"Science and Education for a Prosperous China" -- A Brutal and Frank Assessment

A report from U.S. Embassy Beijing November 1996

Summary. This report outlines "Science and Education for a Prosperous China" a brutally frank assessment by the State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC)of China's environmental, food production, overpopulation, military and health challenges in the coming century. It also outlines the S&T policy China has adopted to meet these challenges. End summary.

Science and Education for a Prosperous China

Reports in this series summarize and comment at greater length this 400 page document written for Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and Chinese government officials, addressing the international, military, economic, food, industrial, environmental, policy, educational, and social aspects of the new Chinese S&T policy which emerged from the May 1995 conference.

The State Science and Technology Commission spent six months drafting the "Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council on the Acceleration of Progress in Science and Technology" released on May 6, 1995. Speeches by President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng and other leaders and the four hundred page explanation of policy (the subject of this summary report) follow the text of the State Council decision. 'Science and Education for a Prosperous China', edited by SSTC Vice Chairman Zhu Lilan, divides into five sections 'Warning to the Nation', 'The Challenge', 'Hope', 'Strategy' and 'Policy'. The first section, 'Warning to the Nation', draws lessons for China are drawn by examining the role of science and technology in the development of Britain, Germany, the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Song Jian on 'Science and Education'

At an October 18, 1996 U.S. Embassy lunch in his honor, State Councilor and SSTC Chairman Song Jian discussed the SSTC report "Science and Education for a Prosperous China" with Embassy Science Counselor (ESTCOUNS) and Science officer (ESTOFF). ESTOFF told Song that the Embassy EST section has summarized the SSTC book and is now reporting on the new Chinese S&T policy. In response to ESTCOUNS suggestion that calls for science and education to bring China out of backwardness had already been made at the end of the nineteenth century, Song said that while indeed the call for Science and Education to make China prosperous has been made since the late nineteenth century but defeat by the Japanese in the Foreign (Boxer) Intervention of 1900, and the chaos about the time of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 greatly impeded progress. The policies discussed in 'Science and Education' have been in effect for several years, said Song, but were only approved by the State Council in May 1995 when the original SSTC theme 'Science and Technology for a Prosperous China' was broadened to 'Science and Education for a Prosperous China'. Song agreed with ESTOFF's observation that 'Science and Education' has very little to do with education -- the Ministry of Education has already published its own detailed plan for Chinese education.

Councilor Song, in response to ESTOFF's observation that examples of environmental problems presented in the book are nearly exclusively from the 1970s and early 1980s, replied that this was just depended on which examples the writers selected. Song noted that China has become much more conscious of environmental problems since that time.

Warning to the Nation

'Warning to the Nation' examines the path to prosperity of several foreign countries. It reminds readers that 'the U.S. Constitution written in 1787 noted that Science and Technology are central to national prosperity; this is in large part reason why the United States emerged as a superpower in the Twentieth Century. (Comment: Reference is to Article 1, Section 8 - Powers of Congress "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their inventions and discoveries;" The Chinese authors correctly noted the mention of science in the U.S. Constitution but overlooked the linkage between S&T progress and intellectual property protection. As the Chinese become more aware of this link -- as in the State Council Decision on Acclerating S&T Progress sections 25 - 26-- IPR problems will become less serious. End comment) The SSTC reprort continues 'The Meiji Restoration encouraged science and education to build Japanese prosperity ... and succeeded brilliantly. South Korea, which lagged far behind China during the 1960s, made science and technology the very heart of the Korean national construction plan and in just a few short years managed to become world leaders or near world leaders in many areas of manufacturing technology. This made Korea the most successful of all the Four Dragons. Many nations over the last century have achieved prosperity by focusing their efforts on science and education.'


The report opens with an extensive and extremely frank discussion of Chinese military, population, food supply, environmental, health and social challenges. International competition in many fields, especially science, technology, and foreign trade is more intense today than ever before. China as a developing country faces many additional problems because of the immaturity of its socialist market economy. Some people openly oppose scientific thought and turn instead to superstition and religion. The rapid progress of the advanced nations in science and technology is leaving China further and further behind. 'We need to be clear-headed about the great gap between China and the advanced countries and thus about the terrific challenges which face us as well!' say the State Science and Technology Commission authors of "Science and Education for a Prosperous China". Below is there enumeration of the eleven principal S&T challenges China faces today.

