The Predicament of Knowledge Development in China

(Next Weekly)  The Predicament of Knowledge Development.  By Steven N.S. Cheung.  Issue 852, July 7, 2006.

[in translation]  

Several months ago, a foreign publication noted that there were more than 60,000 disturbances in China last year.  I have not come across a single one.  I asked a few friends in various regions around the country, but none of them have witnessed disturbances.  I thought about it and then I understood.  In a certain district in Shanghai, the government wanted to requisition a few dozen old houses to develop something like Xintiandi.  The compensation to the residents was substantial but a few of the residents would not accept the offer and fought back.  There were innumerable quarrels over four years, and the road was blocked on several occasions.  If these were disturbances, then I do not doubt that there are many such disturbances in China and the figure of 60,000+ is believable.

Undoubtedly, the Chinese people love to quarrel.  There are lots of busy bodies and there are plenty of people everywhere.  Within two minutes of something, dozens of people are assembled at the scene, even rearing to rumble.  One time, I opened the car door and a bicyclist hit the door.  My driver told me to leave and let him handle it, because there was going to be a quarrel.  In fact, the quarrel went on for more than a hour in front of a large crowd of spectators.  

A friend saw a man who was hit by a car on the road and was calling for people to help him.  The friend told the driver to stop to render assistance.  The driver did not stop, nor did any other driver.  The friend asked the driver how he could be so cold-hearted, and got the response is that trouble will fall upon whoever gives assistance.  The injured person may say that the helper was the one hit him.  Unfortunately, this is China today.

The Internet culture is just as scary.  Many friends think that anyone who criticizes China will automatically be supported without any reason or proof; anyone who can make incoherent accusations will be made a hero.  Conversely, anyone who praises China will be attacked.  My students say that people make personal attacks against me, some of which are clearly systematically organized.  It does not matter, but we cannot deny that Internet libel and malice cannot easily be handled by the law.  This is a weakness of the Internet, which has been tremendous in facilitating information exchange.  No matter what, the term "angry youth" was not invented out of nowhere, and groundless abuse of others is not good culture.

When Hu Jintao said that China should have a harmonious society, he may have recognized the aforementioned situations.  There is a price for harmony, and developments in ideas are incompatible with certain kinds of harmony.  The handling of cultural development in China is presently a headache.  This is unique and complex, and no experts really know how to handle it.

It is correct to say that there is no freedom of religion and freedom of speech in China, relative to the west.  I grew up in a Christian family, and I recognize the importance of religion in life.  But I also oppose the existence of certain religions -- for example, if you commit suicide while wearing sneakers, you can get to the planet Mars.  I am unrestrained in my own thoughts and talk, but I am opposed to freedom to make nonsensical speech.  I believe that China is excessively restricting the freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  They do not allow people to hold religious ceremonies at home, they oppose inflammatory speech, they do not allow certain past events to be mentioned, they restrict the reporting of corruption, they suppress political discussions ...

In the eyes of westerners, these are the results of totalitarianism.  I don't look at it that way.  Compared to the west, China is a country without a lot of secrets!  I don't know much about what happens in Beijing, but with respect to what I need in my research on how local governments operate, I have not seen a country more open than today's China.  They answer every question, they answer in full and they will provide every document that is asked for.  All the friends who are researching the Chinese system know that.  Criticizing corruption, discussing the tax system, cursing the courts -- my friends will say everything in private, but it is hard to speak out openly.  Most China hands will know what is going on by and large.  The advisory documents released by the State Council are often directed towards current problems and their possible solutions.

Concerning why China is so open privately while public expression is still being banned, the only explanation is that the Beijing authorities need to gauge public opinion on one hand while preventing disturbances on the other hand.  It is not difficult to see why Beijing would want to restrict religion and speech.  Do I agree?  It is hard to say.  For example, consider corruption.  Beijing finds out about a case, handles it and then quickly suppresses public reporting.  I don't disagree with that.  But when someone brings friends home to pray, I don't see anything wrong with that.  Conspiracy to commit insurrection?  Let that be the responsibility of the church.  I may not understand anything else, but I know that Christian churches can do good things.

The difficulty lies in that when things ought to be handled individually, Beijing has decided to treat them all alike.  This leads to the situation in which I have specific domain expertise to comment: knowledge development.  I have followed the economic reforms in China for 27 years, and I have written numerous analytical articles.  I have praised and I have condemned.  Today, I praise more often than I condemn.  The problem is even if a nation is economically developing, it is doomed if it cannot develop knowledge.

These days, I am thinking about the great tradition of scholarship in England, against which contemporary China is pathetic.  I am thinking about the historical experiences: any economically thriving place also thrived in art and culture.  Today, China is promising -- it is not exactly unparalleled, but it is promising.  What about scholarship?  That is also culture, but one cannot say that it is promising in China.  You should not forget that China once produced people like Su Dongbo, and old learned guys like Ronald Coase (高斯), Armen Alchian (艾智仁) and myself have recognized that the Chinese people are intelligent and should excel in scholarship.  Today, there is a large population which have food to eat.  If we compare the ratio against the past England, then how come top scholars in China cannot even be found with a magnifying glass?

Here, I must attribute the disarray of scholarship in China as being first due to the residues of the Cultural Revolution and then to the wavering of the Beijing authorities towards speech and thought.  Isn't that true?  In piano music, the Chinese youth are astonishing the westerners, and the same should be happening to violin playing.  The development of drama is promising.  The western auction houses are now hyping up Chinese oil paintings -- even though I don't understand the "Expressionist school" from China.  The development of art is going well, because it is not restricted in speech and thought.  Scholarship is different.

A few years ago, I praised the learning spirit in China.  The students are undoubtedly passionate.  Today, the atmosphere for undergraduate students is still formidable, but the graduate schools are problematic.  They confer large numbers of doctorates.  A doctoral advisor often takes on dozens of doctoral students.  This is insanity.  As I said before, the university system is neither public nor private.  I may not understand much else, but while the Chinese economic journals have more equations than words, it is a different matter about whether the contents mean anything.

Private schools are subjected to incomprehensible management, while rich people are busy developing real estate.  Two world-class biologists said that China ought to have a great future in biological research except the financial assistance is absent.  It is strange that the rich people do not want to invest in these opportunities that can result in huge returns. 

The publishing industry is subject to various restrictions.  There are extraordinarily large book cities, but the quality of the popular books is amazingly poor.  Perhaps I am guilty too.  If private publishing were allowed in China, I would have done it on behalf of the young people of China.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I know about all manners of knowledge, Chinese or foreign, ancient or contemporary.  Unfortunately, I am getting old and I won't have the chance to show the young people.  I'll stick to writing instead.

I can understand why Hu Jintao wants a harmonious society.  I have no reason to oppose that, but the problem is how to achieve it.  The development of knowledge requires the clash of ideas, and clashes are considered disharmonious.  But a country filled with top scholars will seldom be racked by disturbances.  That was the experience in England, which had a harmonious society.  The problem is how to get from "here" to "there."  I don't have the answer.  I am only certain that if Beijing handles speech the way it does now, it will never ever reach "there."  I also believe that, in the long run, an important part of achieving a harmonious society has to do with rapidly elevating the knowledge level of the people.