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Behold the contrast. Harmony, consensus, respect for authority and for the views of elders: for thousands of years, this set of attitudes, Confucian for short (but a lot that was conventional before his time gets blamed on Confucius), has ruled the behavior of individual Chinese. At issue today is the power of a hierarchy based first on seniority and next on connections.

Such a hierarchy is said still to govern much of the teaching of science in China; it lurks in laboratory relations. Most notoriously, it led to the misidentification in 2003 of the cause of the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS. The first cases showed up in southern China late in 2002; the disease spread to Beijing and other cities and threatened to go global. In February 2003, a senior scientist in Beijing announced that he had found the cause, the bacterium Chlamydia. A junior in his laboratory knew that this was mistaken, for he had isolated the true cause. Out of respect, or fear, he said nothing.

This is an extreme but not an isolated example. I was warned of the problem repeatedly. Gerald Lazarus is dean emeritus of the medical school of the University of California, Davis, and now a professor at the Johns Hopkins medical school. His wife, Audrey Jakubowski, is a chemist. They lived in Beijing for three years, 1999 to 2001. He was a visiting professor at Peking Union Medical College and Hospital.

For much of that time, she worked with an English-language scientific journal, the Chinese Medical Journal, trying to improve the English of the papers it published and to establish standards for review of manuscripts. Lazarus spoke of intellectual rigidities he encountered among faculty and students, caused, he thought, by deference to the views of elder colleagues. Jakubowski was more specific. The seniority system – she called it Confucian – could be crippling to peer review, she said, for to turn down a paper submitted by a senior person would be an act of disrespect.

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