The Politics behind China’s Quest for Nobel Prizes


China is applying its strategy for winning Olympic gold to science policy. It may be surprised by the outcomes—but overall, the world will benefit.

Skeptics about the capacity of China to join the ranks of the industrialized nations should be challenged by the recent rise of the Chinese high-tech business, including the high-speed train industry, telecommunications service providers such as Huawei, IT service providers such as Lenovo, new market-leading S energy equipment suppliers such as Suntech, and the competitive success and admiration, even fear, that these businesses have spurred across the world. Yet skepticism is not entirely unwarranted. Some inconvenient truths about science and technology development in China stand in the way of its ambitions. Most prominent among these, as noted by Xuesen Qian, the “Father of Chinese Rocketry” (who received his Ph.D. from MIT and returned to China in 1955), is the failure of Chinese universities and research institutes to cultivate world-class creativity and innovation among their scientists. To Chinese leaders, an increasingly aggravating illustration of this truth is that no homegrown scientist from the mainland has claimed a Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, or Medicine.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that today governs the world’s second largest economy and second largest R&D budget is determined to correct this failure. In October 2013, the CCP Organizational Department identified six scientists as China’s “outstanding talents,” the top tier of the “Ten Thousand Talents Program,”and the most likely candidates for a Nobel Prize. Scientists who achieve this rarified level of recognition will benefit from greater autonomy in setting their research agendas, secure research funding to be used at their discretion, and administrated and assessed under terms negotiated directly between the government and scientists.These seemingly ideal privileges are part of the larger effort to promote China’s overall innovation capacity. But only one goal of this program stands out as explicit and measurable: the Nobel Prize.

The state-driven charge toward the Nobel Prize is unprecedented and unparalleled in science policy. Today’s fierce competition among countries for technological advantage, reflected in a diversity of national science, technology, and innovation (STI) policies, has become a bit imprudent and extravagant—national governments are overconfident in their bets on tomorrow’s revolutionary technologies, while the cost/benefit effects of their tremendous inputs are of less concern. But no other country uses the Nobel Prize to anchor the success of a national innovation strategy. Such a strategy appears unbalanced, short-sighted, and utterly antithetical to the principle that creativity and innovation in scientific research must be driven by the curiosity of the scientist. In short, this narrow, nationalistic idea appears to say more about CCP politics than about STI policy. What then are the politics?

The continuing quest for legitimacy

Rulers of authoritarian countries have to justify their legitimacy, and the CCP is no exception. Its legitimacy emerges from several historic sources: first through achieving peace, unity, and freedom from exploitation by Western colonialists in 1949; relying on Mao’s personal charisma amid the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution; and most recently by delivering rapid GDP growth since the “Reform and Opening Up” of the economy initiated in the late 1970s.

But the Party has pursued other, less apparent or understood strategies for strengthening its legitimacy. One of these is to close the technological gap between China and the West.

Since its defeat during the First Opium War in 1840, all Chinese regimes have suffered military disadvantage due to inferior technological capacity. Constantly bullied and intimidated by various foreign forces, both the elites and the general public have been obliged to pursue effective measures to catch up technologically and thus to improve national security. The “Self-Strengthening Movement” initiated by the Qing Empire from 1861 to 1895 was the first state effort at technology catch-up, with measures ranging from the financing of advanced public education to the establishment of modern arsenals. The eruption of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) terminated this attempt; indeed, the inability of the government to deliver effective technology catch-up partly explains its failure in the war, and drastically intensified the legitimacy crisis of the empire.

The problem of legitimacy was further amplified by the painful war to resist the Japanese invasion between 1931 and 1945. Among Chinese domestically and overseas, a deep desire for national security and technological superiority was growing. The CCP cleverly and effectively took advantage of the combination of widespread feelings of inferiority and the nation’s Cold War frontier position to justify the state’s priority of developing the defense industry at all costs. The atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental ballistic missile, the nuclear submarine, the human-made satellite: All of these achievements were tied to tensions between China and the United States or the former Soviet Union, or promoted to mitigate the catastrophe of miscalculated domestic policies, such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. In retrospect, although the outcomes of the CCP’s major domestic policies between 1949 and 1978 were devastating, even to its own legitimacy, the conspicuous development of China’s defense industry played a crucial yet overlooked role in preserving the CCP’s legitimacy by tapping into the public desire for independence, national security, and technology catch-up.

