Science, Modernity, and Political Behavior in Contemporary China (1949-1978)
Universität Erlangen-Nuremberg, also supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation

In the 20th century, China transformed itself from an agrarian state into a state dominated by the worship of science and technology, relentless in its drive to establish a scientific society. In a 2007 work, James Wilsdon and James Keeley maintained that China is on the road to becoming the next scientific powerhouse — being more innovative and progressive than the current leaders in Europe and the United States (Wilsdon and Keeley, China the Next Science Superpower). This fundamental change can be explained by the ever-rising investments in research and development, by state support for big engineering projects, and of course by the efforts of the current ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to gain or maintain legitimacy by proving itself a successful modernizer. In this context, the dissemination of scientific thinking has been highly influential on the modernization process in China.  Yet existing research has so far failed to analyze its significance in terms of political behavior. Still unclear is the source of the the omnipresent blind faith in science and the obvious optimism about the inevitability of a better future.

While it would be easy to dismiss the instilling of scientific thinking as an ideological undertaking, such does not actually explain how the belief in the omnipotence of science gained firm ground among the population. For example, when the Fukushima catastrophe hit Japan, the Chinese government did not stop the building of new nuclear power plants (with 25 currently under construction). Nor was there a significant amount of public protest. Likewise, despite the rise in environmental awareness (organic food is more and more popular, due in part to incessant food scandals), there is still no thorough, critical assessment of genetically modified crops and plants. On the contrary, those crops and plants are – since the development of hybrid rice in the 1970s – seen as a viable (or scientific) way of providing sufficient food resources for the population.

The purpose of this project is twofold. First, we seek to locate the origin of, and motivations for, the belief in the omnipotence of science. This will be done by analyzing the genesis of scientific thinking in 20th century, ranging from intellectual discourse to the convictions among ordinary people.  An important aspect is the effort of the Chinese government in the latter half of 20th century to disseminate scientific thinking and behavior among the population. In the Maoist period (1949-1978), this was conceived as a way to modernize the country by raising productivity and improving living conditions. While the related campaign on kepu (科普), or the popularization of science, has been in place since the 1950s, there has so far been no in-depth research on this issue. Second, our intention is to determine the consequences of the propagation of science with regard to society, politics, and the academic community. These issues are wide ranging and include the legitimization of CCP rule,  the emphasis on science and especially natural sciences in the education system, trends in the development of new technologies, and intellectual honesty (plagiarism, patent infringement).  All of these issues are of global concern considering the growing interdependence between China, its neighboring countries, and Europe — both in terms of economic and scientific cooperation. With its focus on the two crucial aspects noted above, our project intends to make a valuable contribution to research on the way scientific discourse has influenced social and political transformation in the PRC. We will further be able to shed light on how science is not only propagated successfully, but also what consequences result if science is used as a rationale for political behavior.

Dr. Marc Andre Matten

Assistant Professor for Contemporary Chinese History at the University of Erlangen-

Nuremberg, E-Mail:



Dr. Marc A. Matten

Professor for Contemporary Chinese History

Friedrich-Alexander Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg

Artilleriestrase 70

91052 Erlangen, Germany