Losing our way in China

At a party last weekend, I had a fascinating conversation with a senior National Geographic executive about the relationship between our Society’s support for science — and our Society’s apparent lack of interest in democracy, especially in China.

His view (paraphrased): Science is central to National Geographic’s mission; democracy is not.

I disagreed, citing National Geographic’s (forgotten) history. A few days later, I sent him this 2006 story from The New York Times about Chinese physicist Xu Liangying. Dr. Xu has long embraced Albert Einstein’s dictum that freedom, especially freedom of speech, is a prerequisite for scientific progress.

By championing the cause of freedom in China, Dr. Xu has paid a very high price; by ignoring the cause of freedom in China, National Geographic gets access to a huge new market for cheetah pictures, but fundamentally undermines the future of our society — and our Society.

The story of Xu Liangying is well worth reading, especially on the June 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

… If he is not the oldest living Chinese dissident, he is easily one of the most intellectually distinguished, the author of some 200 papers and editor of a half-dozen books. The historian H. Lyman Miller called him an “archetypal figure” in his book “Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China.” The adjective “venerable” seems to attach itself to him the way snow is attracted to the mountains, but he does not seem to have lost an ounce of rebelliousness. …

The love affair between Dr. Xu, who was born in Linhai, Zhejiang, in 1920, and Einstein began when Dr. Xu was in secondary school and read a collection of Einstein’s essays called “The World as I See It.” The book had as much politics as science.

In one passage that the young Xu underlined, Einstein wrote: “The state is made for man, not man for the state. I regard the chief duty of the state to protect the individual and give him the opportunity to develop into a creative personality.”

Dr. Xu said, “I wanted to be such a person.” …

In January 1989, Dr. Xu’s friend Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist, wrote an open letter calling for the release of political prisoners. That was too limited, Dr. Xu concluded. He and an old friend, Shi Yafeng, a geographer at the academy, then in February drafted their own letter calling for democracy. “We agreed that actually China needs political reform,” Dr. Xu said.

“They need political democracy and need to protect the rights of citizens, and there should be freedom of thinking, speaking and publishing,” he said, “and they need to end the long history of punishing people because of their words. China has such a history, which has lasted for thousands of years.” …

His letter was signed by 42 people, including many scientists.

It and Dr. Fang’s letter helped provide inspiration for students and others who swarmed Tiananmen Square in April 1989 to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a purged political activist, and then stayed to protest corruption and the lack of human rights. Many of them were wearing T-shirts that said 

“Science and Democracy,” watchwords of Chinese politics and aspirations since the early 20th century.

On June 4, Chinese troops invaded the square with tanks and killed hundreds of people. …

Dr. Xu is now retired. In 2001 his book “My Views: Xu Liangying’s Collection of Essays on Science, Democracy and Reason” was published by Mirror Books in Hong Kong. He and his wife, who works at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, are working together on a book about the history and theory of democracy.

“Science and democracy are separate concepts,” he said. “They are mutually supportive, but democracy is more fundamental.”

Despite their showy embrace of science, China’s present leaders have not won over Dr. Xu.

Jiang Zemin, who inherited power from Mr. Deng, earned Dr. Xu’s scorn in 1997 when he invoked Einsteinian relativity to justify China’s human rights record, saying democracy was a relative concept. “It’s just nonsense because, first, Einstein’s relativity principle is actually essentially emphasizing the absolute,” Dr. Xu said, referring to the notion that the laws of physics and speed of light are the same for all observers.

“And the other part is democracy and freedom are also absolute because human nature is universal and needs to pursue freedom and equality.”

Dr. Xu said he was optimistic that China’s future would embrace those qualities. He pointed out that when the student leader Wang Dan first tried to start a democracy salon in 1989, only 20 people showed up. But only half a year later, more than 3,000 people joined a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.

“So I never doubt the power of the youth,” Dr. Xu said.

{ Read the whole thing here. }

Meanwhile, at our Society:
Money for Chinese scientists …

… but not a word about democracy:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)


“There should be freedom of thinking, speaking and publishing,” said Xu Liangying, “and they [China’s rulers] need to end the long history of punishing people because of their words.”

John Fahey National Geographic
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