Is China turning its back on science and progress?

Totalitarian societies such as China require conformity and loyalty, not independence of thought

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Ian MadsenOne of the most notable features of Nazi Germany was its anti-intellectualism. While it claimed to be at the forefront of scientific and technical advances, its ideology and totalitarian rule made free enquiry and interchange between scientists and other technical people untenable.

Researchers became wary of making bold assertions, even when backed by solid evidence and rigorous analysis.

This aspect of the Nazi regime greatly harmed its ability to make significant discoveries, putting it at a competitive disadvantage during the Second World War.

While that greatly helped the Allies, another component of the Axis powers’ anti-intellectualism was its persecution of intellectuals. Anyone who was non-committal, skeptical or critical of the ruling party, its leaders or policies was automatically marginalized, fired or imprisoned. Unfavored minorities were subjected to worse.

All this greatly reduced the pool of available, productive and imaginative scientists, doctors and engineers. The story of Werner Heisenberg illustrates this well.

Nobel laureate Heisenberg was an admired and successful physicist whose Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle became part of modern culture. Yet once he became the dean of physics research in Nazi Germany after he had been purged, he was unable to make progress in developing an atomic bomb.

Click here to downloadAfter the war, it was found that he didn’t willfully slow his or anyone else’s work; he just was unable to crack some problems that the scientists in the United States were able to do by informed debate, collaborative and iterative experimentation and analysis.

Totalitarian societies require conformity and loyalty. These values are central to regime survival. Brilliance, imagination, intellectual curiosity and openness to changing attitudes or destroying existing paradigms are far down the list of valued qualities.

The People’s Republic of China isn’t far from this kind of totalitarianism. The punishment and disappearance of scientists and doctors who discussed unofficial accounts of the origin of COVID-19 is a perfect example.

In recent years, Canada, the United States and other democratically advanced nations have become alarmed by the theft of intellectual property by Chinese nationals, companies, hackers and even its government. This isn’t just technology with commercial applications stolen from vulnerable corporate or government computers. It also includes information from Chinese scientists and students working, studying, researching and collaborating at various universities outside China. Canadian universities have collaborated with Chinese schools and companies, such as the telecom giant Huawei, which has been deemed a threat to Western security by the U.S. and other governments.

There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students at Western universities, most of whom are there to access high-quality education, to learn to approach ideas from different ways and to experience a different culture. All of them must report to Chinese government officials all of their gained knowledge on demand.

The Chinese regime values Western science. It sends thousands of its scientists, graduate students and doctoral candidates to learn as much as they can. Some of them are linked to the military. Quite a few Western scientists and students have also studied or researched in Chinese universities.

China has accumulated much technical knowledge and research skills in this way. Given the size of its complement of scientists, technicians and engineers, and the resources and diversity of its economy, it might now have the critical mass to discover and develop much more, and faster, than its Western rivals.

However, it’s unlikely they will share their most ground-breaking developments with the rest of the world, so they won’t benefit as much as in the past from free exchange and critical analysis from their international peers.

Given the Chinese regime’s focus on loyalty, conformity, and limiting foreign influences, they could yet experience a ‘non-creativity principle’ for themselves. As history points out, not much progress derives from believing one has all the answers.

So the threat from advanced Chinese weaponry, science and technology may recede in the near future – but not soon enough. The fanatical Nazi regime exacted a tremendous toll on the Allied and occupied nations. China could do the same before it comes to its senses – or is brought to them.

Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Ian is a Troy Media Thought Leader. For interview requests, click here.

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy is an independent Canadian public policy think tank. It does not accept any government funding whatsoever. It relies on diversified funding to maintain its independence. 

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