"China on the Rise" in the Global System of Science with Anna L. Ahlers
China is well on its way to becoming a global leader in science. The country has become the world's largest producer of scientific articles, pours a staggering amount of money into funding research, and is home to scientists whose groundbreaking and sometimes controversial findings increasingly make international news.
If science needs freedom to thrive, how is this rise possible where a political system limits rights and controls information on a wide scale? How does science interact with societal values and ethical principles? And what does China's rise in science mean globally? Political sociologist and sinologist Anna L. Ahlers answers some burning questions on China's stunning ascent in this inaugural episode of the "Science Social" podcast series.
Anna Lisa Ahlers: In modern Chinese society you deal with two separate spheres. You have the scientific community and the system of science in China, and you have the political system. So you have this parallel structure of scientific research going on and this heavily controlled public information.
Stephanie Hood: Science Social, a podcast series about how science, history, and society connect with and add to the big questions that we all have today. This show is created by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. My name is Stephanie Hood and in each episode I'm joined by guests from our institute to talk about their research, their big questions, and some of the weird and wonderful experiences they've had along the way.
Stephanie Hood: I'm here today with Dr. Anna Ahlers, researcher in political sociology. She started here earlier this year to start at Lisa Meitner research group in China in the global system of science. We're going to talk a little bit about the various facets of China's ascent in the global system of science as well as Anna's research and path into studying this really interesting topic and at the institute for the history of science.
So welcome Anna. Many of us are very excited for your new research group, not least because it's so topical. So, I thought maybe let's begin by talking a bit about something we're all familiar with, COVID-19. China was the first epicenter of COVID-19. Could you tell me a bit about how the flow of scientific information and communication on the coronavirus evolved in China since the beginning of the outbreak?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: Yeah, hello Stephanie. COVID-19 is indeed a very interesting topic to start with because it covers so many of the questions that we are interested in in our research group. The interaction of the political system in China and the scientific system in China and as you said how scientific knowledge evolved is like it's a crime story to follow, I think and we are only slowly beginning to read better reconstructions of what actually happened at the beginning of the pandemic in China.
So the story here is always that the central government controlled a lot of the data and the scientific research and that's definitely true. But what actually happened at the beginning is that people very, very soon realized that something new was going on and that there was a very aggressive virus developing in China. And so it was not only doctors, but also private labs that began to sequence the new virus. So that actually went very fast. It was done within a few days in these labs.
But then it took a long time before this information was shared more widely by the health authorities in China and with the whole world. And I think that's where a lot of this media reporting about China not cooperating with the WHO and the rest of the world starts. But actually I think this whole story is very complex and very, very exciting to follow. And there's a lot of differences between, as I said, private labs and I would call them the regular scientists, the virologists and pneumologists and the government affiliated scientists in health authorities or the Center for Disease Control.
Stephanie Hood: On that note, how did the Chinese science community react when you sort of say that there's this difference between different groups?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: Mmh. I mean my information so far only also stems from media reporting in China and in the west, there was this associated press report coming out a few days ago which was very detailed and very exciting to read. What we see in all this reporting is that what I just called the regular scientists or the private labs, based on their excellent qualifications and infrastructure, they were able to identify or to sequence the new virus, the genomic information about this new virus in record time. But then, because once it became obvious that this was a really aggressive and potentially pandemic problem they were dealing with, I think it was the authorities who decided that they now had to decide on what was to be shared and what was to be done about it. So you have this parallel structure of scientific research going on and this heavily controlled public information.
Stephanie Hood: So actually, reflecting on the current situation, from what you just described about scientific and academic practice in China and how that's sort of connected to its politics, I mean, can you give us a bit of an overview of how science has been viewed and developed throughout Chinese history? I mean, what's the background to this?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: I think one of the huge narratives we have about science in modern China is that the Communist Party of China is actually built upon this technocratic principle where science and knowledge and scientific developments were always part of legitimacy building for the Chinese political leadership.
