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Hot Issues, Green Challenges: Correspondent Richard Stone on China's Science Revolution
Richard Stone at Tianenmen Square
[Photo © and courtesy of Pallava Bagla]
On a recent assignment in remote northeastern China, not far from the North Korean border, correspondent Richard Stone arrived at the Changbaishan Nature Reserve to find a long red banner printed in white Chinese characters and underscored with an English translation: "Welcome, News Editor of Science to Our Institute."
Western journalists arriving for an interview in any country usually aren't greeted with such enthusiasm. But for Stone, the welcome at Changbaishan says much about the excitement and optimism in China's booming research community and the hopeful prospects for the Science bureau that opened in Beijing last month. Science is the first Western publication of its kind to open a news bureau in the Chinese capital, and journal editors believe it will give them—and readers—a remarkable vantage on an S&T revolution that is reshaping China and having worldwide repercussions.
In a recent interview, Stone described the effects of China's massive new investments in research and development—effects both positive and negative. He discussed the profound challenge facing China as it seeks to maintain economic growth while controlling pollution so severe that it is causing a public backlash. And he suggested that China's broadening freedoms for Western reporters, granted to coincide with the build-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, may also have long-term benefits for Chinese reporters and news consumers.
"The environment now for a Western journalist is largely unfettered," he said. "Western journalists are enjoying the current freedoms, and our Chinese colleagues think it's quite positive, too, because we can open debates on subjects which might be restricted for the Chinese press. Once a discussion starts in the Western press, there might be opportunities for Chinese journalists to pick up on that.... Hopefully Science can pick up on some of these issues and play a positive role, too."
The journal's Beijing bureau has opened at an historic moment. China's economy is soaring. Shanghai and Beijing have become centers for global business, culture, and tourism. Less than a month ago, China launched its first spacecraft to orbit the moon. And the China Internet Network Information Center says that every hour, 100 Chinese are signing onto the Internet for the first time.
With China emerging as an engine of world research and development, AAAS leaders have seen it as vital for the global scientific enterprise to establish a constructive, long-term engagement with its science-related research, policy and education organizations. Chinese S&T officials have visited with AAAS leaders in Washington, D.C.; in September, AAAS sent a delegation to Beijing and Shanghai to meet with the top executives at the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. While in Beijing, they also attended a joint U.S.-China conference on scientific responsibility and integrity. Meanwhile, EurekAlert!, AAAS's science news service, formally debuted a new Chinese-language portal in October to serve the nation's journalists, researchers, businesses and government.
Science is published by AAAS, and the decision to open a new office in Beijing is a critical part of building the new relationship. It's essential for close reporting of the most important news and trends in global science, Stone said.
"It certainly is booming," he said. "There's a lot of energy here. It seems a week doesn't go by when you hear about a prominent ethnic Chinese scientist who's been working in the States for years and years, who has returned to his home country. These returnees are gradually raising the level of Chinese science. That has made it more attractive as a career option for young people here. They see a future in science, working within China."
Before the Beijing assignment, Stone was based for two years in Bangkok, Thailand. He's also lived in Kazakhstan and Russia and has reported for Science from Iran and North Korea. Soon after he settled in Beijing with his wife, Mutsumi, and his two young sons, Aaron and Quinn, the Xinhua new agency wrote about the new bureau and his role there. And following an old custom, he's even taken a Chinese name—Shi Lei. The Chinese character for Shi means 'stone;' draw three of those characters together in a triangle, and you have the character for Lei.
Stone talked with AAAS Senior Writer Edward Lempinen by phone on 1 November from his home-office in Beijing.
Tell me how the idea of opening an office in China emerged, and then how it actually came to be.
I consider it a gradual awakening to the fast strides that the Chinese scientific community has been taking in recent years. I think for a long time, everybody has been aware that China has a very strong presence in the global scientific community, largely from sending students to U.S., European and Japanese universities for Ph.D. degrees. I first recognized that when I was a graduate student in biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. Of the 12 people in my class that year, nine were from Mainland China. They've certainly been a force for a long time in research laboratories outside their own country.
