Since the Cultural Revolution: Science Policy Changes in China

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Since the Cultural Revolution: Science Policy Changes in China

Ted Goldfarb & Judy Weinstein

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 2, March-April 1981, p. 11-15

Authors’ Note: In the summer of 1978 we were members of the second SftP delegation invited to spend a month in China by the Scientific and Technical Association of the People’s Republic. For a year following that trip the delegation members agreed to a collective process for reporting their results. Reports, articles and a photo essay (see the box at the end of this article) were written more or less following those guidelines. In addition, delegates have presented numerous talks, slide shows, and participated in radio interviews. A plan to write a book was recently abandoned, partly in response to the group’s inability to agree on how to present their China experiences in light of the dramatic changes that have taken place there in the months immediately following their visit. We make no claim to represent the views of other delegation members, who are invited (along with other SftP readers) to submit their own thoughts by writing letters or perhaps a follow-up article. We have chosen to identify the Chinese scientists and technicians we met on our trip by giving their positions or titles rather than their names. This is done both because we are not certain of the spelling of their names and also because we are not sure that they would all wish to have their names publicly associated with our interpretation of their views.

An important failing in the way science and technology is done in capitalist countries is the result of the ideological opposition to the creation and implementation of a comprehensive State Plan designed to meet the needs of the people. The multitude of serious problems that result from this fact – duplication of efforts, wasted resources, pollution of the environment and scientific activity that is controlled by bourgeois interests for their own profit – has been a continual theme that writers and editors of SftP expose to the readers of this magazine. Our delegation studied how a socialist country creates and implements the part of the State Plan that controls the direction of scientific research and technological development. 

During our four week visit as guests of the Scientific and Technical Association of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) we focused primarily on agriculture related science and technology.1 It is our purpose in this article to present first some of our experiences and understandings related to the planning process, and our impressions of its effect on various sectors of the Chinese populace, and second our views and concerns about the ways in which changes in Chinese policy over the past two years are likely to affect future developments. 

The State Plan And The Organization Of Scientific Research 

In the PRC, the planning of scientific research is accomplished through extensive multi-year Plans, which have input from many levels of society, and are revised to adapt to changing needs. Information about the content of the plans has been available to Western observers only indirectly.2 

The current eight year plan was outlined by Fang Yi, minister in charge of the State Scientific and Technological Commission, at the National Science Conference in Peking in March 1978.3 Eight priority areas for research were identified: agriculture, energy, materials, computers, lasers, space science and technology, high energy physics and genetic engineering. At that conference, Fang Yi urged that research be encouraged in different ways at different levels: strengthening and building key research institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences; establishing research institutions appropriate to the needs and conditions of the Provinces, municipalities and Autonomous regions; forming individual or cooperative research enterprises in factories and mines; and expanding the agro-science research network at the team, brigade, commune and county levels.4

Formulation of the State Plan 

Much of what we learned about research planning came from people directly involved in the process at various levels.5 Together with discussions with workers and peasants all through our trip, we now have a somewhat coherent picture of who has input into the Plan and how this input is communicated. 

Through its connection to Chungshan University in Kwangchow, a commune can serve as a source of research ideas. A large research group has been working at the University on integrated pest control since 1973. This project started because the commune leaders visited the University seeking help in controlling the Pine Leaf caterpillar. As a result of five years of research, they have developed a virus which specifically attacks the caterpillar. The virus is disseminated when the pest population is high; the dead caterpillars are collected, dried, and ground up. In this form, the virus lies dormant until it is needed again. Aside from the initial contact with the University, peasants on the commune have been continuously involved in the research, as they need to monitor the pest population and spread and collect the virus at the right time. Young teachers from the University spend one to two years on the commune working with the peasants and teaching them the technical information they need to participate. 