Where I see a difference to the history of science and technology in China is that we still, we are dealing with two separate spheres. So we have the system of science and we have the political system, whereas I would roughly say in history both were much more overlapping.
And while the political leadership is very much depending on the best knowledge, the most accurate data, the best technical solutions to problems they are facing, they at the same time put a lot of constraint on the scientific community. And that might be different for different fields, whereas some fields are allowed to experiment more and innovate more autonomously, you could say. Other fields, for instance, sociology or political science, as much as much of the social science and the humanities in China, are much more controlled. Because they... They are often as we know responsible for putting out narratives or historical accounts of how things develop and that's something that of course the political leadership in China wants to control more, whereas they want to be world leading in new technologies, life sciences and all these areas.
Stephanie Hood: That must create some challenges for you working in China and looking at China specifically.
Anna Lisa Ahlers: Would you say the challenges of getting access or the challenges of just the problematic situation that scientists sometimes find themselves in in China.
Stephanie Hood: I think a combination of probably both. I assume they're not completely disconnected from each other.
Anna Lisa Ahlers: In terms of access, I think I'm still pretty optimistic. I mean, we experience a decrease in possibilities to do fieldwork in China over the last few years. Not only because of COVID-19 now, that of course is an additional challenge because it restricts travel basically, but also getting access to informants in China has become much more difficult over the last few years.
My experience is that it depends on what you're actually interested in. I mean, I don't travel there to reveal how problematic things are, I travel there to study and to learn how things work in the first place.
And I think if that is what you communicate to your counterparts, your informants, your interlocutors or anybody else, then access is usually much more possible than... than if you present it very differently.
Stephanie Hood: Yeah, that makes sense. Actually, I have a question that's not on here, but I'm curious now and I'm feeling nosy now. I'm getting kind of into it. How does it work in terms of you organizing your research? Like, how do you decide who you want to speak to and reach out to them and arrange to go and see them? I mean, presumably you have a restricted amount of time that you can spend on your field work and you need to kind of make a decision about who you talk to and what in what way.
Anna Lisa Ahlers: My answer is probably troubling to a few social scientists, colleagues, because you can never expect to get a beautiful sample of, for instance, informants when you go to China, because there are just so many restrictions. I mean, there are a lot of possibilities, but there are also many, many restrictions.
So, I cannot upfront say, okay, I want to talk to a group of people and they should be equally like, you know, they should be representative of this and this group and this category. You can try, but I think you have to always scale down your ambitions a little bit when you enter the field.
And then it all, or not all, but much of it works through personal contexts. People you know from before, people who are Chinese colleagues that you work with, you know? I think, the latter is the most promising version.
And then of course as a researcher, you still have to make sure that you get as much of an objective picture as you can get knowing that these informants or these group of people, the place you're going to is of course heavily pre-selected by the fact that it goes through your your Chinese colleagues for instance. So it's very hard to get a super nicely, beautifully representative sample of locations or informants in China. That's often a problem for social science research but since I'm doing qualitative research anyway, that's what we have to live with. I think there are ways and means to balance these constraints and limitations in research, but you have to always be aware of it and you have to be transparent about it. I think that's important.
But my experience in recent years was that it still works pretty well through personal contacts, but there are pretty strong limits at the moment. That's why I also think that the new research group is better equipped to deal with these challenges because we just work with a whole variety of sources and data and methods. We have already been discussing that. Textual analysis and other forms of methods will become much more important for me now than they have been in the past, also because of these growing restrictions.
Stephanie Hood: So, why are these restrictions increasing?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: The restrictions are increasing because there's a lot more pressure on people, if I can put it generally. Especially in my case, it was always local officials that I talked to.
And in, for instance, the early 2000s, say between the late 1990s and 2010, I was lucky because I was doing fieldwork in a period, I would call it the golden period, because there was much more openness towards foreign visitors or visitors at all, experts, researchers going into the field, talking to, as I said in this case, local officials about how they implement policies and what they're doing and how the local state in China functions.
