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Shortcomings of the Science and Technology System

From the perspective of China's leaders, the entire science and technology system of the late 1980s, with its 8 million personnel and 10,000 research institutes, represented an expensive, underutilized and not very productive capital investment. Dissatisfaction with the system had become pervasive by the early 1980s, and both scientists and political leaders agreed on the necessity for fundamental reform. The primary complaint of the leadership was that, despite thirty years of policy statements, central plans, and political campaigns directed at the attitudes of scientists and engineers, science still was not serving the needs of the economy. Reformist political leaders and senior scientists identified a number of organizational problems that were inherent in the system adopted from the Soviet Union and that had been compounded by Chinese work-unit and lifetime job assignment practices (see Differentiation; Common Patterns , ch. 3).

In an October 1982 speech to the National Science Awards Conference, Premier Zhao Ziyang identified the following as primary problems: uneven development and lack of coordination among scientific fields; lack of communication between research and production units; duplication of research and facilities; rivalry among institutes, administrative bodies, and hierarchies; and maldistribution of personnel, with some units and fields overstaffed and others very short of skilled personnel. Zhao's speech drew upon and was followed by extensive discussions of management and organization by scientists and administrators. These discussions emphasized the prevalence of departmentalism, compartmentalism, and fragmentation of efforts. These problems, when combined with poor management, poorly educated managers, absence of incentives for good work or of penalties for poor performance, and absence of direct communication between research units and productive enterprises, resulted in the failure of the science and technology establishment to serve production and economic growth.

In the 1980s research institutes, like all Chinese work units, responded to an economic system in which supplies were uncertain by attempting to be as self-sufficient as possible. Exchanges of information, services, or personnel across the very strictly defined administrative boundaries were difficult, resulting in failure to share expensive imported equipment and in widespread duplication of facilities. The absence of information on work being done in other research institutes, even in the same city, frequently led to duplication and repetition of research.

Like all other workers in China, scientists were assigned to research institutes or universities by government labor bureaus. Such assignments frequently did not reflect specialized skills or training. Assignments were meant to be permanent, and it was very difficult for scientists or engineers to transfer to another work unit. In many cases, talents or specialized training were wasted. Institutes that may have had the funds to purchase advanced foreign equipment often had no way to hire a Chinese chemist or mathematician. Not only were China's scientists and engineers in short supply, many were underemployed or misemployed.

Data as of July 1987