Faculty members at Chungshan University were invited to the yearly conference of the Provincial branch of the Ministry of Agriculture to help establish research priorities. The link between the Ministry and the State Council is provided by the Provincial Scientific and Technical Commission, which also solicits input from leaders of schools, factories, communes and counties. Thus, there is a direct pathway from the 4-level agroscience network6 to the State Council, where the final Plan is eventually formulated. 


Once the important research areas have been delineated, implementation involves a complicated mix of formal and informal announcements of the Plan, and analysis and interpretation of the rather loose language by each level and each locality.  

Popularization of the Plan is largely accomplished through National Science Congresses and meetings at the local level. The Provincial Scientific and Technical Commission plays a role by circulating the Plan and arranging training for leading cadre in important new research techniques. 

At universities and research institutes, research problems are selected from those general areas outlined in the Plan, consistent with the institutions’ facilities as well as its needs. To some extent, this furthers a tendency for well-endowed research units to maintain their lead in problem-solving where instrumentation is involved. A tour of the laboratories at Chungshan University revealed several pieces of equipment from Japan, Germany and England as well as China which had been well cared for during long periods of disuse during the Cultural Revolution. 

Several of the research labs at universities and agricultural stations we visited were involved in laser research. The Eight-Year Plan of 1978 clearly encourages the use of lasers in research on seed breeding. As no one in our delegation was familiar with this area of research, we repeatedly questioned the workers about it and never succeeded in identifying the rationale behind the research. Thus, although some research areas, like pest control, are recognized to be important by government and people alike, other paths appear to be followed only because they are mandated by the Plan. 

Attitudes Toward The Cultural Revolution 

Prior to the Cultural Revolution scientists and technicians in the PRC generally had no more contact with the masses than their Western counterparts. One clear goal, enunciated by Mao and the other leaders during that turbulent period in China’s recent history, was to require all intellectuals including scientists to spend time working directly with the people. The hope was that this would reduce elitist tendencies and promote a continuing relationship to insure that the planning of research be based on an internal understanding of the needs and desires of the local citizenry. 

On the negative side, the policy of self reliance was frequently carried to the extreme of prohibiting the reading of foreign journals and all contact with Western science and scientists. This practice was universally deplored by all of the scientists and technical workers we spoke to. 

While in Shanghai, we had the opportunity for a candid discussion with some members of the Shanghai Agricultural Academy, including a technician involved in herbicide research and the director of the laboratory. Both men expressed their satisfaction with the new policies toward scientific research because of the chance they have now to read foreign journals and have contact with foreign visitors. Other than this, their attitudes toward their experiences during the Cultural Revolution were miles apart. 

The lab director was sent to the countryside for two years, during which time he worried constantly because his research work was suffering. He expressed the opinion that he had in fact been following Mao’s line of combining theory with practice before the Cultural Revolution, in that he was involved in applied research. Being sent to the countryside to do manual labor, he felt, was meant as a punishment. The new policy, in which researchers will go to the countryside only to solve a specific problem, he perceived as superior. 

The herbicide technician, on the other hand, felt that his university education had left him incompetent to carry out the combination of theory and practice he thought he should. Because he had studied only the results of foreign experience, he was not even aware of the actual local problems. He took it upon himself to move to the countryside to become familiar with the peasants’ needs and problems. He believes that the only way for intellectuals to work on research of importance is to be closely tied to the masses. He did not feel that his research work suffered a setback during this period. 

It was fascinating to hear such different opinions of the same experience during a single discussion – we could imagine the heated debates which must have occurred in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. This same divergence of views – though less clearcut – was expressed by other scientists and technicians. It was our personal conclusion that those scientists who seemed most vehement about rejecting the value of their experiences among the masses were precisely the ones who manifested the most elite attitudes toward the role of the scientist in society. 

Recent Changes 

The Maoist principle “walking on two legs” refers to combining the best aspects of two very different approaches to a problem such as modern Western and traditional Chinese herbal medicine or cultural pest control with the use of chemical pesticides. Our chief translator (who had also served in this position for the first delegation) had read the Science for the People book.7 Although he was favorably impressed by much of its contents, he claimed that with respect to scientific training and practice, it only emphasized one leg. By this he meant that it favorably reported the deemphasis of basic research in favor of practical applied technology and the extreme practice of self reliance which resulted in the rejection of all foreign ideas and influence. 