And now, and I would say it has to do with the start of the Xi Jinping administration in 2012–2013. The administration has a much stronger will to control both the narratives as well as the employed solutions to certain problems in Chinese politics. So they reduced the autonomy for local officials to decide upon ways of dealing with problems and also now, I would say, it also hits Chinese researchers who want to understand the policy process in China and want to get to information about finances, discussions going on behind closed doors and local governments on how to implement certain things.
But in general, doing large-scale interviews with local officials is... I wouldn't say impossible, but it's really, really hard at the moment. So, there's this narrative that you should not share too much internal information, whereas internal can mean many things. It leads to people being afraid of talking to anyone because it could get you into trouble.
So it's not even that the information is ever so sensitive, but it's just that people are so afraid to do anything that would get them in trouble and ruin their career. And that's why they're just cautious.
Stephanie Hood: Do you think that the COVID-19 outbreak will make that worse?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: From what we hear when people try to understand, what I initially said, the development of things in China in December and January, it was pretty striking that this was the case. There were gag orders and even I think authorities in some cases even closed down certain labs and completely forbid people to talk to someone else, the press, but anyone about what was going on.
So it's just one representation of this increasing closure, I think. It's extreme. I think in terms of COVID-19, we see this in an extreme crisis mode. I think it’s maybe a bit less centrally controlled in normal times or for other times and for other topics.
Stephanie Hood: We've talked a bit now about the environment in which science in China operates. Your research is focused on environmental air pollution, right? Could you maybe tell us a bit more about how environmental factors for science, as you write, could impact this kind of research?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: The group, as you mentioned, will deal with China in the global system of science and everything that comes with it. So also these macro questions about scientific conduct in China as being constrained or sometimes enabled by the political regime. And what I became interested in when I did work on the air pollution challenge in China was this paradox between the political authorities, or, you could say, the political system as a whole, being in need of really good accurate data, suggestions for solutions in order to fight this massive massive pollution problem, while at the same time they pre-selected the things they wanted to work with in the end. I know, I mean, that's a phenomenon we see also around the world now in times of COVID-19, the role of experts vis-a-vis the role of politicians. Politicians have to make the decision. Scientists usually only deliver data. Whereas I would say there's still a difference, because you don't usually have this extra loop that we see also unfolding now under COVID-19 conditions here where the public is involved in also trying to understand scientific facts and data and identifying ways of desired solutions.
In China, it's basically a relation between the scientists and the political authorities. The public is usually totally left out of this picture. Of course, they also don't make a choice. They cannot select the political decision that is taken on the basis of scientific data for, for example, problems like air pollution. It's something that happens exclusively between the scientific community and the political community. And there was also a very, very striking observation in the field.
Stephanie Hood: So, this connects then to this concept of authoritarian environmentalism that kind of comes to play here on both sides or how do you see that?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: This whole notion of authoritarian environmentalism says that an authoritarian political system has or is better equipped in some way than democratic political systems when they deal with especially with environmental challenges, pollution, hazards, those sorts of things, because I think it's twofold. On the one hand, you as an authoritarian government can restrict individual freedoms, freedoms of mobility and consumption much faster and better, also because there's no discussion about it, of course. So, I think when this whole debate about authoritarian environmentalism evolved and people were starting to think, okay, when we face that much of a challenge—such as climate change—what can we do? What are the political solutions? And then the fear was that people would always decide against regulations or rules that would restrict their individual freedom in democracies. They would debate about it and then in the end they would not accept solutions that would mean a restriction of freedom.
And then the counter-narrative was that in authoritarian systems you could just do it. And the other dimension is that modern authoritarian regimes such as the one in China often claim to be technocratic, which means that they have an exclusive access to knowledge and data and to potential mostly technological solutions to problems.
And they have also a large bureaucracy of scientifically educated politicians or officials who have the means to evaluate what is the best solution for a big problem you're facing. And this is also what I think we saw unfolding when we looked at how China is dealing with, or was dealing, you could say, but still is dealing with this large smog problem across the country, especially in Chinese cities.
