Editor’s Note: Huang Wanli (黄万里), the subject of Zhang Ming’s essay, was one of China’s preeminent scientists and engineers of the 20th century. A graduate of Tangshan Jiao Tong University, Huang and later went on to study engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he became the university’s first Chinese PhD graduate. He was branded a “rightist” in the 1950s after voicing his opposition to the Sanmenxia Gorge Dam Project on the Yellow River, which he believed (quite rightly) would be disastrous environmentally. Huang Wanli was interviewed by Chinese writer and CMP fellow Dai Qing (戴晴) as part of her celebrated book Yangtze! Yangtze!, in which he expressed similar reservations about the Three Gorges Dam Project. The timing of Zhang Ming’s editorial is also important because it follows news of the detention of Xie Chaoping, a former journalist who just completed a three-year project of reportage on the Sanmenxia Gorge Dam Project.
August 27 marked the ninth anniversary of the death of engineer Huang Wanli (黄万里). And I’d like to offer a few remarks about Huang Wanli that touch on my own role, that of an intellectual at an academic institution.
Like the vast majority of Chinese professors today, Huang Wanli was an intellectual inside the system, who drew his wages from the government and engaged in highly technical work. In his own discipline, perhaps, he was far superior to most of us intellectuals today, but his basic identity was the same. I often wonder, if there were similar doubts raised today to those Huang Wanli raised in his own day about building the Sanmenxia Gorge Dam Project, would anyone at all dare to speak up? I would venture to say NO — that even if people understood that the dam project could not be built, they would not openly oppose it, and probably would not even secretly voice their objections.
Just look, there is no fear today of being branded as a political blackguard, and there is no chance either that one would be struck down as a “rightist” But still, each discussion meeting our experts hold [for a potential project] is a completely ridiculous affair. Does anyone at all dare utter the word NO. No, not a soul. Our experts look to their colleagues, to government leaders and, more importantly, to the hefty consulting fees, and then they decide what those organizing the evaluation want, what the leaders want, and that’s what the experts say.
Huang Wanli was an intellectual with backbone. This is beyond any doubt. And his pluck came actually from two things. One was from his sense of professionalism as a scientist. The other was his sense of responsibility. The latter, in fact, was more important. As a professional, a true scientist can do without political views, but they must respect the rules of science and the results of experimentation. They cannot disregard their own knowledge and training and speak against their own conscience. They especially cannot speak this way for the sake of certain political goals. Which is to say that if a scientist’s research tells him something is white, then he cannot, no matter how intense the pressure that comes to bear on him, say that something is black. To his mind, doing so would be a great burden on his conscience.
I’m quite certain that in those days there were many other experts who, like Huang Wanli, recognized the problems with the Sanmenxia Gorge Dam Project, and who agreed against their consciences with the views of Soviet scientists. But the only one capable of really standing up was Huang Wanli.
We can say that Huang Wanli, as the grandson of the great educator Huang Yanpei (黄炎培), had a very strong upbringing. We know from his experiences studying abroad that he had solid scientific training, and so he perhaps had a more unshakable professional ethic than others. But we can also say that as a scientist with a keen sense of duty toward his country, he had an even deeper sense of responsibility to his people. Under the intense pressure of political correctness at the time, one could choose to follow one’s professional convictions in silence, or one could offer one’s opinion and then fall silent — but Huang Wanli decided instead to resist wholeheartedly. This was how he courted disaster. And as others may see it, he was incredibly foolish.
Those who feel a deep and abiding sense of responsibility to their country and their people are always fools. Those who sacrifice themselves for justice, who plead on behalf of the people, are all fools. If history was full of nothing but people who shifted their sails with the prevailing winds, how tasteless and uninteresting history would be. Even with those who cut graceful figures, who excelled at artifice, or who distinguished themselves in battle, history would be tasteless and uninteresting. The fools put the color into history and keep it alive. The fools may all meet tragic ends, but the history of any peoples earns its admiration by virtue of their deeds.
Strictly speaking, no one can act in utter selflessness. But if someone acts for the sake of their people and their country, they can achieve selflessness, setting aside personal success and interest. In this sense, Huang Wanli was a selfless human being. He was selfless because he had an overbearing sense of responsibility. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Huang Wanli’s fellow scientists at the time acted unprofessionally or without responsibility. But why is it that people so seldom do what Huang Wanli did?
At this point, we must ask ourselves: why is it that scientists do not have a space where they can completely express their opinions? Why is it that on scientific questions we must still accommodate political objectives, allowing politics to crush science, allowing the wills of politicians to crush the expert views of scientists? political dissent. Why is it that differing views in the scientific arena instantly become political dissent, and those scientists who express dissent are labelled instantly as “rightists”? Clearly, this is something that, even today, we must think about very carefully.
It should be the case today that political pressures are not so severe. And yet, the intrusion of administrative and commercial interests continues to influence scientific determinations. Ridiculous commands still hold sway, as we repeat again and again in China the lessons of our own foolishness. We keep building “projects of foolishness” like the Sanmenxia Gorge Dam Project. Even more serious is the fact that our scientists act without professionalism and with utter irresponsibility. Behind each failing project there are experts who furnish the schemes. But when the projects fail, we have the same experts scheming again, this time to tell us that the problem wasn’t in the design, inspection or approval, and the matter is simply written off. When do we ever see scientific experts take responsibility for these failures? No none takes responsibility, but they are more than happy to accept money to scheme these problems in or out of existence.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that scientists and intellectuals today are inexpert or lack technical ability. But what they lack even more critically is the soul and spirit of the scientist, and the sense of professionalism and responsibility. And perhaps this shortcoming can be dated back to the time when Huang Wanli was branded as a “rightist.”
This article originally appeared in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Weekly magazine.