All this is the barest sketch of the economic dynamism and the economic, environmental, and political constraints that shape Chinese science today. Following Deng, the Chinese government has been investing heavily to bring the sciences up to Western standards of quality, originality, and productivity. Roy Schwarz is a seasoned observer. Since 1997, he has been president of the China Medical Board of New York, which supports medical education and research in China. Schwarz has visited China four dozen times, for a total of a year and a half in-country. “In my cadre of 13 institutions, I support probably six out of the top eight medical schools,” he said in a telephone interview. “Plus, I’ve funded probably, oh, 150 projects – some straight science, some are training programs for science, some are curriculum-related to science.”
The Chinese, he said, are doing everything they can to promote science. “I mean science across the board. From the space science that they’ve got going to the chemical and physical sciences, but especially biological sciences and medicine.”
An early step was radical restructuring. Following the Soviet model, China in 1952 and in years following had set up a large number of separate single-specialty universities and schools. But in the summer of 1998, Jiang Zemin, then president of China, and Zhu Rongji, prime minister, brought representatives of prominent American universities to Beijing. The Chinese leaders learned that where their educational institutions were specialized, American universities are comprehensive. Their response, Schwarz said, was to adopt the American model.
The result has been a large number of shotgun mergers. For example, the city of Hangzhou had four unidisciplinary universities, including one agricultural and one medical. In 1998, these were abruptly amalgamated into one, Zhejiang University. Zhejiang now has some 43,000 students, including 5,500 PhD candidates.
“Their universities have two structures of authority in them,” Schwarz said. “The apparent one to Westerners is the president and the vice presidents and the deans. The one that’s not apparent is the party secretary, vice secretaries – for every level on the academic side, you have one on the party side.” Like the Red Army in the Soviet Union long ago? “Yeah, exactly right. And the latter is more powerful than the former – or it has been up to this point. But that’s rapidly shifting.”
(Perhaps. But I noticed the all-but-universal practice that a Chinese scientist interviewed would have at least one other person present – a colleague, a student, someone supposedly to help with translation, often somebody involved with international relations. Nathan Sivin, the foremost living authority on the history of Chinese science, enlightened me in an e-mail message: “People from the foreign affairs office of a work unit are always handlers and reporters to the Public Security Bureau. In some organizations they are quite antsy, and in others supportive of the intellectuals they work with – so long as something does not threaten to draw trouble down on their own heads.”)
Leading medical schools were already, like those in the United States, biological research institutes, although their work was largely unknown in the West. Now they were folded into universities. “In any other culture it couldn’t have happened,” Schwarz said. “But I think now the medical faculties are seeing the value of being part of a bigger whole. And I’ve watched the education of nonmedical presidents and party secretaries occur, as they try to understand this rare beast called a medical center.”
Reputedly the best of these is at Peking University, which in 2000 absorbed Beijing Medical University and renamed it the Peking University Health Science Center. Peking University’s main campus is in a near suburb west of Beijing; the Health Science Center is several miles away. Such dispersal is an obvious consequence of the merger process. Zhejiang University has six campuses.
That dispersal may not last. Throughout the Chinese university system, modernization is intense. “They’re all building these gigantic new campuses,” Schwarz said. “I’ve visited five now.” Unifying campuses, building new facilities, enforces integration. To head off faculty and administrative resistance to change, an extra $245 million was allocated to Peking University over the three years after the merger, according to Schwarz; the first of it was earmarked for the construction of world-class laboratories and acquisition of the best equipment. Laboratories I saw at nine different research institutions were high gloss.