Science and Education for a Prosperous China: Lessons From Abroad

A report from U.S. Embassy Beijing November 1996

Summary. China can draw valuable lessons from the technological revolutions of Germany, Japan, and the U.S. as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union say Chinese S&T policy makers in "Science and Education for a Prosperous China", an extremely frank assessment of China's S&T situation and prospects written to help CPC and government leaders implement China's new S&T policy. China can drawn lessons from the USSR which collapsed because of poor organization, the divorce of S&T from production, and an extreme emphasis on basic research for military purposes at the expense of basic research. In the United States, as in other countries, the government is taking an increasingly important role in S&T development. End summary.

Here is a summary and commentary on the science and technology sections of "Science and Education for a Prosperous China". "Science and Education for a Prosperous China" elaborates on the national science policy propounded in the CPC Central Committee and State Council 'Decision on Accelerating the Progress of Science and Technology'and in speeches by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng at the National Conference on science and technology held in Beijing on May 26 - 28. S&T Policy in Britain, Germany and the United States: An Historical Overview The S&T policy discussion opens with an opens with an examination of the pathways Britain, Germany, the United States, Japan and Korea have taken to achieve prosperity and leadership in science and technology. Lessons for China are drawn from the S&T experience of other nations. In each case scientific breakthroughs dramatically shortened the time need for each succeeding nation to join the ranks of world economic leaders. The German chemical and synthetics industry enabled Germany to achieve in 40 years what had taken Britain a century. U.S. S&T vaulted into world S&T leadership after the emergence of the integrated industrial R&D lab pioneered by Thomas Edison in 1876.

S&T Policy on a National Scale: The U.S. as an Example

Although U.S. leadership lagged in the 1980s, the transfer of U.S. resources from weapons development to economic development is boosting U.S. competitiveness. President Clinton's policy of 1) maintaining steady economic growth, creating jobs and protecting the environment; 2) creating a more efficient government to meet public needs; and 3) maintaining U. S. world leadership in basic science has given new scientific energy to the powerful engine of U.S. technology. In recent years, in France, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, Pakistan and other countries governments have been taking a more active role in the development of science and technology. Links between R&D and national economic and other goals are becoming closer. Senior science advisors are being given ministerial rank. President Clinton elevated the Science Advisor to Special Assistant to the President for Science. Countries around the world want to coordinate S&T development with national goals. Since 1945 the United States has followed the basic research to applied research to product development linear model propounded by President Roosevelt's science advisor Vannevar Bush in his 1945 book 'Science -- the Endless Frontier'.

According to this view, which has been fundamental to U.S. S&T policy, basic and applied research are distinct and not complementary. U.S. Presidential Assistant for Science Dr. John Gibbons says that this linear model is no longer appropriate. Concerns about environmental quality, public health, and international competitiveness have led to a questioning of this linear, laissez-faire model and actively seek to integrate the management of basic research, applied research and product development. Science and technology development should be closely linked to the goals of promoting prosperity and social development.

According to the SSTC report, while President Bush in S&T policy, as in other areas, sought to consolidate the achievements of the Reagan Administration, the youthful President Clinton brought important changes to the placed new stress on S&T which he sees as the engine of economic growth. We should note that while many doubted the competence of former Vice President Quayle, there is no doubt about the outstanding ability and knowledge of Vice President Gore. Vice President Gore, the son of a very influential US senator who helped the US information highway plan win congressional approval, has a strong influence on U S. science policy. The Clinton science policy places and unprecedented emphasis on S&T and highlighted the central role of S&T in improving economic growth, public health and the environment. The U.S government advanced technology plan (ATP) now funded at US $900 million annually addresses problems such the development of DNA diagnostic tools, building infrastructure for a health services information network, composite materials manufacturing technology, and computer integrated control systems.

R&D in the Private Sector -- the U.S. as an Example

According to the SSTC report, Private companies, realizing that their fate depends upon their R&D achievements, have made the private sector the most important arena for S&T work. Even the United States, which provides the highest level of government support as a proportion of R&D spending, the rate of government support has fallen to 42 percent by 1993, compared with 52 percent for private industry. In 1989, three-quarters of all U. S. scientists and engineers were employed by the private sector but only 6 percent by the federal government. In Japan, the government in 1991 supported 18 percent of R&D costs; private industry paid 81 percent. Powerful and successful Industry-university-government partnerships are appearing more and more frequently in Japan and the US. After the US eliminated some antitrust restrictions in 1983, more than 150 of these consortiums were founded. The Sematech consortium composed of government labs and 11 US semiconductor manufacturers successfully won back world market share for US manufacturers from the Japanese. This freed the U.S. Defense Department from its reliance on Japanese-manufactured semiconductors.

