Cooperation with China

In the wake of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the country’s progress on important fronts seemed to be in jeopardy. Many U.S. observers worried that China’s nascent economic reform, reliance on its scientific community, and movement toward

greater intellectual openness and international cooperation had come to a halt. The 1990s, however, saw dramatic Chinese progress in science, technology, education, and economic reform. Some positive political developments occurred as well, but severe restrictions on human rights and the free exchange of ideas and information endure, in part as a result of the Tiananmen demonstrations.

The scientific realm continues to be hampered by ambiguous and opaque regulations concerning the sharing of information. As a result, Chinese researchers, particularly in the social sciences, shy away from certain research topics or international collaborations, and intellectual exchange suffers. The initial reluctance of physicians and officials to share what they knew about severe acute respiratory syndrome clearly illustrates the liabilities of China’s restrictive system.

The growing power of both China and the United States has raised the stakes of cooperation and poses new challenges in managing the relationship. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States enjoys greater freedom to pursue its international objectives, which will not always coincide with China’s interests. China’s growing economic prowess, coupled with its still disappointing performance in human rights and political openness, makes some observers wary of U.S. cooperation. They fear that the result will only be to strengthen a formidable economic competitor and political adversary. I believe that the benefits of cooperation outweigh the risks. At the same time, though, I see a need to increase our efforts to build greater trust and communication as a foundation for future cooperation.

Scientific cooperation is no longer simply an element of our policy to create a fabric of relations with China. Its importance has grown in several ways. First, China’s capabilities have reached a level where the scientific payoffs of cooperation can benefit not only China but also the rest of the world. Second, cooperation is key to building China’s capacity for technological innovation. Although this will strengthen an emerging competitor, it must be understood that if a country of China’s magnitude fails to become a thriving player in the global, knowledge-based economy–and soon–the economic, political, and human consequences for the entire world could be disastrous. Finally, thanks to their prestige, China’s scientists and engineers are powerful agents of change; international cooperation strengthens their ability to encourage intellectual freedom and the exchange of knowledge.

In strengthening our scientific ties with China, it is important to realize that more is at stake than scientific knowledge. Cooperation can have a broad impact on our mutual understanding. In its quest for integration into the global economic system and the global scientific enterprise, China is open to acquiring a deeper understanding of the United States and other systems. There may also be lessons for us to learn from China’s vigorous experiments to improve its capacity for technological innovation. Cooperation in science increases our knowledge of each other’s systems; conversely, a better appreciation of our respective values can help us identify and remove obstacles to productive cooperation.

Many topics lend themselves to fruitful exchanges, including the treatment of intellectual property, approaches to human subjects and genetic research, attracting precollege students into scientific careers, and popularizing science. The joint exploration of subjects such as research financing, access to and dissemination of scientific information, and the interaction of the scientific community with policymakers can lead to broader questions of political processes and cultural norms. An example of what might be done on a broader scale is sustained policy dialogues. Since 1999, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and its Chinese equivalent have sponsored discussions between Chinese and U.S. scientists and policymakers as a complement to the agencies’ support of research collaborations. The time is also right to encourage joint in-depth comparative policy studies with China’s emerging community of policy researchers.

Although cooperation is most easily negotiated and managed bilaterally, a bilateral partnership is also more vulnerable to misunderstanding and mistrust. Given the unprecedented global power of the United States and the growing strength of China, it is more important than ever to ensure the stability of our scientific partnership. We should therefore complement our bilateral arrangements with an equivalent portfolio of multilateral partnerships. The goal of encouraging Chinese political and cultural change through scientific cooperation is more likely to be reached by helping China become more comfortable with multinational norms and standards than by applying pressure unilaterally.

China is already a constructive member of international organizations ranging from the International Council for Science to UNESCO. It also participates in ad hoc structures that engage multilaterally in research (the international rice genome project, for example) and scientific advice (the Inter-Academy Panel), and helps support various NATO-like advanced study institutes with NSF and other partners in the Asia-Pacific region. More such ad hoc partnerships, large or small, would be beneficial.

Another payoff of closer scientific ties is that they will allow both countries to capitalize on the potential of U.S.-trained Chinese scientists and engineers. The flow of Chinese students and scholars to the United States during the past 20 years has benefited both countries. The United States has gained a critical influx of talent and, to the extent that the researchers return home, China has received an injection of scientists and engineers who are not only trained at the frontiers of knowledge but familiar with the world’s most productive system of research and technological innovation. Both countries have a stake in the continuation of this process.

China is meeting its rapidly growing need for scientific and technical workers in part by aggressively expanding its educational system. Incentive programs and the growth of technology-based joint ventures have attracted home about a third of those trained overseas, but it is unlikely that these efforts will be sufficient. It will take time for China to become more attractive to its foreign-trained scientists and engineers who have tasted the professional and personal rewards of a competitive and open society.

In the meantime, however, foreign-trained workers may be able to contribute to China’s scientific enterprise part time or intermittently as transnational researchers. Such arrangements can benefit all parties: The individual contributes to China’s development while continuing to enjoy the advantages of remaining within our system; China has access to researchers whose value is higher because they are still connected to the U.S. enterprise; and the United States retains U.S.-trained talent, at least for part of the time.

We should encourage this emerging pattern of trans-Pacific mobility. U.S.-trained Chinese scientists and engineers function effectively in both cultures. Hence they are in a unique position to build mutual understanding of our respective systems; raise the level of trust that underlies cooperation; enhance cross-fertilization between our two large scientific communities; and, most critically, accelerate change across a broad swath of Chinese politics and culture.

Of course, capitalizing on this opportunity is not without obstacles. China must continue its support for the international mobility of its scientists and engineers. More important, it needs to further depoliticize its research and education environment to suit those who have lived in an open society. On the U.S. side, national and homeland security considerations have made transborder mobility more complex. As security procedures are applied, we must ensure that they take into consideration all aspects of our national interest, including the considerable benefits of scientific cooperation with China.

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Cite this Article

Perrolle, Pierre M. “Cooperation with China.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003