I’m part of what’s known in China as the “reform and opening-up” generation. Born between the late 1970s and early 1980s, just after the Cultural Revolution and decades of antagonism with the Western world, we grew up worshipping the United States. Many of my peers spent their college years preparing for the TOEFL or GRE exams in the hopes of going stateside for school. From there they planned to find a job and settle down in the most economically, technologically, and politically advanced country in the world.
In short, the U.S. for us has always seemed like a beacon of inspiration. So you can imagine what it’s been like to watch the flailing American response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past three months. The U.S. hasn’t just performed worse than any other developed country: Even by its own “exceptional” standards, its performance defies belief. The country has more than 70,000 dead and 1 million confirmed cases — and that’s not considering the chronic testing issues making it impossible to ascertain the true scope of the country’s outbreak.
It’s numbing. I understand partisanship has turned the coronavirus into a political issue, annoying as that is. I even understand why some American politicians and media outlets have chosen to scapegoat China to save their political skins. But what I can’t understand is the utter lack of respect for scientific and intellectual expertise at all echelons of American society, whether it’s President Donald Trump’s suggestions that COVID-19 patients be given flu shots and have disinfectant injected into their lungs, or mask-less protestors chanting slogans like “Arrest Bill Gates” and “Fire Fauci,” a reference to one of the U.S. government’s leading scientists.
China’s successful efforts in containing its COVID-19 outbreak have given rise to endless theorizing over the past few months. One common argument is that the country benefitted from a supposedly collectivist culture, in which people easily accept and practice rigid discipline. But this overlooks an important and far more modern explanation: People in China, even those who might not personally have the strongest grasp of the underlying science, are generally willing to abide by experts’ advice.
Since the evening of Jan. 20, when prominent pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan publicly confirmed on Chinese state television the virus could be spread from person to person, doctors and scientists have taken a leading role in China’s fight against the coronavirus. People turn to them — and not politicians or TV hosts — for the latest updates and epidemic prevention news. In addition to Zhong, Dr. Zhang Wenhong, director of the Center for Infectious Disease at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, has become a national idol thanks to his grounded and humorous style of speaking.
This faith in science and expertise is not some immutable Oriental truth, but the product of a painful and protracted process of modernization. The First Opium War in the mid-19th century shattered the blind arrogance of imperial China, forcing the country — albeit belatedly — to come to grips with its weaknesses in the face of sophisticated Western weaponry and technology. What followed was a century of life-and-death crises in which Chinese learned to associate falling behind with harsh beatings. Only by mastering science could the country protect itself.
The process began with the late-Qing dynasty scholar Wei Yuan, who famously proposed that “learning the ways of the (Western) barbarians” was the only path to resisting them. It continued through the late 19th century “self-strengthening movement” and Mao Zedong’s mid-20th century declaration that China needed to learn from the advanced sciences and technologies of capitalist countries. And to an extent it culminated in Deng Xiaoping’s famous remarks that “science and technology are the primary productive forces” — an idea that helped birth my generation.
Nor is China’s passion for science merely a matter of political platitudes: These ideas are deeply popular in the country. Of course, as with anything, acceptance isn’t universal, and sometimes political preferences clash with scientific sense. Just last month, Zhang, the Shanghai doctor, drew fire for recommending children consume more milk and eggs for breakfast. Chinese have been eating porridge for breakfast for millennia, his critics retorted. Who was he to recommend otherwise by pandering to Western dietary fads?
Luckily, these nationalist rants were quickly quashed by a tidal wave of refutations and ridicule. More worryingly, however: The unique circumstances under which China adopted scientific values and methods mean many in the country continue to have a limited view of the field’s potential.
China’s embrace of science stems from utilitarian motivations, with an emphasis more on national power and prosperity-seeking technological advancement than the spirit of scientific inquiry. This was true in the 1950s and 1960s, when gains in rocketry and nuclear weapons were trumpeted as patriotic triumphs at a time when most intellectuals were social pariahs; and it is true today, when high-profile “new infrastructure” projects such as 5G towers, big data centers, and artificial intelligence applications take precedence over important but unglamorous basic research.
The country’s focus on leveraging technology to increase its own wealth and power is at odds with science’s broader aims of understanding our world in ways that involve — and benefit — all. Veneration for the symbols of modernity and scientific advancement is a poor substitute for true scientific inquiry, which is predicated not on unfailing loyalty to an idea but on a willingness to doubt everything and desire to separate truth from lies.
Therein lies the paradox. Over the past few months, the United States appears to have fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which incapable people tend to overestimate their own abilities. China hasn’t had that luxury since the humiliations of the 19th century, but that doesn’t mean it’s permanently safe. As a country, we need to focus on nurturing people’s sense of curiosity, inquisitiveness, and creativity in ways that allow them to practice science, rather than simply respect it. Otherwise, our developments might only ever be limited to technological advancements, and not real scientific breakthroughs.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visitors walk through the Inner Mongolia Science and Technology Museum in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, March 31, 2020. Ding Genhou/People Visual)