A clear goal of our Chinese hosts throughout our visit was to demonstrate to us how the new leadership was correcting what they viewed as excesses of the Cultural Revolution attributed, of course, to the apparently omnipotent “Gang of Four.” Some of the changes we were exposed to included: 

– An increased emphasis at all institutions on theoretical and “basic” science. 

– A reintroduction of traditional examinations both for college admissions and throughout the educational system. 

– The reestablishment of “scholars committees” (composed of older “distinguished” researchers) which screen proposed research projects at research institutes. 

– The replacement of the revolutionary committees (composed of workers, management representatives and Communist Party officials) which ran research institutes, educational institutions and factories during the Cultural Revolution by a more traditional management hierarchy under Party control. 

– The establishment of a system of “key schools” at all levels of the educational system which are favored with more equipment and better instructors and are populated by selected “advanced” students. 

In the two and one-half years since our visit the process of shifting from the ideological goals set out by Chairman Mao and the leaders of the Cultural Revolution to the more “pragmatic” policies of Premier Deng and Chairman Hua has been accelerating. An increasing number of young Chinese scientists are being sent to the U.S., other Western nations and to Japan for training. The importation of technology from “First World” countries has been growing by leaps and bounds. 

Indeed we did see evidence that the rejection of foreign science and technology and the deemphasis of theory had frequently gone beyond the point of promoting an appropriate level of self reliance and an emphasis on practical problem-solving. It was apparent however that the new policies went further than what would be necessary to reestablish a balanced program of scientific and technical training and practice. The justification repeatedly given us for the sweeping changes that were being set in motion was the new national policy of achieving the Four Modernizations. We were told that China could reach “advanced world levels” in agriculture, industry, national defense and science and technology by the year 2000 only by rapidly developing a large, well trained, elite corps of scientific and technical researchers and workers.

Concerns About China’s Future Development 

The key questions concerning science planning, as well as all other aspects of China’s future, relate to the rather dramatic shift in priorities and practices that are being justified by China’s “New Long March” toward becoming a thoroughly modern nation in the short period of twenty years. A question that has been frequently asked by foreign visitors is whether it is in fact even possible to realize the goals of the Four Modernizations. More important, however, are questions concerning the effects of the new policies on China’s people and its sociopolitical development. We asked many such questions during our visit. The answers we received and pronouncements from China’s leaders which we have read since have not served to convince us that through planning China will avoid some serious problems that are now plaguing the developed nations as a result of their comparatively leisurely period of industrialization. 

We had several opportunities to ask questions about the eight areas of research priority set forth at the 1978 National Science Conference. In particular we questioned the wisdom of appropriating any significant fraction of China’s limited resources for research in space science or for duplicating the expensive accelerators being built in the West for esoteric high energy physics experiments. The response clearly demonstrated that the new leadership is attempting to demonstrate that China can compete in all areas of science – even those with little or no practical value to the people. We were given the justification that such research might produce valuable spinoff effects by indirectly promoting the development of associated useful technologies. When we suggested that this is inefficient and seemed an inappropriate method of scientific planning in a socialist nation we were simply assured that local needs would be properly taken into account. 

We also asked many questions in an attempt to discern whether much attention was being given to the possibility that the new emphasis on competition, the establishment of key schools and the deemphasis of contact between scientists and the masses would lead to increased elitism. The rather unconvincing responses we received were in line with the answer Chairman Hua gave to the British journalist, Felix Greene, who asked him to comment on this problem. Although recognizing the emergence of an intellectual elite as “something to watch out for,” Hua stated, “An elite only emerges in certain social systems with their corresponding educational systems.”8

Another area of concern which we inquired about was the danger of inappropriate technology transfer resulting from the new policy of encouraging the wholesale importation of the products of Western science and technology. The prevailing attitude here is illustrated by the following quote from an article that appeared in the national scientific and cultural paper Guangming Ribao on the topic of how to learn from foreign countries: 

Some countries, particularly those developed capitalist countries, lead the world in science and technology, which have grown into their present stage through several centuries’ accumulation. This is where their strong points lie. Science and technology have no class nature and belong to the realm of productive forces, and we badly need them in our efforts to accomplish the four modernizations. We should therefore study and introduce foreign sophisticated science and technology in earnest. 

