CAIXINMEDIA

Why China Won't Win A Science Nobel Prize Anytime Soon

"China can more or less manufacture anything, but the core technologies belong to other people."
"China can more or less manufacture anything, but the core technologies belong to other people."
Zhang Ming

BEIJING — The Chinese authorities have recently introduced a “Ten Thousand Talents Support Program,” a nationwide project for selecting outstanding talent in all areas of scientific and technological innovation. Among those, 100 people would be identified as potential Nobel Prize winners.

Similar programs, equally generous and costly, have been put in place before. But regrettably, none has resulted in a Chinese Nobel Prize in the scientific disciplines.

Applying a nationwide promotion mechanism does have its advantages. For instance, China achieved striking success in the Olympics, even in sports categories that many Chinese people had never heard of before. It also worked when applied to defense technology. In the 1970s, China developed “Two Bombs and one Star,” project (also known as the “Atom Bomb, Superatomic Bomb and Satellite” project) with the same method. Nevertheless, whether it’s the former Soviet Union or China, trying to build up a country’s basic sciences this way has achieved few results.

To put it plainly, scientific research must be founded on a supporting national education and scientific system. When China focused all its efforts in overcoming the difficulties of making the “Two Bombs and One Star,” it depended on the talented people who had studied in the West before the Chinese Communist Party came to power. Even if the government had invested a lot of money and energy, it would have been impossible to achieve the goal under China’s backward conditions at that time without this personnel. Consider North Korea. With all its strength, it has yet to come up with a presentable atomic bomb and rocket.

Winning a Nobel Prize isn’t about taking down a bunker. No matter how strong the fortress and the enemy are, as long as a death squad exists, their death-defying force still has a great chance to bring down a fortress.

But winning the Nobel Prize relies on, in essence, the overall strength of a country's scientific research. So far, in terms of natural sciences, the countries that win are all, without exception, the world’s most powerful nations in education and scientific research. Laureates of Nobel Prizes in Third World countries are in general only in the literary field.

Productive but not profound

China is a large country gaining development momentum. It now has the world’s second largest gross domestic product. But we can’t be too optimistic about its scientific research capabilities just yet. China’s GDP basically comes from the blood and sweat of migrant workers. China can more or less manufacture anything, but the core technologies belong to other people.

A nation’s scientific strength is closely related to its education. Chinese-style education has a standard-answer formula. Good Chinese high school pupils would be excellent in solving difficult problems or winning awards in the Olympiad Competition, a Chinese middle school academic match. But those students would have no chance whatsoever of winning Nobel Prizes after obtaining a doctorate and working in a Chinese research environment. That’s because the Chinese scientific system is just like its education system — full of bad projects and generally led by administrators.

In short, raising a country’s scientific strength and technological competitiveness can’t possibly count on a short-term rapid promotion program, nor can it be achieved just by bringing in talent from other rich countries. Were China’s goal really to win Nobel Prizes, its relevant governmental departments would reform its education and scientific systems. The mindset of directing education and science with administrative power — the idea that power means knowledge — ought to be changed first.


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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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