Viewpoint: Chinese scientists caught in a cycle of mistrust with the world

08 Apr 2021 | Viewpoint

China-bashing has made the country’s scientists more defensive – it’s time for researchers in the west to champion engagement, says University of Kent sociologist, Joy Zhang

University of Kent associate professor of sociology Joy Zhang

Chinese scientists feel sandwiched” between their governments nationalist propaganda and an outside world that treats them with intensifying suspicion and mistrust, University of Kent associate professor of sociology Joy Zhang tells Science|Business.

The relationship between Beijing and the west has become more brittle in the past two years, with differences over the pandemic, trade and the governments crackdowns on ethnic minorities and in Hong Kong stoking fears of a more combative China.

When China is mentioned in western capitals these days, its usually negatively, while in the UK, politicians are competing to see who can talk tougher toward the country and bring attention to what they see as the sinister nature of Chinas Communist Party.

For their part, Chinese scientists watch with growing resentment as their country has become a frequent target of suspicion and blame – whether the charge is economic espionage in the US, or responsibility for the COVID-19 virus.

This new hostility is taking its toll on Chinese scientists, said Zhang, who warns that research collaboration risks descending into the freezer.

Zhang is a Chinese-born UK citizen with a first degree in medicine. She has written previously about the ethics and regulation of stem cell research in China, and is working on a book on the global political implications of the rise of life sciences in China and India life sciences.

You have scientists in China who are sandwiched by national policy that they dont necessarily agree with, and a China-bashing world that doesnt trust them. Theyre left with no good options,” said Zhang.  

And the pandemic has aggravated everything”, she says. “All kinds of mistrust burst out after COVID. Im seeing a regression in relationships because Chinese researchers dont have the same in-person contact as before, which adds to their own frustration about being misunderstood by the world.”

As a result, “Theyre digging in and becoming more defensive in the face of all this criticism. It pains me to see it,” Zhang said. As one example of the growing mistrust, Chinas political censorship of its life sciences sector has increased since the pandemic outbreak.

Zhang can see it from both sides, and says that, The Chinese government is not doing itself any favours either.”

Beijing recently imposed revenge sanctions on a British academic and several politicians for spreading what China called "lies and disinformation". The sanctions include a ban on entering China, Hong Kong and Macau and the prohibition of doing business with Chinese citizens and institutions.

It followed days after UK, the US, Canada and the EU placed sanctions on Chinese officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in the country's Xinjiang province.

Newcastle Universitys Jo Smith Finley, a reader in Chinese studies, was one of nine UK citizens targeted. Zhang called the move very unwise and counter-productive.”

Getting to know the other side

Zhang says the way to steady the worsening relationship lies, in part, with more empathy and solidarity between scientists. There should be a systematic effort” to learn more about the other side, she said. Western science has a steep learning curve here, but I really think researcher-to-researcher exchange would get better results than governmental exchange.”

Theres a culture of public engagement in science in the US and Europe, which is often required by grant bodies. I think it would be useful to direct some of this effort to constructively engaging with China,” Zhang said.

The EU and China are searching for ways to look past their differences and do more research together, but establishing new rules for cooperation with Beijing is not an easy exercise”, the EUs director for international cooperation in research and innovation Maria-Cristina Russo recently said.

Brussels would ideally like to cajole China towards recognising and adopting European norms for research and technology development, including greater respect for academic freedom, and greater ethical development for new technologies such as artificial intelligence. One idea being floated by Commission officials is to stage a high profile global conference on research values.

However, any approach that aims to teach Chinese scientists about western research ethics is doomed to fail, Zhang said. “There is a colonial victimisation haunting Chinese authorities, so the default reaction is, ‘were going to get lectured here’. So how about, instead, we engage as one-to-one partners, recognising the Chinese are not lab assistants anymore; they are our partners.”

One thing western scientists need to reconcile is the inherent caution of scientists living under an authoritarian regime, who will think twice about committing their true thoughts to an email, Zhang said.

She talks also about the fear among some Chinese scientists that theyll be taken advantage of in projects with their western counterparts. Some actually support political censorship because they fear losing their data,” Zhang said.

Chinese scientists also worry about unfair treatment from top science publications. “Theres a lot of fear here for Chinese fraud. In truth, we do see a lot of fraud in China, but the university regime is so lop-sided. The well-funded and elite universities are very different from the local institutes. This is Chinese science 101, which a lot of people dont get. And without this knowledge, theres blanket discrimination of the country,” Zhang said.

More openness

Of course, it would be better if Chinese science opened up more to the world, Zhang said.

I think if I just arrived to earth from Mars, I would say European and western academia more broadly is much more open than China. I struggle to find email addresses of people in China for example, but there are also reasons for this difference,” said Zhang.

Scientists in the western world are more comfortable sharing their data, she said. Theres a norm, theres a skill to it. Theres also a consequence here – if you dont share, youre excluding yourself from the community.”

The west complains about how difficult it is to get data from Chinese scientists. Well, Chinese scientists complain about the same thing – they dont know whats happening in the next city over. The lesson is that theyre not open to each other,” Zhang said.

The presence of more foreign scientists in China would improve this culture. “There is already a norm among western funders to regularly fund researchers of foreign nationalities, however until recently, Chinese funding agencies have had very limited interest or capacity to fund overseas researchers. In fact, even when foreign academics are recruited to work in Chinese universities, they are often organised under a separate faculty. Much institutional change is needed for China to fully embrace foreign scientists.”

Will Biden change things?

How the Biden administration moves forward on China this year is likely to set expectations for the global relationship with Beijing.

China was the go-to bogeyman for former US president Donald Trump, and during his administration science agencies and universities began a vast effort to root out scientists who were said to be stealing biomedical research for other countries. Chinese scientists felt unfairly targeted for scrutiny.

Zhang isnt as convinced as some that American attitudes towards China will cool under President Biden. “I’m not sure the new administration changes much. Part of the damage has already been done. A lot of people in China feel that Biden doesnt understand them either,” said Zhang.

Experts fear that the two world powers are heading into a new cold war, but Zhang says there are a few reasons to believe it wont descend to that level. “During the cold war, there was no such thing as the internet and there was very little overseas research. Now you can communicate broadly, without needing to go through official newspapers or channels. We have a far greater opportunity this time to get to know each other.”

“Twenty years ago, choosing not to engage with China was no big deal. Now it would be very unwise, if not risky, to not engage with China,” she said.

Zhang says western media over-generalises” life in China. Its too easy to mistake Chinese society with the government,” she said. When you read media reports here on China, they dont always say Chinese government’ – they say China, or Chinese science. Theres the assumption that theyre the same thing, when in fact the rising middle class are much more critical of power than most people imagine.

“You have an increasing number of Chinese who are trained in western schools; they feel they know everything about the west, whereas the west still knows comparatively little about the east.

“Again, it all comes back to the personal touch. If scientists in the west make a bigger effort to talk with Chinese scientists, theyll discover they are open, and often much more open than Id dare to be while living in the country.”

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