05/12/2010 03:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

China Has Its Scientific Revolution

Much time is spent trying to figure out what will be the consequences of China's rapid movement towards becoming a great economic and world power. Much less time, though, has gone to explaining how this change happened and how it will be sustained, if it is sustained.

China watchers recently got a rare glimpse of one version of an answer to that latter question, from the lips of China's Premier Wen Jiabao. What Premier Wen emphasized is that China must sustain a "technological revolution" that emphasizes "innovation" -- and a technological revolution that feeds upon other social reforms. This may seem a standard line from the Chinese Communist Party. But when looked at in context of scholarship on the history of science and intellectual history, Premier Wen's comments, seemingly quite unintentionally, resonate with histories already written while suggestively foreshadowing those yet to be written.

Wen's comments came shortly after the opening of the Shanghai World Expo on May 1, when he spoke to Chinese college students on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, a series of largely youth-initiated Chinese nationalist cultural and political protests in 1919. The May Fourth Movement occupies a complex position in China and have been invoked by the Tiananmen protesters of 1989 as well as by the CCP. But Wen's comments, as reported by the China Elections and Governance blog, stressed an important and revealing interpretation of the May Fourth Movement's significance

"To commemorate May Fourth, we must above all carry out its spirit of scientific learning and democracy," Wen said, adding, "Our society's progress is tightly linked to the emphasis we place on education as well as to the technological revolution. China will never be at the forefront of the world if it doesn't possess the spirit of innovation."

Indeed, encouraging a Chinese "technological revolution" has been an increasing priority of the Chinese government's in recent years -- the Shanghai Expo stands as an excellent example of this governmental focus. The specific term, 科技革命 (keji geming) differs from 科学革命 (kexue geming), the Chinese term for the Scientific Revolution. This difference perhaps reflects Chinese pragmatism, a focus on measurable applications rather than pure science. But the similarity of the two terms implies that the Chinese government sees its 21st century "technological revolution" as its version of Europe's 17th century Scientific Revolution.

What makes this all so interesting is the position that the European Scientific Revolution holds in China. A bit of historical background first: before about 1600 CE, Chinese and European science were on par with each other; in fact, some scholars, like the great Joseph Needham, have argued that in many ways Chinese science was ahead of science in the West. But with the emergence of Europe's Scientific Revolution, the West developed "modern science"--systematic, mathematical hypothesizing about nature--while China entered what historians like Wen-yuan Qian have called its "great inertia," falling far behind in terms of scientific development and only beginning to catch up when Jesuit missionaries and other foreign visitors introduced Western developments to the Middle Kingdom.

This scientific divergence that occurred -- so significant that Chinese writers, including Feng Youlan, were moved to say that "China has no science" -- has taken on a large place in the Chinese imagination. It connects to the "Century of Humiliation" (百年国耻, or bainian guochi), which refers to China's period of political and economic subjugation following its loss of the First Opium War. Scientific development, then, matters not only for Chinese education but also for Chinese patriotism. In the same way that military power and economic strength are matters of national pride, the prospect of a "technological revolution" that Wen described is a matter of Chinese nationalism.

What does this fact mean? Most obviously, it means that the Chinese government cares about China's scientific development and "spirit of innovation" -- that it is investing in ambitious programs at a remarkable pace (for a good analysis of one of these programs, the so-called 863 program for clean energy, see the New Yorker's Evan Osnos article on the subject). (One widely made observation worth noting here is that China's economic rise has not been fueled by Chinese technological innovation, but rather by copying Western technology--often, in fact, copying through theft of Western intellectual property.) As many commentators have noted, the world must prepare for China to emerge as a scientific power.

But deeper thinking about Chinese science reveals that China's emphasis on innovation and development may have important consequences in less obvious ways. Historians of Chinese science like Needham and Nathan Sivin have stressed that contextual factors--not only economic context, but also political and social structures like China's civil examination system and its bureaucratic feudalism--were responsible for China's non-development of "modern science" like the West. So in thinking about how changing Chinese science might change China, political and social changes cannot remain unexamined.

UCLA's Richard Baum, a specialist on Chinese politics, wrote in 1982 that "characteristics of traditional Chinese culture" were continuing to hinder the development of Chinese science in the eighties--that is, the political and social factors that prevented Chinese science from independently developing "modern science" are still influencing and delimiting Chinese science today, even after "modern science" has come to China. This crucial insight means that saying Chinese science needs to be revolutionized is to say that China's political and social situation must be reassessed and reformed.

We tend to look at the Scientific Revolution in terms of its effects: a far-reaching remaking of the Western world. But we shouldn't forget that for Europe to enter its Scientific Revolution, its political, social, and economic situation had to shift radically toward permitting free inquiry and innovation. The Chinese government looks at the prospect of a "technological revolution" as effecting its move to "the forefront of the world." But are there things that need to change in China before it can have a sustainable scientific revolution?