Patriotism is a poor master of innovation

Zhang Xiaomao says China, despite its pledge, smothers spirit of inquiry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 4:04am

Since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, patriotic education has been part of every mainland student's schooling, training them to love and devote themselves to the party, the people and socialism. But now it seems that patriotic education and its ideologies could be a hindrance to realising the Chinese dream of resurgence.

While visiting the Chinese Academy of Sciences last month, President Xi Jinping said the freedom to be creative in science and technology must be respected, to bolster innovation and invention. Yet, he has also stressed that patriotism is the first requirement for these Chinese professionals.

The vice-governor of Guizhou province, Chen Mingming , was even more direct: he said that Chinese citizens who don't love their own country were scum and a waste of space, and should leave China for the US.

Why is patriotism back to the fore? The answer is that China is still losing its top talent in great numbers.

From 1978 to 2008, China sent a total of 1.4 million students abroad to study. Fewer than a third of them came back.

So, in order to attract some of the brightest and best, the central government launched the Thousand Talents programme in 2008. As a result, the number of returnees has risen every year since.

Nonetheless, those who have a doctorate degree remain in a minority among the returning Chinese. Data from the Ministry of Education shows that last year, of the 150,000 Chinese returnees who got a degree abroad, only 5.8 per cent have a doctorate.

Meanwhile, a survey by an American institute revealed that, in 2011, as many as 82 per cent of the Chinese obtaining doctorates in the US hoped to stay in America. That compares with 89.4 per cent in 2005.

Such facts reveal the failure of China's education system, especially higher education. From 1982 to 2011, some 440,000 Chinese students have earned doctorates from Chinese universities. But world-class Chinese scientists and scholars remain thin on the ground. Why is this?

Liu Daoyu , a former Wuhan University president, believes the root cause is that Chinese education seeks to mould students using a set of rules or requirements, whereas the West tends to guide students, to allow them more freedom to develop.

This view may be correct, but it's only half the story.

The key point is that China doesn't value creativity as much as patriotism. So, the problem becomes clear: if a country doesn't believe being creative is a top priority in scientific and technical research, how is it ever going to push the boundaries of development?

Xi's aim may be to try to keep as tight a rein as possible on the country's creative energy, to channel it for the good of the party and the nation.

But this is merely a revival of the old ways of government: in ancient China, rulers maintained command of the people's thoughts through the cultivation of morals; today, with a socialistic ideology on the wane, patriotism has become a tool for restraining people's thought.

Since the Qin dynasty, China has struggled to make great scientific or philosophical breakthroughs that would stun the world.

So, it seems to make little sense to allow patriotism to flourish at the expense of ingenuity. Surely the party doesn't want to see a repeat of history, with China relegated to the realms of intellectual pygmy once again?

Patriotism and creativity aren't incompatible. But because one is emphasised over the other, and regarded as a criterion for assessing the other, patriotism has become an impediment to creativity.

Clearly, it's time to free education from ideology and politics.

Zhang Xiaomao is a Shenzhen-based scholar and commentator