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Rehabilitation and Rethinking, 1977-84

The Cultural Revolution's attacks on science and its deprecation of expertise were opposed by those within the government and party who were more concerned with economic development than with revolutionary purity. In the early 1970s, Premier Zhou Enlai and his associate Deng Xiaoping attempted to improve the working conditions of scientists and to promote research. At the January 1975 session of the Fourth National People's Congress, Zhou Enlai defined China's goal for the rest of the century as the Four Modernizations (see Glossary), that is, modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. Although the policies proposed in the speech had little immediate effect, they were to become the basic guide for the post-Mao period. In 1975 Deng Xiaoping, then vice chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, vice premier of the government, and Zhou Enlai's political heir, acted as patron and spokesman for China's scientists (see Constitutional Framework , ch. 10). Under Deng's direction, three major policy documents--on science and technology, industry, and foreign trade--were drafted. Intended to promote economic growth, they called for rehabilitating scientists and experts, reimposing strict academic standards in education, and importing foreign technology. The proposals for reversing most of the Cultural Revolution policies toward scientists and intellectuals were denounced by the ideologues and followers of the Gang of Four (see Glossary) as "poisonous weeds." Zhou died in January 1976, and Deng was dismissed from all his posts in April. Deng's stress on the priority of scientific and technical development was condemned by the radicals as "taking the capitalist road." This dispute demonstrated the central place of science policy in modern Chinese politics and the link between science policies and the political fortunes of individual leaders.

Some of the immediate consequences of Mao's death and the subsequent overthrow of the Gang of Four in October 1976 were the reversals of science and education policies (see The Post-Mao Period, 1976-78 , ch. 1). During 1977 the more vocal supporters of the Gang of Four were removed from positions of authority in research institutes and universities and replaced with professionally qualified scientists and intellectuals. Academic and research institutions that had been closed were reopened, and scientists were summoned back to their laboratories from manual labor in the countryside. Scientific journals resumed publication, often carrying reports of research completed before everything stopped in the summer of 1966. The media devoted much attention to the value of science and the admirable qualities of scientists. It denounced the repressive and anti-intellectual policies of the deposed Gang of Four, who were blamed for the failure of China's science and technology to match advanced international levels. The news media now characterized scientists and technicians as part of society's "productive forces" and as "workers" rather than as potential counterrevolutionaries or bourgeois experts divorced from the masses. Considerable publicity went to the admission or readmission of scientists to party membership.

The March 1978 National Science Conference in Beijing was a milestone in science policy. The conference, called by the party Central Committee, was attended by many of China's top leaders, as well as by 6,000 scientists and science administrators. Its main purpose was to announce publicly the government and party policy of encouragement and support of science and technology. Science and technology were assigned a key role in China's "New Long March" toward the creation of a modern socialist society by the year 2000. A major speech by Deng Xiaoping reiterated the concept of science as a productive force and scientists as workers, an ideological formulation intended to remove the grounds for the political victimization of scientists. Speeches by then-Premier Hua Guofeng and Vice Premier Fang Yi, the top government figure involved in science and technology, urged that scientists be given free rein in carrying out research as long as the work was in line with broad national priorities. Basic research was to be supported, although stress would continue to be placed on applied work, and China's scientists would be given wide access to foreign knowledge through greatly expanded international scientific and technical exchanges.

By 1978 substantial progress had been made toward restoring the science and technology establishment to its pre-Cultural Revolution state. Leaders with special responsibility for science and technology joined recently rehabilitated senior scientists in looking ahead and framing sweeping and very ambitious plans for further development. The draft Eight-Year Plan for the Development of Science and Technology, discussed at the 1978 National Science Conference, called for a rapid increase in the number of research workers, for catching up to advanced international levels by the mid-1980s, and for substantial work in such fields as lasers, manned space flight, and high-energy physics. For some scientists, and perhaps for their political sponsors as well, mastering technologies and developing Chinese capabilities in the most advanced areas of science were goals in themselves, regardless of the costs or of the likely benefits to the peasants and workers.

Both political leaders and media personnel seemed captivated by the vision of rapid economic growth and social transformation made possible by the wonders of science. Further, many leaders, not themselves scientifically trained, tended toward unrealistic expectations of the immediate benefits from research. This attitude, while different from the hostility to science exhibited during the Cultural Revolution, was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific work and was therefore a poor foundation for science policy.

The plans for rapid advance in many scientific areas were associated with equally ambitious calls for economic growth and the large-scale import of complete factories. During 1979 it became increasingly clear that China could not pay for all the imports or scientific projects wanted by all the ministries, regional authorities, and research institutes. It also became increasingly evident that those promoting the projects had overlooked financial constraints and severe shortages of scientific and technical manpower and that they lacked a comprehensive plan. In February 1981 a report of the State Science and Technology Commission reversed the overly ambitious 1978 eight-year scientific development plan and called for renewed emphasis on the application of science to practical problems and on training more scientists and engineers.

As scientists and administrators confronted the problems of applying and linking research with development, they became aware of the constraints of the existing system and of the extent to which the endemic difficulties in applying scientific knowledge were consequences of the Soviet-style structure for science and industry that China had uncritically adopted in the 1950s. Attention shifted to reforming the existing system and promoting greater efficiency and better use of scarce resources, such as trained manpower. Between 1981 and 1985, a number of new journals discussed China's scientific system and suggested improvements, while national and local administrators sponsored a wide range of experimental reforms and reorganizations of research bodies. The extensive discussion and experimentation culminated in a March 1985 decision of the party Central Committee calling for thorough reform of China's science system (see The Reform Program , this ch.).

Data as of July 1987

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