The USSR Leaps Backwards -- Lessons for China

The Soviet Union was a country which had a strong scientific establishment which was undermined by a weak economy. The strength of the Soviet Union was in its mineral resources and great numbers of talented scientists and engineers. Its weakness was the divorce of S&T from production, its weak development capability, and fragmented institutions. Poor management and labor-intensive, capital-intensive low efficiency organizations severely weakened the national economy. The overriding Soviet goal of military strength resulted in the neglect of civilian R&D applications. Soviet research workers, drawn to basic research, neglected applied research needed for economic growth. Finally the collapse of the Soviet Union and the worsening of the economy forced many R&D workers to quit research or even emigrate abroad. The great natural resources and human talent of Russia will enable Russia to recover under President Yeltsin's S&T reform policies, conclude the authors of the SSTC report.

Talent Stampede Out of Russia and Poland

The great changes in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the former Soviet Union resulted in a worldwide competition to capitalize on the great outflow of S&T talent from those countries. According to an article in the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeiner from 1989 - 1993 about 70,000 prominent scientists left the former Soviet Union -- about one-tenth of all the scientists in the country. Of the 5876 scientists of the former Soviet Union who emigrated in 1993, although most went to Germany, the United States or Israel. According to this report, over one thousand scientists from the former Soviet Union work in Korea today. Iran and Iraq are prepared to outbid the United States for emigre nuclear scientists and engineers.

Over the past decade, fully one-quarter of Poland's S&T workers have switched fields or emigrated abroad. The science and economy of the former Soviet Union, once the only country in the world which could compare to the United States, has suffered its greatest blow in all history owing to the massive outflow of S&T workers. According to UN statistics, this outflow of S&T talent represents a loss to Russia on the order to US $60 - 70 billion each year. Moreover, the loss to the economic competitiveness and development of these countries is far greater -- it is incalculable. The worldwide competition for S&T talent will intensify during the twenty-first century. Japan, Korea and Taiwan are now offering high bids for the very best S&T talent in the world.

Tide of Chinese Talent Will It Ebb Back to Asia?

The flow of S&T talent across international borders reflects the intensity of international S&T competition. Developing countries have a severe brain drain towards developing countries which have superior scientific facilities and financial resources especially the US. A very interesting recent phenomenon is the reverse flow of Asian talent from the United States towards the dynamic economies of East Asia. The return, in 1994, of Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Li Yuanzhi to Taiwan to head the Academia Sinica (Taiwan) symbolizes this trend. Some say that we are beginning to see a reversal in the flow of scientific talent from Asia to the US to from the US back to Asia. According to reports, the proportion of graduate students from our country's province of Taiwan returning to Taiwan had increased to 21.8 percent by the 1980s. Seventy-six percent of the associate professors at Taiwan province universities got their graduate degree abroad. Hong Kong and Singapore have become especially attractive to this new young talent. The science parks and first class scientific facilities of the rising Asian economies are a powerful inducement to foreign-trained S&T talent to return home.

Westerners, and particularly Americans are beginning to worry about this trend of Asian students returning home once they have completed their studies. This concern has spurred the U. S. government to begin to improve the position and roles of the minority people of the United States. Recently the US Secretary of Commerce called a meeting of minority people working in the Commerce Department and pledged to shatter the "glass ceiling" and give them an equal opportunity for advancement. S&T Drives Economic Growth -- Japan and Korea According to the Japanese Economic Planning Agency, the importance of S&T to Japanese economic growth has increased steadily.

