| David Bandurski

Test tubes, by Shaun Fisher available at under CC license.

While international definitions of science center on the study of the physical world through unbiased observations and verifiable experimentation, the word “science” has complex, multi-layered meanings within the context of Chinese Communist Party discourse. On the one hand, science as a discipline systematically studying the natural world has been regarded as a crucial contributor to national development, driving economic growth and self-reliance. On the other hand, notions of science have been interwoven with political claims to truth as a source of political power. From the time of Mao, with inspiration from the Soviet Union, politics and science have been bedfellows.

The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 ushered in a wave of soul-searching about China’s future. Writing in New Youth magazine in January 1919, Chen Duxiu, one of the early founders of the CCP, personified China’s hopes for restoration in “Mr Democracy” and “Mr Science.” Only these “two gentlemen”, he wrote, could “remedy all of the darkness that has shrouded China – in politics, in morals, in academic endeavors and ideas”, and free the country from external aggression and colonial occupation. Embracing the natural sciences meant abandoning the old superstitions and embarking on a project of national strengthening.

With the founding of the CCP in 1921, Party leaders were keen to lay claim to science and modernity. Taking their cues from Soviet writings, CCP theorists saw the introduction to China of the materialist philosophy of Marxism as a moment of “scientific” reckoning in which “Chinese Communists began to have a more scientific understanding of many basic issues of the Chinese revolution and society”. In the 1950s, CCP discourse made clear that the scientist’s primary role was to “serve the people”, and to be on guard against the people’s enemies.

At the outset of the economic reform and opening period in the 1980s, there was a new emphasis on science development. China’s focus was on acquiring foreign technologies, with the pace of technology imports increasing dramatically. Chinese overseas study also helped to build China’s science system from the 1980s. These developments soared in the 1990s, the natural sciences viewed as crucial to overall economic development and national prestige. Nevertheless, the notion of the “scientific spirit” as a trait of the CCP’s Marxist politics persisted alongside real advancements in science, marking the Party’s claim to practical and people-based policy responses. One of the most prominent examples in the reform era was the “scientific view of development” (科学发展观), a catchphrase introduced in the early 2000s by President Hu Jintao that essentially outlined the need for more balanced development.

In the Xi Jinping era, China’s advancements as a “scientific power” have continued apace. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) places science and technology at the center of national priorities, with Xi pledging to make China the “world’s primary center” for science and innovation. But the conflation of the scientific and the political has also continued apace. In late 2019, as the earliest cases of Covid-19 appeared in the city of Wuhan, local doctors were disciplined for raising the alarm through private chat groups, and told that they must “speak politics, speak discipline and speak science”. Medical personnel were obliged, on political grounds, not to share information publicly, effectively delaying by many weeks a more concerted domestic and global response. Early in the pandemic, China has also placed limits on the publication of research on the origins of the novel coronavirus, prioritising politics over science.

The phrase “speaking politics” has surged under Xi, underscoring the need for obedience to the Party and its prerogatives. In recent years, there has also been a growing emphasis in science education on the need to simultaneously carry out ideological and political indoctrination of China’s youth. One recent textbook on biology, for example, instructs teachers to implant a discussion of “red genes” – a reference to the political and historical legacy of the CCP – into a unit on genetics.

This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

The CMP Dictionary