What has been changing in recent years is that, thanks to the rapid economic development of China, there are a lot of top Chinese scientists returning to their home country permanently, helping to build up powerful labs. And certainly there is an effort to strengthen the overall education system—trying to ensure that Chinese science graduates stay in China to receive their Ph.D.s and also to try and make it attractive for Chinese students who do go abroad for Ph.D.s to actually come back. That has been a key change, along with the increasing investments in R&D by the Chinese government: huge increases over the past 10 years in their research spending. So you see rapid growth, and to a journalist that's very exciting.
We have been talking about opening a Beijing bureau for a few years now, and we decided back in 2005 that we would open it in 2007. We've opened it right on schedule.
I assume you had to go to the Chinese government and say: "We would like to open a bureau, or an office." What was the reaction? And what kind of process, then, did Science and you go through?
In the past two years, when I was stationed in Bangkok, I made several trips to China for reporting and for discussing the possibilities of a bureau, and I certainly had an overwhelming, good response from the various officials I spoke with at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and CAST [the China Association for Science and Technology].
Chinese scientists aspire to publishing in Science or Nature. To have a Science presence here in China, I think, gives them a boost. The officials I encountered were always quite positive about the prospects of the bureau, and the accreditation process that we went through was straightforward. There is very clear guidance for dispatching foreign correspondents to China and opening a bureau in China, and we went through that process. We started it last spring, and they reviewed our application and approved it over the summertime.
Were there ever any glitches along the way with that?
There were no glitches. I think we were a little bit optimistic about the processing time for applications, so things were down to the wire as I was finishing up my two years in Bangkok and preparing to open the Beijing bureau. I wouldn't call it a glitch... let's just say we started this process none too early.
The Beijing office has been open a little bit over a month. Has that given you time to get a feel for issues that are, in your view, the hot issues in China—issues that we will soon be hearing about in the West? Also, I wonder if there are issues that you might see as sleeper issues, that we might be hearing about down the road, whether hot areas of research or science policy, or conflicts in science policy.
Certainly the environment is to me a quite compelling issue, everything from ecology and trying to protect species or getting a handle on pollution, to the interaction between the environment and cancer rates. There is a number of what they call "cancer villages" here where the mortality rate is quite high and has been linked to pollution from local plants. You have a many-headed monster which scientists in China are doing battle with, and following that is going to be a key issue for us.
There's quite a bit of growth of the biomedical community here, and so we'll be looking at that closely. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has set up a number of new field stations for monitoring various things—from the retreat of glaciers to the drastic fall of the water table out in the Western provinces where water supply is of major concern. We are paying attention to the complex issue of water supply. The massive south-to-north water transfer scheme is something we've written about, and that is going to continue to be a huge challenge here, and we'll be following that closely. And we'll be looking for offbeat stories, the sort that we haven't done previously in China. One example—in October I attended a conference celebrating the 400th anniversary of the translation and publication of Euclid's Elements by an eminent Chinese intellectual, Xu Guangqi. He is somebody that few Western scientists have heard of. Our article on Xu is a science history story (see Science, 2 November, p.733). It's probably something we never would have thought of doing if we weren't in China and on the scene for the conference. This is something which I think will have broad appeal for our readership. I'll be looking for these kinds of opportunities.
After your first weeks in Beijing, what's been the biggest surprise for you?
Wang Shaoxian, director of the Jilin Changbai Mountain Academy of Sciences in northeastern China, and Richard Stone
I've been really bowled over by the reception I've gotten as a representative of Science. I visited a remote research center up on the North Korean border, the Chanbaishan Nature Reserve, and was greeted with a big banner that said, "Welcome, News Editor of Science to Our Institute." Far from the heart of the Chinese scientific establishment, at a border post, everybody adores Science. Okay, maybe it was a bit much. But it really was thrilling to experience the recognition of Science here. I think it will make my job much easier.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that prevails in the West about Chinese science and technology?
