A potential Covid-19 vaccine at a production plant of SinoPharm in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua
Asian Angle
by Chandran Nair
Asian Angle
by Chandran Nair

This constant mistrust of Chinese science and technology must be countered

  • China’s contribution in these areas will shape the next 50 years and its innovations are needed for the good of humanity
  • China should not be bullied by the West, but it can counter its demonisation with transparency, talent management and improved standards of English
I’m a biochemical engineer by training, and thus the topic of developing and governing science and technology is a topic very close to my heart. Living in Hong Kong, I’ve been influenced by my experiences over the past 25 years working in the region and the great strides that China has made.

Many of us in the arenas of science and technology have lost sight of the purpose of science and technological development. Human advances in science and technology over the past 20 years have exceeded the expectations of most of us who entered these fields. However, due to technological overreach, we can now reshape almost everything. We are reshaping the planet and the planetary boundaries with our incursions into natural systems.

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Those involved in this incredibly important endeavour of human progress need to ask a fundamental governance question: What is scientific and technological development for?

Science and technology are not ends in themselves; they are meant to serve a purpose. A key governance challenge for any association involved in science and technology, whether in research or application, is to ask: What we are trying to achieve? What purpose are we trying to further?

A worker at a lab of the Yisheng Biopharma company in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China. Photo: AFP

Just because we have the technical and scientific ability to do something does not make it necessary. Technology and science should not get a free pass just because it helps make money and adds to old-fashioned economic metrics such as GDP growth. Deploying science and technology, spurred by the profit motive that demands a certain rate of return, is a very bad idea.

Science and technology should serve to address fundamental problems. In my view, those are safe and secure food systems, water and sanitation for all, basic housing, more carbon-neutral agriculture systems, affordable health care, education and climate-friendly energy supplies.

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To give one example: In this part of the world, over two-thirds of our population lack access to what most of us would consider safe drinking water supplies and sanitation systems.

There is thus a need to return to the basic question: What we are trying to use technology for and what problems are we trying to solve?

Secondly, I’d like to touch on how China’s rise in science and technology will be challenged by the West. We are now seeing the depiction of stereotypes of China to diminish its contribution and challenge its sincerity, with arguments like: “You can’t trust Chinese scientists and technologists”; “they have links to the Communist Party”; “their research and development methods are not as good as ours”.
Workers at an electronics company in Qinhuangdao, north China’s Hebei province. Photo: Xinhua

Why do I bring this up? Because China’s contribution in science and technology will shape so much of what will happen in the next 50 years. This cannot be stopped and is good for humanity. We thus need the best innovations from China as a global public good. But this constant mistrust of China needs to be countered. China should not be bullied, but it should address some of the issues where the failings are quite real, to serve its own interests and fulfil its role as a global superpower.

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China needs governance systems within its science and technological associations to address these issues, particularly to ensure that these systems are transparent, and that they can withstand scrutiny about the approach to R&D, its priorities for technological development and the methods used in commercialisation.

To give an example, it’s interesting to see how the mainstream media hardly ever mentions the possibility of a Chinese coronavirus vaccine. We all know that Chinese institutions and medical associations are working extremely hard to come up with a vaccine, for the Chinese people and the rest of the world. But as far as the Western world is concerned, Chinese standards on vaccine production cannot be trusted, and so China won’t be taken seriously by the West as it considers solutions. The only way to counter this demonisation is to have rigorous transparency through the appropriate governance systems.

Chinese Associations should ask: “How do we get better, so even if the West is not willing to accept us, at least those in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere will know that the Chinese product is good and meets all the international standards.”


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Coronavirus: Inside a Chinese lab joining global race to find a vaccine

Lastly, I want to touch on talent. If China is to contribute to the shared future of humankind, the world will need to embrace China as a responsible citizen in pursuit of that shared humanity. Thus, China will need its Associations for Science and Technology to have the best international standards and the best practices in terms of organisational development and governance, particularly with regard to talent.

I don’t want to use the word “modernise” as something synonymous with Westernisation. But there is no doubt that China will benefit from Associations having management practices more akin to practices elsewhere in the world, borrowing from Singapore, from South Korea, from the United States, from Europe, from other places in the world. China could create a system that retains the best virtues of Chinese organisations while borrowing other practices to help modernise its systems of human talent management, organisational development, and governance.


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Scientists in China claim a new drug could stop Covid-19 without a vaccine

If China is to become a great centre for science and technology, it needs to attract the best talent. And to do that, it needs to work on building the best institutions with the best practices. The best global talent needs to feel comfortable in China. They need to know the purpose is right. They need to know that the attacks on China are not backed by facts-on-the-ground. They need to know that Chinese organisations respect intellectual property. And they need to know they can work in those environments as equals.

An important part for Chinese Associations in Science and Technology is improving the standard of English. Many Chinese engineers in science and technology are already committed to learning English, and this needs to be further encouraged. Widespread use of English would also help China contribute internationally: Most of us know that the premier science and technology journals are in English, and for that reason alone China needs to further instil English language skills within Chinese science and technology associations.

Chandran Nair is the founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow and a member of the Club of Rome. This is an edited transcript from remarks delivered to the Forum of Scientific and Technological Development and Governance, organised by the China Association for Science and Technology on August 10. The forum attracted an audience of 400,000.