Three narratives on science and technology (S&T) in China are prevalent today in scholarship and policy circles. Firstly, while China invented the printing press, paper-making, gunpowder and compass (the Four Great Inventions—sida faming) in the ancient times not excluding the Grand Canal or the Great Wall and other grand engineering projects, soon it was relegated to the background since the 15th century as western European countries marched with the ongoing scientific revolutions. According to this narrative, ancient China did not sustain S&T growth due to the increasing spread of ‘gun boat diplomacy’ of the West. At one level, this narrative fits well into the nationalist historiography of China that the Opium Wars have led to a ‘century of humiliation’ but does not explain why China was not able to restrict the imperial bureaucracy nor create conditions for a scientific temper among its populace.
Secondly, recent Chinese—as well as western—scholars suggest that the 1950s and 1960s political experiments of Mao Zedong —specifically the Cultural Revolution—were again detrimental to the progress of S&T in China.
These experiments have resulted in the scientific personnel being sent to the countryside to ‘learn from peasants’ and thereby the colleges and universities were depleted of scientific talent. However, if there is no S&T progress in China during this time, this narrative does not explain why and how China made rapid strides in both military and civilian sectors—such as in the nuclear, ballistic missile and satellite programmes or of the ‘bare foot’ doctor phenomenon that eradicated most of the diseases from the Chinese lexicon.
Thirdly, this narrative—here mainly state-led, but also with sympathizers abroad—also suggests that it is only since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up policies that S&T was nurtured by the state through funding, management and market outlets. The Four Modernizations—in agriculture, industry, S&T and defence—announced first in 1975 and implemented since 1978—brought in the much-needed strategic support to the S&T process and due to the progress in this field today China is at the forefront of ‘catching up’ with the advanced world in the S&T projects. Nevertheless, despite the progress, this scholarship does not explain why with so much of state attention, China still ranks low in the universal criterion on the quality of scientific research output, international recognition or the devastating environmental costs to the country.
China today bewitches any visitor with its grandiose infrastructure projects and engineering marvels such as the long Donghai bridge or commissioning of a super computer, space walks, unveiling of stealth fighter or deep-water experiments. The list of achievements in S&T is unending. Obviously, these are based on long-term and longstanding achievements in education, research, technological and industrial infrastructure and capabilities.
The book under review is unique in many aspects and steers clear of many stereotypes in the scholarship on S&T in China. The book edited by Maharajakrishna Rasgotra—a seasoned diplomat—is a collection of observations of scientists and practioners in the field about the civilian and defence subjects of S&T in China. Seven of the eight contributors to this volume are distinguished scientists and engineers of India, while Smita Purushottam is a serving Foreign Service officer. As a result, there is a healthy and objective assessment of the subject. The volume under review also represents a trend recently of ‘learning from China’ (xiang Zhongguo xue)—specifically in the policy field—without replicating the problems in China. As each chapter reflects on different developments in China with the objective of ‘what is in it for India?’ this collection then forms a unique contribution.
Of course, several professional works on the S&T in China exist. The most famous obviously is the seven-volume series of Joseph Needham’s classic work on science and civilization in China since 1954 being published by the Cambridge University. There is also the proposed 50 volume series of Project of History of Indian science and civilization by Indian scholars—again mainly on the ancient Chinese contributions in the field. Recently as well the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi had conducted projects on the contemporary aspects of the subject. The field of enquiry then is expanding.
Yet, the collection under review is a comprehensive work of contemporary S&T developments in China from an Indian perspective. Two chapters by V.P. Kharbanda and Ashok Parthasarathi are the longest together constituting more than half of the book. Both these authors deal with various aspects of S&T organization, structure and dynamics elaborately. As Roddam Narasimha points out, ‘there are lessons for India in this great Chinese saga of national will to power through a complex era of technology’ (p.103).
Overall, China’s state-led S&T initiatives are highlighted in this collection of essays. Some have pointed to the presence of the technical personnel in the high level Communist party political leadership—mainly from Tsinghua University—as one reason for this fillip. Kharbanda argues that economic accountability, creation of hi-tech development zones, ‘incubators’, increase in R&D expenditure, high proportion of technological personnel, political will in implementation of initiatives, encouragement to import of advanced technologies, have all contributed to this phenomenon in China. Purshottam suggests that the macro-economic reforms as well as reverse engineering, reorganization of state owned companies, have furthered the S&T process in China. Others such as Roddam Narasimha suggest that China is currently ‘graduating from a low-cost “workshop of the world” to high-tech international competitor’ (p.102).
Most contributors to the volume agree that important lessons need to be learnt by India from the Chinese experience. On this issue, the opinion is not uniform, though. According to V.S. Ramamurthy, ‘remnants of colonial rule in many of our government policies continue to act as a hindrance to our technology development and commercialization efforts’ (p.12). For U.R. Rao, ‘India cannot and should not overreach its financial resources just to compete with China in Space’ (p. 84). On the other hand, R.Rajaraman in his chapter on nuclear issues argues that ‘the quality of (China’s scientific research in Energy Physics and String Theory) output is not so high…Its impact on the world community has not so far been commensurately impressive’ (p.118). Of course, the observation by Kharbanda that the ‘paradox of too much democracy at all levels of social and economic activity’ (p.58) in India needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. There is also the fact that China has not been able to replicate, if not excel, Indian excellence in C-Dot, Wireless in Local Loop, space technologies and individual innovation capabilities (pp. 198-99).
Overall, this volume is a valuable collection of essays on the developments both for the specialist as well as the policy analyst. However, while efforts were made to unravel the Chinese ‘black box’, a more detailed and systematic study of the personnel, organization, formal and informal decision-making structures, key personalities and decisive phenomena—both in the civilian as well as defence fields—need to be explored by accessing Chinese-language sources. While India needs to learn important lessons from the Chinese experience, we can take comfort in V.S. Ramamurthy’s observations that ‘civilizations that have survived for thousands of years cannot but be innovative’ (p.9).
Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.