Challenge One

Chinese Military S&T is Backward

The Gulf War shows clearly that China must completely rethink its military strategy and create a smaller, more professional military with a deep knowledge of science and technology. Advances and technology are making old weapons systems more vulnerable and so less important. Aircraft carriers, for example, are now vulnerable to small, stealthy boats which shadow them. These small boats carry cruise missiles or drone aircraft which can be used to attack an aircraft carrier, noted the report.

Challenge Two

International Competition for top S&T Talent

All advanced countries compete for the services of the limited pool of talent in advanced science and technology. The long term brain drain from Asia to the United States has begun to reverse itself. The Four Dragons are now able to offer attractive working conditions to new PhDs who would have decided to settle in the USA ten years ago. The collapse of the former Soviet Union resulted in a very large outflow of scientists and engineers -- and this outflow is in itself the worst blow Russia has suffered in all its history said the authors of this SSTC report.

Challenge Three

International trade: War Without Gunpowder

Once China joins the WTO and domestic manufacturers are no longer able to hide behind China's 35 percent average import duty and non-tariff trade barriers, many Chinese companies will suffer severely. Especially hard hit will be the machinery, electronics, automotive, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Challenge Four

Lester Brown's Book "Who Will Feed China" -- A Shot Across the Bow

World Watch Institute Director Lester Brown in his book "Who Will Feed China?" gave China a valuable warning that the crisis point in China's food supply problem will soon arrive. Achieving the goal of 400 kilograms of grain per person as population rises and absolute arable land and per capita water resources decrease will be very difficult. China must boost per unit area production by 80 percent between now and 2030 when China's population peaks at 1.6 billion people. But even 400 kg. may be too low to nourish our population adequately in the twenty-first century. The best predictions of productivity growth are less than what China needs to achieve. A breakthrough in agricultural science then will be needed to meet China's food supply goal.

Challenge Five

How to Create Jobs for Armies of Unemployed?

Where will work be found for the potential 300 million unemployed Chinese (twice the population of Germany) in the year 2000? China cannot afford the vast US$300 billion investment needed to create jobs for them.

Challenge Six

Agricultural Investment is Too Low

Chinese investment in agriculture fell from 5.9 percent average between 1952 and 1992 to just 2.9 percent in 1994. Successful development for China requires a much higher level of investment in agriculture. But where will the money come from?

Challenge Seven

Obstacles to Sustainable Development in Agriculture

-- China loses much land to erosion, desertification, and urbanization each year. -- Chinese has a little arable land area, widespread water shortages and a relatively harsh climate.

-- Chinese farmers use only 30 percent of fertilizer production efficiently compared with 80 percent in the developed countries. -- Agricultural research and development poorly focused. It concentrates almost exclusively on production to the neglect of the essential areas of food processing, transportation and fresh storage.

Challenge Eight

Industrial Bottlenecks

-- Industry suffers from poor organization, resource and energy bottlenecks

-- Chinese research institute system inherited from the USSR keeps research work and expertise far away from the manufacturers who need it.

-- Scientific workers are often paid less than manual laborers, creating much discontent.

Challenge Nine

Chinese Environment Problems Worsening

-- Overexploitation of forests and destruction of plant life resulted in annual rainfall reductions of 15 to 20 percent in 46 counties of Sichuan Province. After much of the forest in southern Anxing in Heilongjiang Province (on the Siberian border) was destroyed, annual rainfall dropped from 680 mm to 380 mm.

-- About one-third of China's grasslands are seriously damaged -- and the size of the damaged area continues to grow.

China is in an ecological crisis. 'We need to clearly understand - saving the land means saving ourselves' say the authors of "Science and Education for a Prosperous China".

Challenge Ten

Pollution Brings Health Problems

-- Sulfur dioxide and particular pollution levels are high in large Chinese cities. Acid rain becomes more serious in South China each year. Solid waste disposal problems are serious.

