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"Reds" Versus "Experts" in the 1950s and 1960s

Tensions between scientists and China's communist rulers existed from the earliest days of the People's Republic and reached their height during the Cultural Revolution (see The Cultural Revolution Decade, 1966-76 , ch. 1). In the early 1950s, Chinese scientists, like other intellectuals, were subjected to regular indoctrination intended to replace bourgeois attitudes with those more suitable to the new society. Many attributes of the professional organization of science, such as its assumption of autonomy in choice of research topics, its internationalism, and its orientation toward professional peer groups rather than administrative authorities, were condemned as bourgeois. Those scientists who used the brief period of free expression in the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-57 (see Glossary)--to air complaints of excessive time taken from scientific work by political meetings and rallies or of the harmful effects of attempts by poorly educated party cadres to direct scientific work--were criticized for their "antiparty" stance, labeled as "rightists," and sometimes dismissed from administrative or academic positions (see The Transition to Socialism, 1953-57 , ch. 1).

The terminology of the period distinguished between "red" and "expert" (see Glossary). Although party leaders spoke of the need to combine "redness" with expertise, they more often acted as if political rectitude and professional skill were mutually exclusive qualities. The period of the Great Leap Forward saw efforts to reassign scientists to immediately useful projects, to involve the uneducated masses in such research work as plant breeding or pest control, and to expand rapidly the ranks of scientific and technical personnel by lowering professional standards. The economic depression and famine following the Great Leap Forward, and the need to compensate for the sudden withdrawal of Soviet advisers and technical personnel in 1960, brought a renewed but short-lived emphasis on expertise and professional standards in the early 1960s.

The scientific establishment was attacked during the Cultural Revolution, causing major damage to China's science and technology. Most scientific research ceased. In extreme cases, individual scientists were singled out as "counterrevolutionaries" and made the objects of public criticism and persecution, and the research work of whole institutes was brought to a halt for years on end. The entire staffs of research institutes commonly were dispatched to the countryside for months or years to learn political virtue by laboring with the poor and lower-middle peasants. Work in the military research units devoted to nuclear weapons and missiles presumably continued, although the secrecy surrounding strategic weapons research makes it difficult to assess the impact of the Cultural Revolution in that sector.

In the most general sense, the Cultural Revolution represented the triumph of anti-intellectualism and the consistent, decade-long deprecation of scholarship, formal education, and all the qualities associated with professionalism in science. Intellectuals were assumed to be inherently counterrevolutionary, and it was asserted that their characteristic attitudes and practices were necessarily opposed to the interests of the masses. Universities were closed from the summer of 1966 through 1970, when they reopened for undergraduate training with very reduced enrollments and a heavy emphasis on political training and manual labor. Students were selected for political rectitude rather than academic talent. Primary and secondary schools were closed in 1966 and 1967, and when reopened were repeatedly disrupted by political struggle. All scientific journals ceased publication in 1966, and subscriptions to foreign journals lapsed or were canceled. For most of a decade China trained no new scientists or engineers and was cut off from foreign scientific developments.

During the decade between 1966 and 1976, China's leaders attempted to create a new structure for science and technology characterized by mass participation, concentration on immediate practical problems in agriculture and industry, and eradication of distinctions between scientists and workers. Ideologues saw research as an inherently political activity and interpreted all aspects of scientific work, from choice of topic to methods of investigation, as evidence of an underlying political line. According to this view, research served the interests of one social class or another and required the guidance of the party to ensure that it served the interest of the masses.

The early 1970s were characterized by mass experimentation, in which large numbers of peasants were mobilized to collect data and encouraged to view themselves as doing scientific research. Typical projects included collecting information on new crop varieties, studying the effectiveness of locally produced insecticides, and making extensive geological surveys aimed at finding useful minerals or fossil fuels. Mao Zedong took a personal interest in earthquake prediction, which became a showcase of Cultural Revolution-style science. Geologists went to the countryside to collect folk wisdom on precursors of earthquakes, and networks of thousands of observers were established to monitor such signs as the level of water in wells or the unusual behavior of domestic animals. The emphasis in this activity, as in acupuncture anesthesia, was on immediate practical benefits, and little effort was made to integrate the phenomena observed into larger theoretical frameworks.

The effects of the extreme emphasis on short-term problems and the deprecation of theory were noted by Western scientists who visited China in the mid- and late 1970s. For example, work in research institutes affiliated with the petrochemical industry was described as excessively characterized by trial and error. In one case, large numbers of substances were tried as catalysts or modifiers of the wax crystals in crude oil, and little attention was given to the underlying chemical properties of the catalytic or modifying agents.

Data as of July 1987

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