Notes from the Harmonious Society: Dissident Science in China, Part I

Austin Dacey

As its gangplank rose dramatically, the tanker’s public address system blared symphonic pomp. The music, rousing to the point of desperation, sounded at turns like a knockoff of the theme from Star Wars, then Superman, as if John Williams had been forced at gunpoint to produce an anthem in a single sitting. From beneath this rose the sound of vigorous clattering from a core of traditional Chinese drummers assembled on the dock. Clouds of confetti descended onto the expectant crowd, a few hundred journalists, local government officials, ordinary onlookers, and one curious American philosopher. As the massive ship pulled away from the Shanghai port, a fleet of sleek hostesses in red silk gowns and a pack of schoolchildren in imperial yellow tracksuits waved goodbye to the crew.

Those on board were not celebrities on a luxury cruise or military officers deploying for a foreign campaign. They were scientists. Their vessel was the Xue Long, Snow Dragon, and it was bound for the South Pole on the twenty-fifth Chinese National Antarctic Research Expedition.

When the Xue Long set off in October 2008, I was in Shanghai visiting with leaders of the municipal branch of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology. After several weeks of working in cramped offices in gloomy Beijing, I enjoyed the time in Shanghai, where I found the air somewhat freer and the espresso easier to come by. I was there on behalf of the Center for Inquiry, seeking to interest a division of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology (CAST) in conducting the Worldviews of Scientists study.

Pioneered by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the Worldviews series is an international sociological survey of the religious, ethical, and social opinions of working scientists. Above all, I was curious about the extent to which the scientific community in China exemplified the critical rationalist spirit in their public lives. One might expect scientists to be occupationally committed to anti-authoritarianism and freedom of inquiry, intellectual honesty and pluralism. It was probably no accident that an astrophysicist, Fang Lizhi, had such an important part in inspiring the student unrest that led to Tiananmen Square. Scientists are a disharmonious bunch. How willing could they be to sing in tune to the Party’s official march?

Big Science

At the most recent national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2007, President Hu Jintao trumpeted “scientific development” and the Harmonious Society, directing the government to

thoroughly apply the Scientific Outlook on Development, continue to emancipate the mind, persist in reform and opening up, pursue development in a scientific way, promote social harmony, and strive for new victories in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. . . . Emancipating the mind is a magic instrument for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics, reform and opening up provide a strong driving force for developing it, and scientific development and social harmony are basic requirements for developing it.1

Soon after I arrived in Beijing, my colleagues made it clear to me that for official purposes, building the Harmonious Society would mean tapping into scientific methods, but it also would mean placing limits on the scope of scientific values. With the utmost congeniality and reasonableness, they explained that survey questions about religion would be deemed too divisive and sensitive, and questions about politics could be considered seditious. Further, the term “skepticism” was to be avoided because what remained of the Party’s ideologues might consider it a threat to Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

This should not have been surprising. After all, CAST is a part of the bureaucracy, not an independent, non-governmental professional association (genuinely independent civil society organizations are still almost unheard of in China). On Wednesday afternoons the entire office—spare two junior female researchers—emptied out to attend the meetings of the Party. For those who seek professional positions of privilege, it is of course the only thing going.

On December 10, 2008—the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—over three hundred Chinese dissidents released Charter 08, an open letter calling for human rights, civil liberties, private property, and a democratic, federated republic. The letter was organized by Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic, and the list of signatories included more lawyers and entrepreneurs than professional scientists. One prominent scientist signatory was Jian Qisheng, who was arrested following his involvement in Tiananmen and subsequently spent four years in prison after commemorating the massacre in 1999. Jian studied philosophy and worked as a physicist. But, perhaps significantly, he is now identified as a former physicist.2

Scientist-Reformers of the 1980s

There was a moment in recent Chinese politics when elite scientists were in the vanguard of dissent. Ironically, this was not the result of the CCP’s antipathy towards science but rather its embrace of science in the post-Mao era. Central to Deng Xiaoping’s reform efforts, begun in 1978, was a new policy on science and technology. Mao was faulted for his utopianism, for becoming unhinged from empirical reality. While carrying on the traditional Marxist rhetoric of the “science” of dialectical materialism, Mao had little but suspicion and hostility for the scientific establishment. The Cultural Revolution made scientists targets in the class struggle, branding the Chinese Academy of Sciences a “bourgeois headquarters.”

Once in power, Deng rallied for a return to scientific rationality. He recruited scientists and technologists as essential partners in effective policymaking and governance in a modern China. By the early 80s, leading specialists were being incorporated into the bureaucracy as the staff and directors of permanent consultative bodies. But in some cases, this close association ended up blowing back on the government. The period is described by Alice L. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, in her excellent study Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge:

Especially among those in the “basic” sciences—those pursuing scientific knowledge for its own sake—a conflict of professional mission and identity with the regime’s utilitarian goals for science emerged. Among some, the reforms were seen not as alleviating problems in the scientific community but as making things worse. By the late 1980s many scientists were deeply frustrated with the reforms, anxious over their jobs and futures, and alarmed at their declining standing in a rapidly changing society. A few, at least, felt a deepening alienation from a regime that they had previously supported, spurring them onto the path of political dissent.3

Miller argues that the public political dissent of leading figures in the scientific community—Fang Lizhi and others, such as Xu Liangying, Jin Guantao, and Li Xingmin—was inspired by the powerful anti-authoritarian norms and Enlightenment values of science itself:

For scientists such as Fang and Xu, the anti-authoritarian norms of science translated easily into a classically liberal politics. The message these scientists carried into the larger political arena defended above all the sanctity and worth of individual autonomy and conscience above the claims of state and society. . . . the emergence of a renewed liberal voice in China’s political arena in the 1980s was in significant part a natural extension of what some scientists believed to be the norms of healthy science into politics.4

What became of this scientific dissent in the intervening years? Was it suppressed by the force of the post-Tienanmen crackdown, or were there other dynamics at work?

A Musical Interlude

One afternoon my colleagues held a lunchtime party in honor of my visit. We all drove over to a local karaoke lounge for a buffet-style meal followed by what turned out to be several convivial hours of drink, chat, and of course, singing. Everyone took turns at his or her favorites, often with wild abandon.

Someone had brought along an acoustic guitar, so when my turn came around (after first agreeing to sing karaoke on John Denver’s “Country Roads,” which somehow everyone knew by heart), I taught the group the chorus to “Free Falling,” the wonderful rock ’n’ roll anthem by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. As we belted out “Now I’m free . . . free falling!” it felt like the right song for the hour, putting us in the shoes of a skydiver who thrills to the rush of the leap even though he cannot control the direction in which he spirals. It was now late afternoon, the workday was ending, and we could linger no longer. We left the lounge and headed back into the drone of Beijing.


  1. President Hu’s speech, presumably translated by the Chinese Embassy, can be found at
  2. See
  3. H. Lyman Miller, Science and dissent in post-Mao China: The politics of knowledge (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1996), 69.
  4. —. Science and dissent in post-Mao China: The politics of knowledge (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1996), 4.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.