Impressions from a Home Visit

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Zhenqin Li

Sep 6, 1991, 2:48:20 AM9/6/91
Impressions of My Home Visit

Zhenqin Li (
September 5, 1991

In the month of August, I went back to China for a visit.
During my stay in Beijing, I had the chance of attending
the Young Scientists Conference on Physics (August 19-24)
organized by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). I also visited
the Biology and Chemistry Departments of Peking University
as well as the Institute of Biophysics of CAS, and talked
extensively with the Chinese scientists in my field (biophysics/
molecular modeling). As one concerned with the governmental
policies on science, technology, and education, I met and
had discussions with Zhou Guangzhao (president of CAS)
and an official of the State Education Commission.

My one-month visit left me with fresh impressions and new
understanding of the problems facing Chinese academic researchers.
Such experience might be of interest to other Chinese
students planning home visits, and to people concerned with
promoting academic exchanges with China.

In part (1) of my report, I will describe briefly my
impressions of the Young Scientists Conference as well as
similar academic exchange programs being planned by CAS.
In the second part, I will summarize the main points of my
meetings with Zhou Guangzhao and with an official of State
Education Commission, and discuss the problems in
China's science, technology and education policies. The
people I visited in Beijing belong mostly to the intellectual
circle. In the last part of my report, I will try to summarize
my general impression of their attitude to social issues
(including the recent Soviet coup), as compared to that of
other social groups in China.

(1) Young Scientists Conference on Physics (August 19-24)

The Young Scientists Conference (YSC) on Physics is one of
three similar conferences (to be) held this year by the
Chinese Academy of Sciences, as an attempt to promote
academic exchanges between young Chinese scientists in China
and those overseas. YSC on Computer Sciences was held in Hefei
in June, with only less than ten participants from abroad.
In contrast, the announcement of the conference on physics was
posted on the computer networks (including SCC), and attracted
more than 100 overseas applicants in less than two months. Among
them about 32 from abroad were invited to attend the conference,
along with about 30 young physicists in China. The third
conference, in the area of life sciences, is to be held
in October in Shanghai. The person in charge of this one is:
Prof. Du Yucang, Vice President of Shanghai Branch of
CAS, 319 YueYang Road, Shanghai, 200031; tel. 4310242, Fax:
86-21-4374915. Because organizers of this conference rely on
recommendations, only about a dozen participants from abroad
had been selected by the middle of August.

The organizers of the Young Scientists Conference on Physics
put in a lot of efforts to satisfy the special needs of the
overseas participants. They offered to greet them at the Beijing
Airport, to have their exit permits processed, and to give them
ride to have physical examinations at the Beijing Disease Prevention
Center. The success of this conference, in terms of better
communication among young Chinese scientists, should be attributed to
the hard work of the organizers. The scientific sessions consist of only
three of the six days of the conference. One day is allocated for visiting
the CAS research institutes; another is for sightseeing; the
physical examination and discussion session take another day.
In my opinion, the scientific quality of the overseas contributions
is not as high as that of Chinese contributors at an APS March
Meeting, because there has not been enough time to invite those
best young Chinese physicists abroad. But given the short
preparation time for the conference (less than two months),
I think the achievement of this meeting is quite impressive,
and may serve as a model for future conferences, open to more
young Chinese professionals from abroad.

According to Zhou Guangzhao, president of CAS, there are
six similar conferences being planned next summer. The overseas
Chinese organizations interested in these conferences may
contact: Zhang Yungang, Deputy Secretary General, Chinese
Academy of Sciences, 52 SanLiHe Road, Beijing, China.

(2) Problems in China's Policies on Science, Technology, and
Education -- Meetings with Zhou Guangzhao of CAS and with an Official
of State Education Commission

As one interested in the future directions of the Chinese Academy
of Sciences (CAS), I made an appointment to see Zhou Guangzhao.
From what I heard before, it seemed to me that it is Zhou's idea
to transform CAS research institutes into something similar to
the government laboratories in the U.S. (e.g., Los Alamos National
Lab, Brookhaven National Lab, etc.). I personally believe that there
is a crucial difference between the situation in China and that in the
U.S.: most researches in China are funded by the government, whereas
most Research & Developments (R&Ds) in the Western countries, even
Japan, are funded by the private industries. I think the Chinese
Academy of Sciences should serve an additional function like that
of Japan's MITI (Ministry of International Trade & Industry), to
encourage long-term developmental research of domestic industries. The
CAS (or a higher level of the government) should establish foundations
[like the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants of the
U.S. governmental agencies] to stimulate long-term developmental
researches of small enterprises; it should formulate governmental
policies to provide low-interest loans and low-tax benefits
to companies which engage in high-technology researches; it should
establish an Information Center of Science & Technology, equipped
with databases and computer networks, to provide technology and
market information to serve the developmental researches for the
industries and the whole society.

Zhou Guangzhao said that developmental researches have been
promoted within CAS in the last seven years. About 10% of the
80,000 - 90,000 workforces of the CAS have turned into the
operation of (high-tech) companies, which experience an annual
growth rate of 10% to 15%. Venture capitals have been established
for high-tech companies engaging in long-term research. There exists
an Information Center which serves CAS community, but with limited
database capability and no computer network access. The main
difficulties facing CAS developmental researches are: (1) lack of
funding; (2) lack of manufacturing support from the industries;
(3) lack of marketing experiences for high-tech products, especially
in the international sphere.