The end of the Cold War and the diplomatic and economic opening-up begun by Deng Xiaoping, however, have increasingly obliged the CCP to engage in a new strategy for playing the catch-up card. This is first because China’s national security situation clearly improved because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of broad mutual economic interests through trading with most of its neighbors and with the United States in particular. Today, despite years of nationalist propaganda about the threat of Taiwanese and Tibetan separatism, territorial disputes with East Asian neighbors, and the U.S. strategy of containment, very few Chinese would consider their national sovereignty to be in danger. Second, as the new “World’s Factory,” China’s relatively low-skilled production model and its dependence on imported technology across various industries have stimulated severe public criticism of the government’s underinvestment in nondefense R&D as well as science and engineering education. The legitimacy conferred by technological catch-up today resides more with the success of economic competitiveness than with growing military strength.

Proving itself to be pragmatic and adaptable, in the early 1980s the CCP launched a series of concerted and escalating policies aimed at convincing the public of its commitment to the pursuit of cutting-edge technological and innovation capabilities. At the input end, the impact of these policies has been extraordinary: A recent study shows that China’s R&D expenditures as a percentage of GDP have increased from below 0.6% in 1982 to nearly 2% in 2013. Assuming a continuation of China’s 18% annual growth rate in R&D spending since 2000, it is now on track to overtake the United States in total (public and private) R&D spending by 2022. Government R&D funds, in particular, have been growing at a pace exceeding the expectations of even the most enthusiastic scientists, and China now not only holds the largest pool of science and engineering researchers in the world, but has triggered a reverse brain drain by luring back talent who studied and worked abroad with the promise of government research largesse.

Instead of focusing on research and building strong links to other scientists and researchers for collaboration, Chinese scientists have developed a strategic culture that focuses on developing vertical networks with powerful bureaucrats.

The landscape at the output end, however, remains genuinely disappointing: Journal publications by Chinese researchers included in the Science Citation Index (SCI) grew from a negligible share in 2001 to 9.5% in 2011, second in the world to the United States, but with few highly cited articles, indicating trivial creative value and low impact on the R&D enterprise. Chinese firms still depend on foreign sources for their core technologies, paying tens of billions of dollars each year to purchase overseas intellectual property. Massive research spending has not led to transformative innovations and products that can be truly commercialized; there is little potential for fostering a Chinese equivalent to Apple. This contrast between inputs and outputs not only makes it clear to the CCP that developing technological and innovation capacity requires more than the mere accumulation of research capital and labor, but also pressures the Party to seek more effective approaches to technological catch-up in its ongoing effort to defend its legitimacy.

Thus, the state is now seeking to replicate what it has learned in another domain of catch-up: Olympic sports. Here, the CCP has impressed the public and bolstered its legitimacy through policies that have moved Chinese athletes into the leading rank of Olympic gold medalists. But have the right lessons been learned? In the sports case, the Party succeeded at the Olympic level despite its refusal to relinquish centralized control over the organization of athletic activities, a failing that has inhibited the development of a truly popular and professional athleticism. And as with sports, the conditions necessary to cultivate scientific and technological creativity and innovation have some inherent conflicts with authority and centralized power that the CCP’s legacy can hardly accommodate. Nonetheless, the successful pursuit of Olympic gold has had a significant impact on the Party’s public image and legitimacy that the CCP believes will apply in the science realm as well. Given the success of what is often referred to as the CCP’s “Olympic strategy,” why not develop a comparable “Nobel Prize strategy”?

Ambivalence about scientists

The fundamental logic of using Nobel Prizes to measure national scientific ability and catalyze innovative creativity is untenable, because it inappropriately equates the exceptional abilities of a very few individuals with the nation’s scientific capacity, while confusing scientific discovery with technological innovation. This strategy will ultimately run into trouble, regardless of whether Chinese scientists selected by the state can claim a couple of Nobels. Yet even if this bold charge toward Nobel Prizes fails to achieve its desired impacts, it may well lead to unintended consequences that will have profound ramifications at the national and international levels.

Unexpected changes are likely to show up first in the relationship between leading scientists and the Party. Historically, the CCP has maintained firm control over Chinese scientists, not only because they are indispensable to improving legitimacy through efforts such as technology catch-up, but also because scientists have a professional inclination toward intellectual freedom, which presents a perennial threat to authoritarian rulers. In light of this tension, the talents of the Chinese science community have best been mobilized when scientists are concentrated in “bunkers,” or megaprojects such as the space program, as endorsed by the Party-state. But scientists are ruthlessly crushed as soon as they engage in political opposition, as occurred throughout Mao’s regime and again after the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989.

