Science, Rice And Propaganda: On The Legacy Of Yuan Longping

He helped develop a hybrid rice that tackled hunger in his country and beyond, and when Yuan died last month both the Chinese Communist Party and young people wrestled with the many meanings of his life.

Tribute to Yuan Longping in Changsha, May 24.
Tribute to Yuan Longping in Changsha, May 24.
Jing Li/Worldcrunch
Dan Wu


"I feel as sad as if it was my own grandpa who died." This was one of the many emotional comments that have flooded Chinese social media Weibo since the May 22 death of Chinese agriculturist Yuan Longping, also known as "the father of hybrid rice." The kind of collective mourning for the 90-year-old scientist, both from the state apparatus that called him a "national scholar of no equal" and a spontaneous public outpouring on and offline, was quite unusual for contemporary China. How did a man who divided his time between rice farms and science labs provoke such a reaction across this nation of 1.4 billion people?

Yuan's popularity among the Chinese population was largely credited to his role as a "life savior," as the rice he helped develop fed a nation that had suffered grave food shortages and famines throughout much of the 20th century. There is a popular saying among the older generation, according to which two "Pings' fed the Chinese population: Deng Xiaoping, through policy, and Yuan Longping, through technology.

Born in 1930 to an intellectual family, Yuan began researching hybrid rice in the 1960s, and carried out field experiments on new breeds up until his death. His aim was to produce quality rice with richer nutrition that could lead to bigger harvests. Unlike many scientists who spent most of their time in labs, Yuan was more of a farmer himself, having worked for more than 40 years in his experimental farm in southern China.

Yuan was the chosen one to be a god in the ads that fit the state's agenda.

The impact of his research would eventually extend beyond China, with rice being the main food staple for more than half of the world population — and at least 40 countries have imported his technology. An estimated 20% of the world rice production can be traced to his breed of super hybrid rice, which alleviated famine in much of Asia and Africa, and in 2004, Yuan was granted the World Food Prize for his work.

Still, his life and death are very much a story about modern China. The national propaganda machine had constructed Yuan's image around a kind of heroic mythology. Since the state made scientific developments a central public policy priority after the Cultural Revolution, Yuan's achievements were regularly used to advertise China's scientific strength, making him a household name.

When he died, some questioned the extent of Yuan's scientific contribution, arguing that state propaganda exaggerated his exploits. One journalism student put it this way: "Yuan was the chosen one to be a god in the advertisements that fit the state's agenda, even upon his death." At least seven people have been arrested in the past 10 days for insulting Yuan's reputation .

Official poster for the mourning of Yuan Longping — Source: People's Daily

Whether the soft-spoken scientist was happy about being constructed as a myth himself is unknown. Still, it is worth noting that he never joined the Communist Party, unlike many prominent Chinese elites of his time. Yuan was also nearly prosecuted for his family background, as well as for criticizing Mao's guidelines on agricultural production during the Cultural Revolution. In a 2009 interview, he described how "the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) caused tens of millions of death from hunger," a man-made mistake by the Communist Party; not to mention his own testimony from the 1960s of how seeing corpses of those who had starved to death had triggered him to study rice production.

Neither party stalwart nor dissident.

Regardless, the Party's official obituary last week did all it could to claim him for its own: "Comrade Yuan Longping is an outstanding representative of non-partisans and a close friend of the Communist Party of China. He maintains a high degree of ideological and political action with the Communist Party of China with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core." It was unusual to address Yuan as "comrade," since he'd never joined the party — but the move can be seen as a final chance to use his grand commemoration to shape the collective memory for the Chinese public.

But what was perhaps even more significant was the way his death crossed the usual lines of Chinese history and society. On the day of the funeral, tens of thousands queued for hours in front of the mourning parlor in Changsha, with oceans of white flowers piled up alongside the streets. Elderly, middle-aged civilians and young people showed up to mourn for this beloved scientist.

Jing Li, a 24-year-old Changsha resident, could only visit the funeral parlor hours after the ceremony was finished on May 24, but she still witnessed thousands of civilians heading over towards the site. "We, millennials, never experienced hunger — but we learned about Yuan's good deeds throughout our education," said Jing. "Even though I have never met him in real life, his humble manner made me feel very close to him."

Being a figure who was neither party stalwart nor dissident, Yuan's life largely mirrored millions of other Chinese who do their jobs and raise their families outside the realm of political ideology. With his death, the Communist party tried its hardest to put its stamp on the collective memory of his work and life. But for a new generation, the narrative of that memory unfolds differently now — in real-time and online.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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