Monday, October 11, 2010

Why is Liu Xiaobo China's first Nobel prize winner?

Last week, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on
Charter 08, a document that calls for democratic reforms and greater political freedoms in the People's Republic of China. He is currently in jail for writing that document. When the prize was announced, China's state-controlled media and security apparatus began an all-out campaign to censor the story, blocking Web access to information about the award, arresting people who gathered to celebrate, and promptly imprisoning Liu's wife.

I should mention at this point that Liu Xiaobo is the first resident of China to win any Nobel Prize. Ever.

I cannot help but think that this is no coincidence.

Name a well-known piece of technology invented in China since the year 1400. Or name an important scientific discovery made in China since that year. If you can, you're a better Google hound than I, because I find absolutely nada. Nothing. In 600 years. China's technological and scientific underachievement is not a figment of Swedish/Norwegian bias.

What could cause a country with 20% of the world's population - twice as many as all of Europe! - to be the world's most spectacular scientific and technological dunce for six centuries?

Racist and Eurocentric theories that East Asians are less creative than Caucasians are patently false, as both historical and modern facts demonstrate. Japan, for example, has plenty of Nobel prizes and great scientific discoveries to its name, and is the birthplace of inventions such as (deep breath) the digital camera, the hand calculator, the floppy disk, flash memory, pluripotent stem cells, B-vitamins, the camcorder/VCR/VHS, and the compact disc (not to mention MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, methamphetamine, and karaoke). People of Chinese descent have made huge numbers of landmark contributions to science and technology...outside China. And, as everyone knows, pre-1400 China was the birthplace of paper, gunpowder, the compass, movable type, the horse collar, the astrolabe, compartmentalized ship hulls, and a long list of other awesome things that rivaled (and, during the Middle Ages, far exceeded) anything in Europe. It is clear that China's underachievement has been due to collective deficiencies, not individual ones.

Similarly, China's turbulent history in the 19th and 20th centuries, though undoubtedly a contributing factor, is hardly an excuse. Russia, which lost a far larger percentage of its population to wars and famines than did China during the same time period, and suffered under an equally blinkered communist regime, managed to put the first man in space and clean up plenty of Nobels. And the upheavals of the modern age cannot explain the so-called "Great Divergence" of 1400-1870, in which Europe took over from China as the locus of global innovation long before British warships showed up pushing opium.

Nor is this simply a case of China's inevitable catch-up. The U.S. was the birthplace of inventions like the steamboat and the airplane long before it caught up to European levels of per capita GDP. Even if China now starts to produce some innovations, it will still have 600 years of stasis to explain.

So what is China's problem? As I said before, I believe that the fact that China's first Nobel winner is an imprisoned dissident is telling. Liu Xiaobo is not the first Chinese citizen to be imprisoned by the state for calling for intellectual freedom; he joins a long and hallowed line of such persecuted thought-criminals, stretching back at least to Li Zhi of the Ming Dynasty.

Glib theories cannot easily explain the broad sweep of history, but my guess as to the cause of China's technological underachievement goes something like this: the act of trying to keep together a nation as large and diverse as China has come at the cost of intellectual, scientific, and technological progress. After 1400, as Mongol domination of China ended, the rulers of the Ming Dynasty soon found themselves in charge of an empire vastly more populous (thanks to new rice-farming techniques) than the earlier Han and T'ang dominions. Controlling and stabilizing this mega-nation required more government intervention in daily economic life than in most countries. China stayed together where European and Indian empires of comparable population crumbled, but the cost was constant suppression of potentially disruptive technologies.

The Ming began this unfortunate tradition by banning private shipping (just as European explorers were gearing up for world conquest), by purging science from the civil service examinations, and by sending a bunch of (basically) lawyers called the "Confucian Scholar-Gentry" into the countryside to regulate economic activity. Mechanical inventions comparable to, and centuries ahead of, the textile machinery that kicked off Europe's Industrial Revolution languished in obscurity and were forgotten.

European countries, of course, would have loved to do the same thing, but they couldn't. Although European nations were arguably more despotic than China during the Early Modern period, they were forced to fight each other in a series of endless wars; this not only spurred them to allow their scientists and inventors to do their thing (in order to gain a military edge over the neighbors), but it allowed visionaries like Columbus to shop around for patrons among the cornucopia of European rulers. China, with one Emperor - even a benign one - could afford to sacrifice progress in favor of stability. This is basically Jared Diamond's theory of "optimal fragmentation."

Even in the modern day, the absolute priority that China places on internal stability ("harmony," in their favored terminology) has contributed to the aforementioned bloody and chaotic history that delayed China's industrial revolution until 1979. The Chinese Civil War (really, wars), the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square - all of these were overkill on the part of Chinese rulers desperate to keep the far-flung empire as a single, unified, homogeneous nation-state. Excessive government control of academia has led to a culture of fraud and fear that continues to hamstring Chinese science. Meanwhile, Chinese splinter nations Hong Kong and Taiwan, and smaller East Asian neighbors like Japan, Korea, and Singapore, sped ahead while massive, monolithic Mainland China languished.

Far from being the champion of the Chinese race, as it has always claimed, the Chinese Empire - and its successor, the People's Republic of China - has been the greatest force preventing 80% of East Asians from finding new and better ways to live.

If my theory is right, it is no surprise that China's first Nobel laureate is not a scientist, but a would-be reformer. China's high-speed economic growth primarily relies on foreign technology and on brute accumulation of physical capital; the people who are doing the most new and revolutionary things in that country are those who are trying to reform a society hobbled by 600 years of excessive government enforcement of "harmony."

I think there is great hope for China to change. Modern communications and transportation technology has made it more possible than ever to hold together a large, diverse nation without sacrificing intellectual dynamism - the U.S. and India are cases in point. But cultural change is no sure thing. It seems to me that until and unless China Liu Xiaobo's succeed in their attempts at societal innovation, China's scientists will continue to lag behind those of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the West.

1 comment:

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