The policy of sending large numbers of young Chinese students to study science in the West raises the obvious concern about the values they will be exposed to and the habits they may acquire. This problem was discussed with the President of Beijing University (who is also Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) during a banquet he gave in our honor. He recognized the problem but expressed the view that the socialist education they had received would protect the young students from internalizing inappropriate Western values. The attitude of the present leadership about the seriousness of this issue is clear from the following quote from the same article in Guangming Ribao

It goes without saying that in any surging tide the main current is accompanied by incidental ones. As international exchanges proliferate, it is inconceivable for people to come into contact with advanced science and technology, modern economic management and other positive things from abroad without also coming into contact with bourgeois ideas, political views and way of life. Because of their inexperience and inability to see things clearly, some people, mainly among the young, took to all sorts of foreign things they came into contact with and even went so far as to ape foreigners. This is, in a sense, inevitable, but efforts should be made to check this. And the answer is to encourage people to foster the habit of analysis and treat foreign things in a scientific way. 

We do not share the view that this is merely an “incidental” current accompanying a positive “surging tide”. It was evident throughout our visit that the fact that science and technology is not value free is something that is only occasionally recognized by China’s present leaders and planners, and when it is acknowledged, it doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously. It is too early to assess the extent to which the abandonment of past ideals in favor of the promotion of rapid growth and development will negatively affect the development of China’s science and technology. Surely many of the accomplishments of the past 31 years of socialist planning survive and are thriving in China. The Chinese masses have proven that they can indeed move mountains. What remains to be seen is whether a rational plan can be reestablished that will prevent the squandering of natural resources, the pollution of the air and water and the frustration of what once seemed a rather unique attempt to develop a democratically planned, nonelitist, socialist science in the interest of the people. 

Ted Goldfarb is a long-standing member of SftP. He is an activist in efforts to promote safe energy and oppose nuclear power on Long Island. He teaches chemistry at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. Judy Weinstein is also a long-standing member of SftP. She teaches chemistry at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. 

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  1. Some details about our observations of the ways in which science is integrated into the control of the growing, harvesting, processing and distribution of crops were presented in a two part article written by Michael Hansen and Stephen Risch (SftP, Volume II Nos. 3 and 4 (1979) ).
  2. The Twelve-Year Science Plan of 1956, for example, was never published. Drawn up with Soviet assistance, the plan gave top priority to scientific research aimed at the development of the military and heavy industries.( I) A Ten-Year Plan was brought out in 1964 and has been viewed as an extension of the Twelve-Year Plan, modified to cope with the changes brought about by the Great Leap Forward. It, also, has not been published.(2)
  3. Fang Yi’s Report on National Science Conference, abridgement, Hsinhua News release obtained from Chinese Mission to the U.N., New York City.
  4. This four-level agro-science network is described in the article by Hansen and Risch, Science for the People, Vol. II, No.3, 1979, pp. 39-45.
  5. In Hunan Province. we spoke with an official of the Scientific and Technical Association. At Chungshan University in Kwangchow, we spoke With facult} members and responsible people from an affiliated commune. In Shantung, we visited Lai- Yang, an agricultural research institute.
  6. Beijing Review, October 19, 1979, p. II
  7. The first Science for the People delegation visited China in 1973 during the latter, less turbulent, part of the Cultural Revolution. After returning they wrote a book entitled China: Science Walks on Two Legs.
  8. Guangming Ribao, April 14, 1979.