China has changed remarkably over the last forty years, but perhaps nowhere has this change been more impactful on the world than in the development of its science and technology. “Made in China” used to carry connotations of shoddiness such was the base level of development there; thanks to trillions of dollars of investment in its science and tech, this is beginning to change, and significantly so.
The question is, why did this gap between East and West open up in the first place? This is called the Needham Question, and I’ll try to answer it below.
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China today is a heavyweight in global science and technology research. According to a recent report by the European Union, in 2017 China's research and development (R&D) spending was about $280 billion, accounting for 2.12% of the country's GDP and representing twenty percent of total world R&D expenditure – the equivalent of the combined R&D spend of thirty-four European countries put together.
In an official count of the top ten scientific research universities in the world by the scientific journal Nature, three are Chinese. In the sister list of the top twenty-five up-and-coming research facilities around the globe, all twenty-five are in the People’s Republic. China now has seven hundred national laboratories working on critical research and innovation, which they need because the country’s high impact scientific research has tripled over the last fifteen years. The country has more industrial robots than anyone else, and it has produced approximately eight times as many STEM graduates as America in recent years.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1922, a decade after the fall of the Empire, the abilities of Chinese research and development was summed up by a widely cited paper, “Why China Has No Science”, by the philosopher Fung Yu-lan. Written after a century of China being bested by Western technology, the presiding view was that China was unable to create a competing level of scientific achievement. Which was ironic, because nineteenth century China was defeated by technologies that it had invented. The critical difference was that it was the West, rather than the Middle Kingdom, which took these inventions and developed them to their full potential.
The question is, why did China, which had led the world for years in science and technology, fall so drastically behind the Western powers? This is the so-called Needham Question, named after Joseph Needham, one of the twentieth century’s great minds.
Born in 1905, Needham – whose heavy nose and dark round glasses gave him more of a hint of owlness – is one of the only intellectuals in modern times to have won international recognition in two fields. The first was in biochemistry, in which he became a world-leading scientist early in his career. Then came World War II, which turned him down the path of his second career, that of revered China scholar.
Having learnt Mandarin in the 1930s from a young Chinese graduate student studying at Cambridge, Needham was appointed director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in the Chinese city of Chongqing from 1942-46. This allowed him access to Chinese leaders such as Mao, and records of scientific achievement that brought the country’s scholarship to a much wider world.
Needham was not the first person in Europe to recognise China’s contribution to science. It was Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan philosopher and jurist, who noted that the world had been fundamentally altered because of three main inventions: printing, the magnetic compass, and gunpowder. All three of them came from China, and all three headed back there thanks to the West.
The orders that sent the British naval ships on their way to defeat the Chinese in the Opium Wars were printed using technology that had its origins in China in approximately the eighth century AD. (The world’s oldest dated printed book, now in the British Library, is from 11thMay 868). The compasses that steered the ironclad vessels towards China were born out of technology developed in probably the Chinese Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), although there may be evidence for them as far back as the Han Dynasty, roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire. The gunpowder that was used to blast the Qing Dynasty’s wooden junks out of the water was, ironically, probably discovered by Chinese sages looking for the elixir of life sometime in the ninth century, around the time of the main Viking raids on England.
If China had done the hard work in inventing these building blocks of the modern world, then why was it left to the West to use them against their inventors?
First, it is important to note that the China of the first millennium AD, when these inventions came to life, was a very different place to the China of the last six or seven centuries. The first millennium was characterised by cross-border trade and a willingness to exchange ideas with the outside world, for the most part at least. These traits did not last. The much-heralded voyages of Zhong He in the sixteenth century, when Chinese ships roamed throughout the Indian Ocean, went against the mainly insular outlook of the Dynasties following the fall of the Yuan in 1368.
There are some that look to the nature of education to explain the Needham Question. According to the late China writer Timothy Beardson, Chinese “backwardness” in the development of technology was linked to a decline in the reward for successful innovation. China’s centres of education, dominated by a Confucianism that looked more to the past than the future, did not innovate. As such, reason was not developed, mathematics was respected only for its practicality, and the ethical system did not encourage science.
Whilst the educational system was almost certainly a factor, the consensus answer to the Needham Question today looks at the difference in competition that existed in East and West. Late medieval and early modern Europe was essentially a hotbed of competing states, monarchs, and guilds. Military technologies were sponsored by kings and princes to battle their neighbours, and commercial technologies were continuously improved with greater profits in mind – profits that paid for further investment in arms.
The China of the same period was a homogeneous empire that favoured Confucian stability, particularly from about 1750 when the Empire was enjoying a century of peace. There simply wasn’t the same “challenge-response dynamic” that drove the development of superior European weaponry. Even when the Emperors did declare war, it was almost always on China’s borders and against peoples without superior technology. There also weren’t any real equivalent of the guilds to drive forward civilian technologies. In the Confucian hierarchy merchants were at the bottom of the pile, whereas in Europe there was often state support for commercial activities, as the East India Company showed when it won the First Opium War with British Government backing.
As the eighteenth-century British philosopher David Hume once wrote, progress happens much more quickly under conditions of intense international competition such as existed among the separate states of Europe; in a huge, unified empire like China there simply wasn’t the same kind of competition.
Whatever the ultimate reason, the Western refinement of these fundamental Chinese inventions revolutionised European society, as China found to its nineteenth century cost.
Since the start of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms at the end of the 1970’s China has purposefully adopted much of what underpinned this Western success.
Early modern European monarchs brought the best talents they could find to their court, patronised the development of new technologies, and sanctioned their trial on the battlefield. Such was the intensity of interstate rivalry that the industrial revolution that started in Great Britain was always going to be adopted by its competitive neighbours.
We see much of this in China today. Under the Thousand Talents programme, academics and professionals from all over the world are brought into Chinese companies and institutions to boost their competencies. Technology from abroad is appropriated, and then refined and updated in the white heat of Chinese corporate competition. The Military-Civil Fusion initiative brings the two together for the ultimate benefit of the State.
Needham once pondered why it was that British warships arrived at the head of the Yangtse, whilst Chinese warships didn’t arrive at the mouth of the Thames. As preparations continue for the voyage of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea later this year, some in China have begun to call for one of its own aircraft carriers to head to Europe. A PLA Navy fleet in the English Channel would be a highly symbolic reversal of the last two hundred years, and proof that the Chinese have found a way to compete in science and technology again.