On the development of computer networks, Zhou said that the installation
of ZhongGuanCun Net, an optical fiber network connecting Peking
University, Tsinghua University and CAS research institutes, is
expected to be finished by next year. It should be fully operational
by 1994, as required by the World Bank. The cost of this network is
about tens of million RMB Yuan. On the question of the Chinese academic
community to develop a national computer network by sharing
satellite channels, Zhou said that he personally supports the idea, but
it is the politicians who decide where to put the money, e.g., the
Aerospace Ministry would argue for the funding of a space shuttle

On the question of overseas Chinese students and scholars. Zhou
said that it is the policies of the CAS: (i) to adopt an open-door
attitude and encourage Chinese scientists to compete in the world arena;
(ii) to give special support to scientists who work on the Chinese soil;
(iii) to be open-minded about those CAS employees who chose to stay
abroad. An office in U.S. is to be established to facilitate
academic exchanges with American scientists and overseas Chinese
scholars. Given the fact that many Chinese Chinese students and
scholars choose to stay abroad for a considerable time, CAS decides
to allocate 20% of its training funds (originally for the purpose
of sending students abroad) to organize conferences for overseas
scholars to give lectures at home (the Young Scientists Conference
on Physics mentioned in the first part of this report is one of
such conferences).

During the first day of Young Scientists Conference on Physics,
I met and later had a discussion with Li Yuxiu, Chief of the
American and Oceanian Affairs Division of the Overseas Studies Department
of the State Education Commission. I conveyed to him my disagreement
with the official policy of prohibiting college graduates with no foreign
relatives from studying abroad (for 5 years after graduation):
such a policy is equivalent to encouraging overseas students to
immigrate to foreign countries. He acknowledged that such a
policy has its problems, and is controversial even among the
officials themselves. But he said that some restrictions have
to be applied, so that college graduates who received state-funded
higher education can serve the country. I argued that five-year
restriction should not be the only way to pay back the state-funded
higher education: there exists other options, e.g., to pay back
the tuition after (rather than before) leaving the country.
I also suggested to him that the State Education Commission should
adopt concrete measures, as being done by the CAS, to attract overseas
students to either come back to work, or contribute to the academic
exchanges with China from abroad.

It is my impression that the policies of CAS are certainly more
liberal than that of State Education Commission. From what I have
seen and heard, I believe that CAS led by Zhou Guangzhao is
heading for the right direction, within its own capability.
However, as a lower-level organization than the State Commission for
Science & Technology and State Education Commission, CAS has
limited influence over Chinese governmental policies on science,
technology, and education, e.g., on the issues of a national
computer network and the overseas student policies. Compared with
Western countries, the professional societies in China suffer
from lack of money and activities, so their role in affecting
the governmental policies is very limited. I think the overseas
professional organizations should not only promote academic
exchanges with China, but also try to establish communication
channels with CAS, State Commission for Science & Technology and
State Education Commission, in the hope of influencing China's
policies on science, technology, and education, to make these
policies more compatible with China's modernization process.

(3) Beijing People's Attitudes to Social Issues: A General Impression

During my four-week stay in Beijing, I have only very limited
contacts with the people of Beijing, and most of the people I talked
to belong to the intellectual community. Since my impression of
Beijing people's attitudes to social issues is based on
extrapolation from a small data set, it should be read with
a grain of salt.

It seems to me that the living standard in Beijing, with the
possible exception of housing, has been markedly improved
compared with seven years ago when I last visited there.
The market becomes much more abundant. There are more
flashy buildings and shops on the streets of Beijing.
The region around ZhongGuanCun (where I grew up) has changed
quite dramatically, and I can hardly recognize some of the places
after seven years. However, I also noticed that just a few blocks
from Peking Univeristy and Tsinghua University, in ZhongGuanYuan
and ChengFu, some houses built with unburn bricks (Tu3 Pi1) have
barely changed from the appearance of seven years ago.

Except on formal occasions, it seems to me that the intellectuals
are quite free in talking about politics, even in the presence
of strangers. They have a consensus that: China needs to be
more open politically; the mentality and practices of the
current leadership are too outmoded and incompatible with
China's openning and modernization; they detest the unaccountability
of the government and arbitariness of the government policies.
But as urban residents relying on fixed salaries, they also fear
inflations and large social upheavals. They believe China will
be changed, but on a long time scale; they favor an approach which
would allow a gradual and smooth transition to a more open and
democratic society. About the recent Soviet events, they are
almost uniformly sympathetic to Gorbachev's political reforms, and
pleased of the failure of the coup; but they have mixed opinions
about his economic programs which allowed a free fall of the Soviet

But I also heard very different view from a retired officer
affiliated with the Chinese military. He put very bluntly that
Gorbachev is a traitor of socialism, who ruined the Soviet Union
and made ordinary people suffering. I was told that such a
view, though rarely stated publicly, is quite representative
among upper-level officers of the Chinese government and military.
Such a view did not seem to be changed by the failure of the
Soviet coup. It seems to me that the government is determined to
suppress alternative opinions in the news media, which incidently
can not control the minds of the intellectuals who can easily listen
to foreign radios like BBC and NHK, etc.. In the bookstores of
Beijing, one can find, e.g., some books by the liberal economist
Li Yining (_Unequilibrium Chinese Economics_) who was a consultant
of _He Shang_) and by the dissident intellectual Wen Yuankai
(_Priniciple of Creation_) who was once house-arrested after "6.4".
I am encouraged to believe that the trend of liberalization
of mind can not be reversed by external pressures, especially when
the entire social group of intellectuals become more open-minded.

Besides intellectuals and government officials, there are many
other urban residents who are not politically active. This may
be the largest social group, whose attitude to social issues is
hard to summarize and it is not my intention to do so.

Sep 7, 1991, 5:13:25 PM9/7/91
Your story is too long, I finally finish.
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