Chinese Governance, Liberal Research and Education – SWR المعرفة Knowledge

China’s state and party leadership spend huge amounts of money on research and science. But when it comes to basic research, China is still a developing country in many areas. Research cooperation with China is becoming increasingly difficult.

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It is not easy to become a world-class scientific nation – only a true innovative force can advance China in research. With these words, state and party leader Xi Jinping made it clear during a visit to the Space Research Center in September 2020: The People’s Republic has greatly increased innovation and research, but it has not yet reached its goal.

China’s state and party leaders have regularly increased spending on research and development in recent years. Investments in science are also set to increase further in the coming years: the Communist Party has set an annual increase of over seven percent.

development and progress

The People’s Republic of China is also increasing in the number of patents and scientific publications. The country is especially successful in the field of digital communication technology: in this area, China even surpassed the USA in 2021.

Lars Jaeger, a physicist, non-fiction author and science blogger, has described China’s scientific ambitions with admiration. Right now, the People’s Republic is world-class, particularly when it comes to developing new technologies: “I’m not sure if that also applies to the scientific basis—that is, where the scientific foundations are laid,” Geiger says in an interview with SWR2.

Physicist and business blogger Lars Geiger was impressed by the number of scientific publications in China.


Many other observers share the same view of Lars Jaeger: China is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to the application of research, that is, the development of technological products. This applies, for example, to the fields of genetic engineering, quantum computing and digital technology.

Can a totalitarian society ever become a leading scientific nation?

But when it comes to basic scientific research, China still lags far behind the United States, Europe, Japan, and other Western democracies. The causes range from problems in China’s education system – which remains characterized by compliance and rote learning – to rampant government control and the ever-evolving role of the Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party now subordinates all spheres of society to its creed – this also applies to research, education and science.

A medical worker receives a call in the emergency room of Minhang Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai, eastern China.  (Photo: IMAGO, IMAGO / Xinhua)

According to Lars Jaeger, China is very advanced technologically, but not in the area of ​​basic research.


IMAGO / Xinhua

“Highly creative minds, which is essentially a prerequisite for science, actually want to live in an open society; that is, in a society in which they can express themselves freely how and where they want.”

Jaeger raises the question whether an authoritarian society like China could become a leading scientific nation. After all, creativity and innovation need freedom, not the prohibition of thinking.

Business ethicist Alicia Hennig has been a professor at various universities in China for five years, including as an assistant professor at Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) in Shenzhen and as an associate professor of business ethics at Southeast University (SEU) in Nanjing. Everywhere I felt the pressure of the Communist Party on Chinese universities was increasing. All universities in China are now the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. For free education and research you don’t see more freedom, says Hennig at SWR.

China government in university

Recently, Alicia Hennig worked in China as a lecturer at Shanghai Jiaotong University. The university is one of the most respected universities in the People’s Republic of China. There, Hennig tangibly felt how attempts were made to influence her education. She received emails from the university administration with a note: “We must make sure that the term ‘human rights’ does not appear in the shows.”

Interior view of Peking University Library in Beijing, the capital of China.  (Photo: IMAGO, IMAGO / Xinhua)

German business ethicist Alicia Hennig worked as a lecturer at a Chinese university.


IMAGO / Xinhua

Surveillance cameras and microphones have been hung in lecture halls and seminar rooms across China in recent years. This affected her work as a lecturer — and led to more self-censorship, Alicia Henning says. Not only the cameras, but also the increasingly hard-line political mood among students – the result of China’s increasingly nationalist school education – caused a kind of scissors in her head:

“We also made comparisons between countries (in the class). Then the question arises: can I say, for example, that Japan and the United States are better than China in this and that area? Or will this be considered an insult to China. ”

A reversal of the trend towards more free teaching and open thinking cannot be expected in China’s research and science scene, on the contrary; Even if state and party leaders continue to claim that they want more openness to the country.

Are the doors really open?

In a lecture to journalists in March 2022, Chinese Science Minister Wang Zhigang asserted that the People’s Republic of China “will open its doors more than before” – particularly in the field of science.

Interview with Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wang Zhigang via video link after the second plenary session of the fourth session of the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing.  (Photo: IMAGO, IMAGO / Xinhua)

It is alleged that Chinese Minister of Science Wang Zhigang wants to open China to international researchers.


IMAGO / Xinhua

But this has nothing to do with reality. For more than two years, China’s state and party leadership has kept the borders of the People’s Republic of China almost completely closed – in reference to the fight against the Covid19 pandemic. As a result, there are now almost no more foreign students in the country. It is also no longer de facto possible for foreign scientific delegations to travel to China. The borders are not expected to reopen any time soon.

Non-fiction author and science blogger Lars Jaeger predicts that China will isolate itself more and more: the political and social path of government in Beijing has become more orthodox, and this may mean that China no longer wants to do much with the West. But in the long run, the People’s Republic will do more damage than the West, Geiger asserts.

Business ethicist Alicia Hennig returned to Europe in early 2020 after the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in China. After that, she continued to supervise her Chinese students online. Today, Hennig teaches at the International University Institute (IHI) Zittau, which is part of TU Dresden. It explicitly advocates more engagement with China, but sees researchers from democratically governed countries in a dilemma:

Picture of Alicia Hennig (Image: Private)

Alicia Hennig was a lecturer at a Chinese university.


“The basic problem is simply that when you enter into a research collaboration with Chinese researchers, you have to unfortunately bear in mind that you are also in the service of the Party.”

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