The biggest misconception is that China—across the board—has loose quality control. That issue has come up with the export of toys with lead paint and with the tainted foods and medicines. The misconception is that this laxness is a countrywide phenomenon that affects every facet of Chinese industry, including R&D. Within the scientific community, there are a lot of talented, Western-trained scientists who reject lax standards and are striving to improve the quality of what's produced in China and the quality of their own research.
I think many people—especially people of a certain age—may have the impression that freedom of expression and journalistic freedom are still relatively new in China and potentially quite limited. Is that is an outmoded view? Do you expect to encounter vestiges of the old restrictions in going about your work?
I do know that that's a major issue for Chinese science journalists. Certainly they have restrictions on what they can report, what they can write about. It may benefit them to have a colleague from a U.S. science magazine working with them in Beijing, because I have much more freedom to write what I want to write and to talk with whom I want to talk with here. In fact, the Chinese government has essentially given Western journalists carte blanche for reporting through the Olympic games, so until October or November of next year the regulations on reporting essentially state that Western journalists are free to contact who they wish to speak to without getting formal approval from the Foreign Ministry, and they've relaxed the visa requirements for Western journalists who come in on short-term reporting trips.
So the environment now for a Western journalist is largely unfettered; I feel that there are no constraints at the moment on my work. Nobody knows, after the Olympics period is over, whether the Chinese government will revert to the restrictions that were in place, but at the moment Western journalists are enjoying the current freedoms which we've been given, and our Chinese colleagues think it's quite positive, too, because we can open debates on subjects which might be restricted for the Chinese press. Once a discussion starts in the Western press, there might be opportunities for Chinese journalists to pick up on that. I mean, the coverage in the Western press is like a nice test to see how the Chinese government might react to particular news which they might deem, let's say, too sensitive for the Chinese press.
You say there might be an opportunity for you, as a correspondent for Science, to open debates on issues that might be off limits for Chinese journalists. Are you aware of any such issues at this point?
One topic which might fit in that category is Chinese medicine. There are some radical views here that Chinese medicine should not be so wholeheartedly supported by the Chinese government, that it needs to be tested more strictly and there's a lot of concern that people are relying on these Chinese treatments when, according to Western medicine, there's no evidence in many cases that they actually work. The Chinese government and the general public for a long time have been quite adamant that Chinese medicine is science and should receive full support. There has been little debate about efficacy, cure rates, and what-not.
As a result of the government view, the use of the word pseudo-science in connection with traditional Chinese medicine is censored. But of course Western journalists can delve into pseudoscience, and many of our Chinese colleagues here view critical coverage of pseudo-science in the Western press as a breath of fresh air. I mean, they like the fact that we can talk about this. And because a growing legion of people throughout China having fairly good Internet access now, this discussion is certainly being heard here.
How might China react, or how might it change, if there's a freer press examining it and exploring it? More specifically, how might the conduct of science and technology in China change?
Well, I think we've already seen some signs of pretty big changes, especially on the environmental front. In the past, any major project here in China, like building a new dam or a large engineering project that would have a fairly big impact on the environment—you wouldn't talk about that aspect of it. There has been a loosening of restrictions on reporting on environmental problems in the past few years, and I think that that in turn has had a positive feedback on the Chinese government. Government officials are more and more talking about assessing the ecological impact, for example, of both individual projects and also about how the broader economic growth of the country affects the environment.
They've recently talked about tying the gross domestic product more tightly to, as they call it, green issues. There are many, many environmental problems here in China, and the Chinese press actually has a lot more freedom to talk about this now. Right now that debate has not resulted in tighter restrictions on air standards or clean water standards. There have been, certainly, significant strides in those areas in large cities, but overall the discussion has been more on the level of theory. For instance, at the Communist Party National Congress last month, the leadership embraced a commitment to environmental protection and making that a fundamental principle of the party, of how they plan to run the country. So there is that commitment at the highest level now, and I think that has come about partly because of the loosening of the restrictions on discussing environmental problems.