Today the proportion of economic growth attributed to S&T is 90 percent -- much higher than the share of capital and labor. Japan expects that S&T advances will enable it to overcome the problems of yen appreciation, increasing trade friction with the US, and the speculative bubble which fueled its economy during the late 1980s. Japanese policy is based on avoiding protectionism in technology and promoting government-led international industrial technology research and development strategy. Despite shrinking government budgets overall, the Japanese government decided in 1994 to double its S&T spending over the following five years. Japan must confront a severe shortage of scientists and engineers over the next several decades especially in the fields of materials, electronics and information, life sciences and earth sciences. Japan has begun to over career positions in Japanese laboratories to outstanding foreign scientists.

Learning From South Korea

The case of South Korea illustrates even more clearly than do those of the United States or Japan the importance of science and technology. Except for coal, Korea has almost no mineral resources. Massive Korean investments in science and technology research (2.17 percent of GNP) and a carefully thought out science policy resulted in multiplication of the Korean GDP by 142 times between 1962 and 1993. The great emphasis placed on S&T by Korea enabled it to achieve in ten years what took the United States and Japan 20 - 30 years to achieve. Korea is the largest, most populous and most industrialized of the four Asian dragons. In order to realize its goal of catching up to the seven industrialized Western countries Korea will boost the proportion of R&D spending to GDP from 2 percent today to 5 percent by the year 2000 and 6.7 percent in 2010. World spending on biotechnology products will reach US$100 billion by the year 2000 -- and Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are investing heavily in biotechnology.

"Science and Education for a Prosperous China" is the key to achieving the socialist modernization of China. We can see clearly from the experience of Britain, Russia, Germany, France, the USA as well as of developing countries such as South Korea that if we recognize the importance of science and technology and make it the motor of economic development than we can achieve rapid economic growth. South Korea, a very resource poor country, relied on S&T to achieve the level of industrialization in just 40 years that had taken Britain 200 years, the USA 150 years, and Japan 100 years to achieve. The three main elements of South Korea's success were:

    • Relying on technology to build the country
    • Developing commerce
    • Patriotism

South Korea took advantage of the ever shortening cycles of S&T renewal and transformation to catch up with the advanced countries. Now with the end of the Cold War, the countries of the world are focusing as never before on high tech investment, S&T guidance and planning, and bringing S&T development more in line with the needs of the economy.

Environment, Science and Technology Go Global

Global scale problems such as pollution, climate change, desertification, the destruction of tropical rain forests and of the ozone layers as a result of rapid economic growth has made international cooperation in science and technology indispensable. Country to country cooperation and the exchange of S&T personnel have become an important method of technology transfer. Promoting international S&T cooperation is an important part of China's foreign policy. (Comment: Compare with Section 35 - 36 of the 'Decision' of the State Council summarized in previous report. End Comment) Chinese companies need to internationalize their thinking. They must consider the entire world as their market and then, having become sensitive to international conditions and to the great economies of scale production for the international market offers, develop unique technologies and products to make them competitive on the international market. China's ancient cultural heritage is an intangible yet important advantage that Chinese bring to their competition on the international market.

Comment: No Marxist Rhetoric, But Understanding of How Markets and Not Governments Drive Technology Selection is Missing

Perhaps the most striking aspect this analysis is the complete absence of Marxist rhetoric. A Marxist perspective nonetheless manifests itself in the neglect of the role of free markets in allowing a Darwinian selection of technologies to take place and an emphasis on the importance of the correct S&T policy. An assumption running through the S&T discussion is that the technological revolutions in foreign countries were policy driven and, consequently, if China had the right policies in place its success in the market would be assured. Despite its bias of the authors towards central planning, the idea that S&T enabled foreign countries to lurch forward comes through clearly.

Avoiding the Soviet Error of Too Much, Too Fast: the PRC's Pragmatic Approach

An SSTC official told Embassy Beijing science officer recently that China sees the overly rapid pace of reform in the USSR contributed to the economic problems that resulted in the collapse of country and its R&D system and then a tremendous outflow of talent from Russia. China doesn't want to make the same mistake. The official continued that many foreigners are confused about Chinese S&T policy because relations between the government, private sector and universities are changing on an almost month-to-month basis. A pattern emerges if one steps back from the details and sees that the changes are guided by a determination to achieve reforms, avoid the chaos of overly rapid reform, and to reduce the burden on very limited government resources by requiring many research units to become self-supporting while maintaining government support for basic research. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union made the country the prime negative example of what to avoid (although paradoxically the state institutions which are the focus of reform were created on Soviet models when the USSR was more fashionable in China during the 1950s). South Korea and the United States as the prime positive examples to emulate.

