Written by Cong CAO.

For one week every October a serious bout of anxiety grips China. But it is not purely down to nervousness over which prominent dissident is in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989 and Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

Rather it reflects the Chinese government’s unsated craving for a homegrown scientist to win a Nobel science prize, which it feels would represent cast-iron proof of technological power to match its economic might and a reassertion of its capacity for innovation first demonstrated by the “Four Great Inventions” of ancient China, i.e. the compass, printing, gunpowder and paper-making.

This year, again, the trophy cabinet remains empty and China has resorted to glory by association. One of the Nobel Prize winners for medicine, announced last week, is Thomas Südhof, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University School of Medicine and husband to Chen Lu, a high-profile Chinese neuroscientist. The University of Science and Technology of China, Chen’s alma mater, enthusiastically cheered a Chinese son-in-law and, in this way, China is at least related to the honor.

It is a familiar tactic. In 2008 the excitable Chinese media celebrated the chemistry prize of Roger Y. Tsien, an American citizen born in the United States but also a nephew of Qian Xuesen, known as the ‘father’ of China’s space program.

Ethnic Chinese do feature among China’s Nobel laureates for science. But the glaring fact is that not one is a product of the education system of Communist Party-led China.

Winners of the physics prize in 1957, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee held passports issued by the Nationalist Kuomintang government, which was overthrown by the Communist Party in 1949. They both attended Southwest Associated University, an institution formed during the Second World War by an amalgamation of Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai Universities in Kunming, Yunnan province, before moving to the U.S.

Samuel Chao Chung Ting (physics, 1976), Yuan Tseh Lee (chemistry, 1986), Daniel C. Tsui (physics, 1998) and Charles K. Kao (physics, 2009) all moved to either the U.S. or the U.K. after completing their undergraduate education in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Steven Chu (physics, 1997), like Roger Tsien, is a product of the American education system. Crucially, all established themselves in the U.S. or the U.K, where they found greater freedom to choose research projects, a rich academic atmosphere and sophisticated lab facilities.

In recent years, Chen Ning Yang, the Nobel laureate of 1957, has repeatedly lamented the possibility that mainland China will have to wait 20 years for a Nobel Prize in science. In the week leading up to this year’s prize announcements, Huang Wei, president of Nanjing University of Technology, confidently predicted that winning Nobel Prizes in sciences will be standard practice for Chinese in ten years.

Both crystal balls are shrouded in optimism. At this rate even 20 years is unlikely. None of China’s recent scientific achievements have come close to prize-winning status and there is nothing on the horizon any time soon.

Fifteen years ago some of China’s leading scientists told me that ethnic Chinese scientists born on the Chinese mainland, who left for the West soon after Deng Xiaoping ushered in the open-door policy, would soon be winning Nobel Prizes in science. If this did happen, they said, it would represent a humiliation; evidence of the benefits of abandoning China to advance a career overseas and fulfill one’s true potential.

Yet this vision has yet to come to fruition. A fortnight ago, Professor Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, offered up some bold reasoning. He argued that no matter where you study – Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge – you have no chance of winning a Nobel Prize for science if you spend your first 12 years in a Chinese school: your individuality, curiosity, imagination and creativity are simply destroyed by the Chinese education system.

It is a system that binds students to their mentors. A mentor is an authority figure as formidable as a strict father, and to challenge him is unacceptable. This loyalty discourages criticism of seniors and has proved to be a major handicap.

Furthermore mainland Chinese scientists have not had time to establish a tradition of research excellence and generate Nobel Prize-winning momentum. Many Nobel laureates teach and nurture students who go on to become laureates themselves. Südhof, the Chinese son-in-law, used to study with two Nobel laureates in physiology/medicine.

The past generation of Chinese scientists, including some who studied with Nobelists abroad, may well have nurtured a new crop of scientists had they not been burdened by domestic political traumas stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s. Only in the last 35 years have Chinese scientists been able to focus their whole attention on research. It will take time for their efforts to produce world-class scientific achievements.

Another obstacle is the paucity of excellent Chinese scientists; they are so few in number that they are likely to be transferred from research to administrative posts. Confucian doctrine teaches that “a good scholar will make an official” and some of the best scientists, knowing that they can in this way secure scarce resources, are more than willing to leave their labs. The downside comes when they become buried in administrative tasks.

The lack of dynamism in China’s research environment discourages Chinese scientists who have been successful abroad from returning home. Chen Ning Yang has said that he probably would not have won the Nobel Prize if he had returned to China in the early 1950s.

More than just a face-saving exercise, to produce a homegrown Nobel Prize for science has become entwined in China’s resurgent nationalism. Having hosted a glittering Olympic Games and taken its astronauts into space, China sees a triumph on the global scientific stage a way to convince the world that it has moved from the periphery to the center.

But winning a Nobel Prize is completely different from winning a gold medal at the Olympics.  Until the creation of an environment conducive to first-rate research and nurturing talent, which cannot be achieved through top-down planning, mobilization and concentration of resources (the hallmarks of China’s state-sponsored sports program), this Nobel pursuit will continue to vex the Chinese for many years to come.

Cong Cao is Associate Professor and Reader at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. A version of this post appeared in SCMP on 18 Oct.

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