There is that positive feedback, and I think it is gradually shaping policies here. That's a very good sign, and I think Western journalists can contribute to that debate, too. Certainly there's a lot of interest now in the problem of water pollution, and there was coverage this past summer in The New York Times and in Science about Taihu, a lake with a worsening algal bloom that essentially shut down the water supply to the local region. The authorities were quite upset about it, about the fact that over the years companies had free reign to basically put what they wanted into the local rivers which feed the lake. Just last month, the Chinese government announced that it's going to spend $14 billion to clean up Taihu. I think that both the domestic attention to the problem and the international attention have spurred a change in policy. I expect there will be more cases like this. Hopefully Science can pick up on some of these issues and play a positive role, too.
Beijing's air-quality problems are well-known throughout much of the world. By some accounts, China has just recently surpassed the United States to become the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses. From your point of view, is it going to be possible for the Chinese government to address this issue? Or is it going to be so big that it's essentially beyond control?
Yeah, it's a particularly difficult issue, and the fact is that the greenhouse emissions are rising quite rapidly here in China. The government has recently made a pledge to try to at least limit the rate of growth of its total energy consumption. This was an acknowledgment that there is s big problem and a challenge here, and China has to do something.
Now regarding emissions themselves and binding targets such as under the Kyoto Protocol and the successor treaty that's going to be negotiated soon, China is equally adamant that developed countries have to take the lead, and that developing countries, the rest of the world, should be encouraged and helped to do their best to reduce the rate of growth of emissions. But the Chinese government says, 'Listen, we're just trying to catch up with the Western world, and if there's a cap on emissions, that's going to impede our growth.' They constantly talk about the fact that the U.S. and other Western countries really have to take the lead on this issue.
So it's a difficult, difficult problem. I think that emissions will continue to grow here, and it's going to be tricky in the next round of negotiations under the United Nations framework. How to involve China more deeply in that process: I think that's a huge issue. But China is, at least on the research side, moving aggressively to develop, for instance, clean coal technologies. Coal is their predominant source of power, and so trying to clean up that industry is something that various research bodies are working on. There was a workshop last month by the Chinese Academy of Sciences talking about how to do this. They're also going to increase nuclear power capacity. Currently they generate only about 1% of their total electricity supply from nuclear plants, and they're going to rapidly expand that to reduce CO2 emissions. So they are addressing the problem, but certainly reluctant to tighten their belts to the degree that it curtails overall economic growth.
Doesn't that echo the argument that the Bush administration has made in the last seven years?
Yeah, and I think unfortunately the U.S. position has emboldened China to take that stand as well. I mean, if the U.S. is so reluctant to commit to trying to reduce its CO2 emissions, the thinking here goes, then why should China while it's still trying to catch up and trying to increase standards? The economy is growing rapidly, but the Chinese leadership is keenly, acutely aware of the gap between the relatively well-off cities and the poor countryside, and so they have to balance that concern, trying to raise up the living standards in the countryside, which requires more economic growth, with their global commitment to tackle climate change. I think the leadership in China is quite well informed about what's at stake, but it's a very difficult balancing act, balancing the needs of trying to close the rural-urban gap here, and trying to avert climate change, which could have just as bad an effect on the overall security of the country.
You know, we've talked about a number of the challenges facing China, but my impression of the overall Chinese science and technology enterprise is that it's booming. Is that a fair assessment?
It certainly is booming. There's a lot of energy here. It seems a week doesn't go by when you hear about a prominent ethnic Chinese scientist who's been working in the States for years and years, who has returned to his home country. These returnees are gradually raising the level of Chinese science. That has made it more attractive as a career option for young people here. They see a future in science, working within China. I think before the assumption was, if you want to be a successful scientist, you would have to go to America or to Japan. That mindset is changing.