Bringing the Students Home: A Key to China's S&T Future

Stanching the outflow of scientific talent and enticing foreign scholars to return abroad has become an important aspect of Chinese national policy. The China State Education Commission in January 1996 announced measures to increase the number of Chinese students who return home after studies abroad. Between 1978 and 1995 about 250,000 Chinese students went abroad to study, one half of them at public expense. Only one-quarter of the 250,000 students have returned to China. Under the new system, all candidates for educational assistance would be interviewed by experts, sign a contract and leave a security deposit to guarantee their return. If the students do not return, the students must pay a fine and repay to the CSEC the entire cost of their education. See U.S. Embassy Beijing reports Bringing the Students Home: Why They Stay, Why They Return and Studying in America for a closer look at this topic.

Job Opportunities, Democratization May Lure Many Students Back to PRC

The loss to China of the talent overseas is not comparable to the vast talent outflow from the former Soviet Union. China today, like Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s when upwards of 90 percent of Taiwan graduate students did not return, can not provide enough suitable jobs for all the highly trained students living overseas. The example of Taiwan is most helpful in thinking about S&T developments on the China mainland. During the late 1980s and 1990s, many highly trained scientists and technicians returned to a democratic, prosperous Taiwan enriched by ten or more years of postgraduate experience in U.S. industry. In Taiwan's high tech industry can be seen just the kind of small high tech companies fueled by venture capital that China wants to create. Like PRC students who remain abroad today, over ninety percent of Taiwan students studying abroad did not return to the Taiwan police state of the 1960s and 1970s. A dean at one of Taiwan's most prominent private universities told Embassy science officer several years ago that the Taiwan students did not return home as much for their inability to accept living in a police state after living for years in a democratic society as for economic reasons.

Will the Chinese authorities allow China to evolve into the rule-by-law democratic society to which talented scientific and technical workers living abroad will want to return? To judge by sections 22 - 26 of the 'Decision', the CPC and Chinese government have decided that China must evolve towards openness and rule-by-law. State Councilor Song Jian told Embassy Science Counselor recently that a reverse migration of Chinese S&T workers to the PRC has already begun, especially in the Pudong region near Shanghai.

Staying in Touch with PRC Students Abroad: A Few Web Sites

Chinese official efforts to stay in touch with Chinese scientific talent abroad are reflected in "China's Scholars Abroad" [Shenzhou Xueren] a weekly Chinese-language newsletter distributed worldwide by email to Chinese scholars abroad A searchable database of the last two years of this newsletter is available on the Internet at The newsletter is also available at, the worldwide web site of the PRC Consulate General in New York City. The Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing has made a collection of web pages by Chinese scholars overseas to encourage the growth of community among PRC scholars overseas. Browsing the web pages of these PRC scholars can provide an idea of the career patterns in the large PRC scientific and engineering community overseas. The U.S. mirror site to the IHEP Chinese scholars' web page list in Beijing is The full Chinese text of some important Chinesse government decisions on science and technology policy as well as the text of many Chinese laws on science and technology are available on the World Wide Web server of the Intellectual Property College at Peking University. The address of the server (all in lower case letters) is The Chinese language text of some Chinese laws relating to intellectual property are on the same database.

"Science and Education for a Prosperous China" Series

ìScience and Education for a Prosperous Chinaî written by the State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC) (overview) elaborates on the national science policy propounded in the CPC Central Committee and State Council "Decision on Accelerating the Progress of Science and Technology" and in speeches by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng Chinese S&T Policy: A View From the Top . Reports in this series summarize and comment at greater length this 400 page document written for Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and Chinese government officials. The reports summarize and analyze the economic, food security (including the Lester Brown "Who Will Feed China?" controversy and Chinese Critics Confront Lester Brown) , the challenges of absorbing and creating technology and military aspects of the new Chinese S&T policy which emerged from the May 1995 conference. The reports also summarize and analyze the environmental portion of the SSTC volume. The SSTC volume examines S&T lessons China can draw from the S&T policies of other countries as well as lessons China draws from its own S&T experience since 1949. The report Chinese S&T and the Challenge of WTO Accession reviews the effect of S&T on the risks and rewards China will encounter when it joins the WTO.