed in their way. Then, straying from his notes, he turned to the audience of historians and education experts with an off-the-cuff remark. Concerned citizens often asked him why the PLA did not simply go out and seize China’s sovereign territories in the South China Sea, he said. He cautioned patience. China was not quite ready to take the islands by force. The country needed to upgrade its scientific technology and military preparedness before taking such a course. This was the challenge facing the generation of Chinese students and scholars going abroad to study and do research – to bring back new knowledge and new technologies to help China realise its dream of national revival.

The PLA has its own peculiar take on things, and the off-hand views of its public spokesmen don’t always reflect those of central party and government authorities. In fact, the official goal of China’s science and technology policy is not to prepare for war in the neighbourhood but to “accelerate the transformation of economic development – the first priority of the national strategy.” The challenges facing sustainable economic development in China also warrant every ounce of innovation the country can squeeze out of its strategic investments in cutting-edge science and technology.

Still, any perspective on China’s national science and technology policy from the PLA – a powerful institution with a role in policy setting and implementation – needs to be taken seriously. A little reflection on the way China approaches and polices research in the sciences, including the social sciences, suggests that an old-fashioned national security agenda, fuelled by historical grievances, is an important part of China’s national science policy…

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