I've been able to get out to labs throughout China in the past few years. The facilities in some places are top-notch. The work environment is improving here, and they're building critical masses in key disciplines. You see that, for example, in Shanghai—there is a growing biotechnology and biomedical research community, and there are several drug companies which have set up research facilities there. One of the big changes is that rather than just spending an immense amount of money on research, which the Chinese government has been doing without being able to track what they have been getting for that large investment, now it's quite tangible that you have some nascent research communities that now can make better use of the massive spending.
AAAS and CAST organized a conference in Beijing recently on scientific integrity and ethics. And when the delegation from AAAS and the U.S. met with high-level counterparts from China, Chinese policy leaders and researchers expressed a concern that there was a down-side to the rapid growth. One member of the American delegation who's very close to the Chinese leadership compared China today to the American "wild West" of the 19th century—a time of remarkable growth and development and expansion, but also a time that was a little bit that was wild and woolly. Do you see any sort of down-side to the tremendous growth and development that's happening so quickly in China?
Well, that is certainly a valid viewpoint. One recent problem that the Chinese science authorities have been trying to tackle is overzealousness for publishing in top research journals. I mean, it's great when a Chinese scientific team gets a paper in Science, but there has been almost a single-mindedness, driven by institute and ministry officials, to achieving that. At some research institutes, if a researcher had a paper published in Science or Nature, they would get a pretty big bonus, and getting that bonus became the overriding goal of research. To renegade research teams, it didn't really matter about the quality of data that went into the paper. So there have been plenty of dodgy papers getting published. Researchers get the bonus and earn a promotion, they're happy, and then a few years later the research doesn't hold up. And there have been cases of people making up data. So the leadership in the Chinese scientific community is now trying to de-emphasize the awarding of bonuses for a paper. Instead, they're encouraging better training for students to make them into well-rounded researchers, I guess you could say.
Certainly the Chinese Academy of Sciences has taken the lead in trying to encourage researchers to apply themselves more broadly and not just focus on getting that great paper out. I think that's a good trend. At Science, we do want to see the best Chinese research published in our journal, but we don't want to encourage a gold rush mentality. There are definite concerns about the overall quality of research throughout the country and the return of top expatriate Chinese scientists is helping change that, too.
What attitudes about science and technology are you seeing among the Chinese public? And how are those attitudes different from those you might see in the West—in the United States or in Europe?
For starters, I believe that the profession—being a scientist—is well-respected here. That's a contrast to some countries in Southeast Asia, for example, where most people I met hadn't heard about Science magazine and where the scientific community, or at least the part of the community which I was able to access, is quite small. There is a huge scientific community here in China, well-respected, it seems, by the general public. But in contrast to what you see in other countries, particularly Western countries, there is very little public debate about scientific issues that impact people's lives. At a recent Chinese Academy of Sciences workshop, there was a discussion about the expansion of nuclear power, and one of the speakers noted that there's no anti-nuclear movement here in China. Chinese officials don't have to worry about that—public debate is not going to be a factor in the expansion of nuclear power here. So you have a curious situation: a public view of science which is quite positive, and that is good, but no debate about scientific issues that affect people's lives.
Given the apparent trend of more open discussion, and more coverage of these issues by Science and other Western media, would you think that's likely to change in the years ahead?
I think it will change, partly due to the very gradual expansion of topics and issues that can be discussed in the Chinese media. As the Chinese media itself becomes freer to debate particular topics, starting with the Internet and blogs, in particular, then the general public will become more involved. Certainly on the environmental front you do have a debate, and you do have people critical of government decisions, and you do have government officials who are critical of the way things have been done. You have that with the huge Three Gorges Dam project: a debate in the Chinese press about the environmental impact in the Three Gorges area. It will be a really positive trend if the Science bureau can help foster this kind of debate.
13 November 2007