Although the CCP has become more tolerant of Western concepts such as transparency, accountability, and public participation in politics, as well as the push for social-political reform from scientists, the Party retains strict control over the careers and resources of scientists by handpicking their leaders and manipulating the allocation of research funds. The result of this state control over the science community unfolds in typical fashion: Instead of focusing on research and building strong links to other scientists and researchers for collaboration, Chinese scientists have developed a strategic culture that focuses on developing vertical networks with powerful bureaucrats. It is an open secret in China that to obtain major grants, doing good research is much less important than holding a chief administrative position or schmoozing with experts enlisted as funding committee members. The discretion of CCP officials outweighs peer review in assessing the significance of research outcomes, so making alliances with bureaucrats is necessary for scientists. This culture of strategic network-building is so pervasive that even returnees from abroad are seldom exempted and quickly become part of it.

As this research culture and the logic of state control that underpins it act to increasingly stifle creativity, corrupt scientific ethics, and squander public money, the Party has begun to realize that it is endangering part of its own legitimacy by compromising China’s potential for continued technology catch-up, including its desire for Nobel Prizes. But allowing self-governance among the scientific community can be harmful to the monopoly of power, and must be denied. Thus the Party harbors deep ambivalence toward independent scientific research, experiencing both desire and fear. The result has been a compromise of principles implemented through the “Ten Thousand Talents Program.”“Outstanding talents” will be given secure funding and expanded autonomy to develop research designs, operations, and evaluations, but the list of these “outstanding talents” is handpicked by the Party’s Organizational Department. This is not to say that Party officials will be the only ones to make the assessments of scientific talent and promise; nonetheless, the political reliability of a scientist will be an additional prerequisite for the reward, and the achievements of the scientist thereafter will entail a debt to the Party. Apparently, the CCP believes it has found a way to resolve its ambivalence: Speed up the national drive toward Nobel Prizes while reserving the Party’s claim to these prizes, and excite elite scientists with extra freedom while retaining de facto control, given their paucity of numbers and manageable monitoring costs.

Appointing national champions and making them heroes and role models for the public are strategies often used by authoritarian states to mobilize political campaigns. However, on many occasions, such as the defections of former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc celebrities, including artists, athletes, and scientists during the cold war, they end up destabilizing the regime by creating and escalating tensions between the state’s will and the liberal reasoning of heroic individuals. Indeed, this is one lesson from the experience of sports, as the new generation of Chinese stars, such as Li Na (tennis), Yao Ming (basketball), and Liu Xiang (track and field), no longer shy away from expressing their reservations about the Party’s obsession with gold medals and openly criticize how state intervention has distorted genuine athletics. The push for gold at the Olympic Games, and the drive for Nobel Prizes, may wellwork against the authoritarian state in the end. Superiority on level playing fields among nations cannot be sustained without openness, and once openness begins, however cautiously at first, it threatens the monopoly of information by the authoritarian state and may eventually become irreversible.

In reality, the Chinese scientists selected as “outstanding talents” will have to be given additional autonomy so that their research can fully conform to international research norms and can be recognized in the competition for Nobel Prizes. As their integration into the international science community increases, with or without Nobel Prizes, these scientists and their domestic collaborators, assistants, and students will find themselves pushing back against and likely rejecting the norms of the Chinese research culture.Through their actions and activities if not their voices, these scientists will become a force for reform. Although the Party’s Nobel strategy for chasing legitimacy and national pride may thus serve its purpose in the short term, in the long run it must inevitably threaten the Party’s ability to maintain control over public discourse and thus over civil society.

Who would benefit?

China’s political commitment to science and innovation serves a political purpose in America, too. The threat of Chinese competition on the advanced technological front, which I highlighted at the beginning of this essay, is often invoked by U.S. policy, scientific, and business leaders as a reason to increase government spending on research and innovation, to bolster immigration policies that encourage foreign-born scientists to stay in the United States, and so on. In a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Microsoft’s former chief operating officer went so far as to suggest that the United States was more like a developing country than China, if judged by the latter’s robust investments in its emerging scientific and innovation prowess.

Here my point is different. U.S. policymakers should welcome and support the Party’s dash for Nobel Prizes. In betting on Nobels, the Party faces a critical tradeoff between legitimacy and authority. If the Party hopes to enhance its legitimacy through the reputational benefits of future Nobel laureates, it must first unlock the potential of Chinese scientists by allowing more autonomy and reducing interventions, which in turn will inevitably diminish the Party’s authority. The CCP’s temporary solution seems to be autonomy preconditioned on alleged loyalty and confined to a limited number of scientists. However, being intellectuals, the more these leading Chinese scientists are engaged with the international science community, the more needs, resources, and strength they can mobilize to overcome the institutional weaknesses of China’s research culture and push for domestic political reform. Such processes will oblige the state to become more accountable to its public, thus empowering and stabilizing a transition away from authoritarianism. This is not to say that the CCP won’t use the outcome of its Nobel campaign to boost its image or nationalist pride. But to the extent that U.S. politicians seek to exploit the threat of Chinese scientific competition to advance their own political ends, they will actually lend credence to the pursuit of similar ends by the CCP.

