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An Impressive Record

Srikanth Kondapalli

Edited by Mahakrishna Rasgotra
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 256, Rs. 795.00


Three narratives on science and technology (S&T) in China are prevalent today in scholarship and policy circles. Firstly, while China invented the printing press, paper-making, gunpowder and compass (the Four Great Inventions—sida faming) in the ancient times not excluding the Grand Canal or the Great Wall and other grand engineering projects, soon it was relegated to the background since the 15th century as western European countries marched with the ongoing scientific revolutions. According to this narrative, ancient China did not sustain S&T growth due to the increasing spread of ‘gun boat diplomacy’ of the West. At one level, this narrative fits well into the nationalist historiography of China that the Opium Wars have led to a ‘century of humiliation’ but does not explain why China was not able to restrict the imperial bureaucracy nor create conditions for a scientific temper among its populace.   Secondly, recent Chinese—as well as western—scholars suggest that the 1950s and 1960s political experiments of Mao Zedong —specifically the Cultural Revolution—were again detrimental to the progress of S&T in China. These experiments have resulted in the scientific personnel being sent to the countryside to ‘learn from peasants’ and thereby the colleges and universities were depleted of scientific talent. However, if there is no S&T progress in China during this time, this narrative does not explain why and how China made rapid strides in both military and civilian sectors—such as in the nuclear, ballistic missile and satellite programmes or of the ‘bare foot’ doctor phenomenon that eradicated most of the diseases from the Chinese lexicon.   Thirdly, this narrative—here mainly state-led, but also with sympathizers abroad—also suggests that it is only since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up policies that S&T was nurtured by the state through funding, management and market outlets. The Four Modernizations—in agriculture, industry, S&T and defence—announced first in 1975 and implemented since 1978—brought in the much-needed strategic support to the S&T process and due to the progress in this field today China is at the forefront of ‘catching up’ with the advanced world in the S&T projects. Nevertheless, despite the progress, this scholarship does not explain why with so much of state attention, China still ranks low in the universal criterion on the quality of scientific research output, international recognition or the devastating environmental costs to the country.   ...

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