Hawking in China

I always approach things Chinese with caution. No, not Chinese merchandise which is everywhere – and everywhere well priced. No, I mean China itself and its culture, its burgeoning economy, its peculiar combination of Marxism and capitalism. I get this caution from having studied with a leading China scholar at Columbia, Professor William De Bary.. If he taught us anything it was to recognize that Chinese history and culture is amazingly complex and very different than Western culture. We all project what we know – ourselves, our culture, onto an unknown. The less we know the easier it is to mistake our projection for reality. Over and over again we learned from Professor De Bary not to make assumptions based on our own experience about China.

A recent article in the NY Times on China’s major push in basic science triggered that old caution.

China wants to stand up scientifically, as it has economically, and it is pouring money and talent into the sciences, particularly physics.

Jie Zhang, director general of basic sciences for the Chinese academy, said his budget had been increasing 17 percent a year for the last few years as China tried to ramp up research spending to about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product. By comparison, the United States spends slightly less than 2 percent, according to the National Science Foundation.

Impressively, it hosted a recent conference starring none other than the worlds most famous physicist:

Like an otherworldly emperor, Stephen Hawking rolled his wheelchair onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People on Monday, bringing with him the royalty of science and making China, for this week at least, the center of the cosmos.

Slouching in profile, draped in black and moving no more than an eyelid to send his words to a mesmerized audience of 6,000, Dr. Hawking ruminated on the origin of the universe as the headliner of an international physics conference.

The other thing Professor De Bary drummed into out heads was that the Chinese were pragmatic. I have no doubt they are seriously and intelligently going about the business of developing their science establishment and research. I also am pretty sure it wont just be a duplicate of Western approaches. They will learn all they can from us:

“A lot of people ask for advice but are hesitant to accept it,” Dr. Gross said. “In China, they are totally open to exploring how other countries do it. They are totally unarrogant about accepting advice.”

But I expect them to put their own stamp on it. It could be negative or positive. On the negative side there is a tendency in the Chinese to value structure and order that is different from our Western ways:

Dr. Gross, who was in China at the time of the Tiananmen massacre and resisted returning for 13 years, said that culture change was the difficult part of China’s modernization but that there were positive signs. He recalled seeing plans for a building that the Institute for Theoretical Physics is constructing and being horrified to find it made up of little rooms.

“It looked like a prison,” he said.

The latest philosophy in the West is to make physics buildings like irregular little mazes with blackboards and couches around every other corner, to encourage encounters and collaboration. The Beijing institute, he said, is now planning to remodel the inside of its building.

This kind of cultural exchange is just the sort of thing that I think makes it so difficult to predict what will and wont work for the Chinese. The prison characterization is probably a simple western projection, but how the Chinese physicists take to the open plan architecture -which I have heard is used at MIT – will be its own story. They will have heard and understood its purpose and know that it is approved by their superiors – or not. Or at least where openness is acceptable and where it is frowned upon or strictly forbidden. They may be able to achieve the intended advantages of the spontaneous interchange of ideas, but they will probably do so in ways that may surprise Westerners.

Of course, the biggest example of the ability of the Chinese to adopt Western ideas and take them in surprising directions is the way they have remained a Communist dictatorship while adopting a capitalist economy. Apparently utterly contradictory, they have made their economy work so well that it looks like not just succeeding, but becoming the world’s largest. Major questions about sustainability remain. Can their one party system avoid an accumulation of corruption that will eventually sink their economy? Do they have the economic regulation system to prevent the crashes that plague poorly regulated capitalist systems? Seen from a Western perspective based on our experience of one party government and lack of financial infrastructure like the US Federal Reserve system the outlook appears very uncertain. Because of Professor De Bary I hesitate to take a pessimistic view. While I believe the dangers are there, I doubt that the Chinese are blind to them. A friend of mine who works for one of China’s new billionaires tells me that the sense among the new class of Chinese entrepreneurs is that they want to see China become a superpower, but not too quickly. Whatever happens, I expect it be an interesting ride.

One Response to “Hawking in China”  

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