I am arguing that China’s bet on the Nobel Prizes will subject its research system to an open, liberal, and rules-based competition that will erode the Party’s authority in the long run. But I am also suggesting that U.S. fears about Chinese scientific and technological competitiveness remain overstated in the first place. As long as the CCP is reluctant to pursue enhanced legitimacy through genuine political reform, the Chinese research culture I described earlier will tend to prevail among most Chinese scientists and researchers, due to the powerful incentives of political patronage. This culture dampens the prospects for real scientific breakthroughs. Nor is it unrelated to China’s poor performance in commercializing and industrializing inventions, the result of an “industrial strategic culture” that privileges firms with political patrons and effectively promotes a destructive entrepreneurship that prefers short-term profits, cronyism, and excessive diversification. So even if, by privileging a few of its top scientists, the Party does manage to garner some Nobel Prizes, the entrenched culture of science and innovation in China may still help industrialized countries with more efficient innovation systems to benefit from China’s Nobel science more than would China itself.

Nobel Prizes are awarded on the basis of creative merit, as well as the breadth of impact on scientific research and human welfare. Indeed, a scientific or technological advance will usually be exposed to the world for a lengthy period of scrutiny, often including complex processes of commercialization and industrialization, before its worthiness for a Nobel Prize can be fully assessed and endorsed. This complex context within which Nobel-worthy research results are in effect subject to a test of scientific and societal significance rules out the possibility of protectionism of scientific discoveries on China’s part, as that would undermine the competitive potential of the discoveries. Unlike gold medals in the Olympic Games, which have limited value other than fame and national pride, the research that is rewarded by Nobel Prizes in science has vast spillover effects for human welfare that cannot be exclusively exploited by the winners. The Chinese nationality of a Nobel Prize winner imposes no extra constraints on the ability of the rest of the world to benefit from the scientist’s breakthrough. Meanwhile, the state-organized infringement of intellectual property and rampant industrial espionage that have in the past antagonized developed countries in their dealings with Chinese partners also become less tempting because they undermine the broader effort to establish a national reputation for scientific originality.

In contrast to its enthusiasm for Nobel Prizes in science, the Party sought to suppress public discussion of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the incarcerated political activist Liu Xiaobo. It also toned down the official reaction to Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. These orchestrated reactions mirror the Party’s longstanding aversion to public discourse on universal values, and its preference for value-neutral products (such as athletic prowess and, supposedly, scientific breakthroughs) as proof of its competencies and authority. However, scientists as human beings cannot be value-free or value-neutral. The fundamental paradox in China’s bet on Nobel Prizes is that the Party must free its scientists and researchers from their patron/client professional culture before their creativity and potential can be released. But if the Party were to remove restrictions on its scientists in order to strengthen its legitimacy, a more internationalized and independent science community will result, with a consequently increasing influence on domestic civil society that in turn will raise more diversified challenges to the Party’s legitimacy. China’s Nobel Prize strategy is a thus classic win-win for the United States and the West, whose policymakers should do what they can to encourage it.The strategy cannot damage Western countries’ competitive edge in science and technology in the short run. In the long run, it will foster China’s independent science community, substantiate its civil society, gradually liberalize its politics, and in the process might even lead to scientific advances from which all of humanity can benefit. These are outcomes that advance the long-term interests of both America and China.

Recommended reading

George J. Gilboy, “The Myth behind China’s Miracle,” Foreign Affairs, no. 4 (2004): 33–48.

David M. Lampton, “How China Is Ruled,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 1 (February 1, 2014): 74–84.

Yigong Shi and Yi Rao, “China’s Research Culture,” Science, no. 5996 (September 3, 2010): 1128–1128.

Ning Wang, “The Making of an Intellectual Hero: Chinese Narratives of Qian Xuesen,” The China Quarterly 206 (2011): 352–371.

Jingjie Yang, “Science Talent Program Eyes Noble Prize,” Global Times, October 31, 2013.

David Zweig and Huiyao Wang, “Can China Bring Back the Best? The Communist Party Organizes China’s Search for Talent,” The China Quarterly 215 (2013): 590–615.

Junbo Yu () is an associate professor in public policy at the School of Administration,Jilin University, in Changchun, China, and a research fellow at the Peking University-Fudan University-Jilin University Co-Innovation Center for State Governance.

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Cite this Article

Yu, Junbo. “The Politics behind China’s Quest for Nobel Prizes.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 3 (Spring 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring 2014