But our argument, especially in one article that we published about it, is the “bit.” So, you have to add a bit of nuance to this picture because it's not that black and white. It's not that in China, political leadership or political authorities can just implement what they see as the best solution without taking into account any stakeholder or any diverging opinion or alternative solutions. They have to deal with all these facts. They do it in specific ways. But in our view and our argument was that, yes, I think, you could say that China is a real-life example of authoritarian environmentalism, but you probably have to change the definition of authoritarian environmentalism a little bit to make it fit what you empirically see when you study China.
Stephanie Hood: The idea of science as a value in itself is also rising in China. Do you think this is contradictory to notions of authoritarian environmentalism? Or are these concepts somehow connected?
Anna Lisa Ahlers: Yeah, you could say why the rise then, if environmentalism is built into the authoritarian system, we see in China, but I would still say that it's not contradictory, it's just that if I write about the rise of science as a value in the political context in China, I think I have enough evidence to say that while knowledge and technology was always important, more accurate scientific data and also maybe search, more open search for solutions has become valued more in, I would say, the last 20 years in China.
What I mean also is that it’s not only political authorities that are relying more on scientists as experts and on scientific data. It's also that I would say large parts of the Chinese public see science as a new political value, whereas they probably had not that much access to scientific data before, of course, before the reform and opening politics started in the late 70s, but also even in the 80s and 90s. Now of course with social media and different means of getting access to information, people are very well educated. But also especially when it comes to environmental pollution, people understand really often very well what the issue is and what for example the health risks of air pollution are.
And they often use this knowledge and they use the knowledge about possible solutions they have read about when they face political authorities. So, what you can see in a lot of the local protests against environmental pollution or against, for instance, certain factories being built, is that people really refer to scientific data and analyses more than policies or law. That's always of course what you would cite and refer to when you protest. Now it's really sometimes really high-level accurate scientific analyses that these people cite when they protest against a chemical factory or when they write letters of complaints to local authorities and that I really find super interesting.
Stephanie Hood: I was just going to finish off actually just to tie up, what are the next steps then for your research going from there? For your research group, I know that you have new post-docs and pre-docs joining you.
Anna Lisa Ahlers: I think what's interesting but also a challenge about the group is that we have very, very diverse research topics we are dealing with. So, we have this overarching interest and framework, but in the end everyone is going to do his or her own individual project on a quite specific topic. So, we have one pre-doc, Andrea, who is working on the internationalization of Chinese universities. We have another pre-doctoral fellow, Trym, who will deal with Chinese polar scientists navigation between being on the one hand diplomats and also full-time researchers. Myself, I will... the first project I would like to do is building upon the project I have described where we looked at air pollution and how scientists and political authorities interacted. The focus was still more on the political authorities and how they actually found local solutions to the smog problem. What I want to do now is to look more closely at this general relationship of experts and scientists in politics in China, also at the very local level and not necessarily only in the environmental field but also many other fields and then also study what are the differences for different disciplines because of course if you work in a more say technology oriented field or in the natural sciences it might be easier to communicate about data and solutions with local authorities and when you are a social scientist and you present specific findings about Chinese population control or household registration, things like that. So that's what I would like to do and we'll see where we are maybe next year at this time and then hopefully I have also much more concrete stories to share with you.
Stephanie Hood: It's all really exciting. We're very, very excited to have you here. Thank you very much, Anna, for the interview. And welcome to the Institute!
Stephanie Hood: This is it for today. If you like what you just heard, we’d love your support. Click the subscribe button, recommend this to your friends and colleagues, or give us a thumbs up in your favourite podcast app. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify and anywhere else you can listen to podcasts.
Science Social is produced by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Music by Poddington Bear, and I'm the host, Stephanie Hood.
Make sure to follow us on Twitter at @MPIWG. And most of all, thanks for listening.