-- Although the health expectancy of the Chinese people has been increasing, the number of environmental illnesses is also growing. In Beijing, the lung cancer death rate has climbed 200 percent over the last twenty years. The relation of respiratory illnesses and birth defects to the deterioration of the environment is a topic which badly needs further study.

-- The Shenyang City Health Department found that birth defects in maternity wards at four Shenyang hospitals doubled between 9.9 percent in 1970 to 19.73 percent in 1980. The investigators also found that in the Shenyang region birth defects are twice as frequent in areas which have polluted irrigation water as in areas where the irrigation water is clean. Digestive ailments were also markedly higher. (Note: Beijing hosts the U.S. Mission and Shenyang hosts a U.S. Consulate).

Challenge Eleven

China Must Face Ecological Crisis and Achieve Sustainable Development

'Chinese ecological problems arise from its natural circumstances and then were made worse because of the great unevenness in development from place to place. We must quickly move to understand China's resources and our Chinese ecological crisis. We must count on the efforts of one billion people to find the road to sustainable development. We should not be frightened by the alarm bell. But having heard the bell, not to heed its warning would be truly frightening!'

A Way Out -- S&T is the Chief Productive Force

Chinese science and technological achievements since 1949 include the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, artificial satellite launches, and the development of improved varieties of wheat. Chinese grain production jumped from 100 million metric tons in 1949 to 435 metric tons in 1990. The number of Chinese scientific and technical workers more than quadrupled to 18.6 million between 1978 and 1994. Two key large national S&T programs -- Spark which brings agricultural science to China's vast rural areas and Torch which brings advanced technology to Chinese state industries -- have returned many times their initial investment.

Strategy -- China Must Absorb Foreign Technology

China has achieved much and must build on this foundation to create the scientific and technical advances needed to meet its challenges. Much higher investments in agricultural science and a through reorganization of the agricultural research system in China are needed. Only in this way can be achieved the agricultural science breakthroughs needed to solve China's food supply problems. Science and technology must be made indigenous to China. China has imported much foreign technology during the 45 years since the founding of the PRC in 1949 but has often been unable to master and then improve on these technologies. Thus, despite many technology imports from foreign countries, the technology gap between China and the developed countries has often widened rather than narrowed. When making decisions about technology imports, the Chinese side should always consider what China will learn from the imports. For projects underway, the Chinese made content of production should be gradually increased. High technology imported to China must be absorbable by China. Technology imports which are not absorbable should be rejected.

Strategy: Specific Goals

Specific goals have been set in many areas.

-- Maintain China's annual economic growth rate of 8 - 9 percent annually.

-- Concentrate on maintaining growth in food and cotton production and aim at achieving 500 million ton level of grain production.

-- Achieve 1.4 billion ton production level of coal; boost electric production to 1.3 trillion kilowatts, increase use of electric power thermal cogeneration and nuclear power energy sources; achieve annual energy savings of 3 percent or better.

-- Create an integrated railroad, highway, waterway and air transportation network capable of transporting 2.1 billion metric tons of freight annually.

-- Increase steel production to 120 million tons or more and fertilizer production to about 120 million tons.

Policy -- Accelerating the Pace of S&T Progress

Everyone must place greater stress on research and development so China can achieve its goal of boost R&D spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2000. R&D spending needs to grow by about 30 percent annually, despite cuts in other parts of the national budget, in order to meet the 1.5 percent of GDP R&D investment goal. Global scale problems such as pollution, climate change, desertification and ozone layer destruction can only be addressed through international cooperation. The encouragement of venture capitalists through favorable tax treatment of investments, the development of comprehensive financial sector laws and regulations, and the growth of stock markets will make investment in China more attractive. Leading cadres need to get a better understanding of science and technology. The proper administrative and legal methods should be employed to eliminate superstitious and religious activities.


'Science and Education' provides a unique view of the Chinese leadership talking to itself on the challenges which confront China as well as the S&T policies needed to overcome its difficulties. A twenty-five paragraph summary (this report) cable barely scratches the surface of this report. More detailed analysis of the individual sections in the reports listed below clearly show the thought mode of the Chinese leadership.

"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.