It started badly, with gag orders, cover-ups and ignored offers of help from overseas, but then the Chinese government seized the narrative. It reined in the burgeoning epidemic of Covid-19 at home, and started exporting its rapidly accumulating scientific knowledge of the disease to the rest of the world. Chinese science has often been marginalised and even mistrusted in the west. But will the pandemic change its standing in the world?
“China has moved from student to teacher,” says Kate Mason, an anthropologist at Brown University in Rhode Island and author of Infectious Change, an account of how the 2002-3 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in China transformed the way the country managed public health. After Sars, she says, western experts went to China to help it put in place an evidence-based health system that was informed by international research. That system now exists, with its most visible symbol being the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, and this time it has been Chinese experts giving instruction abroad. “It has been a good year for China,” Mason says.
But China has long held a goal to lead the world in science, and it was already well on its way to achieving it before the pandemic. Five years ago, it didn’t appear in the top 10 countries for university rankings; this year, it’s joint sixth. It is second in the world for output of science and engineering publications, behind the European Union but ahead of the United States, and the impact of Chinese research – as measured by the proportion of articles that are highly cited – doubled between 2000 and 2016, growing much faster than that of the US and the EU, which increased by around 10% and 30% respectively over the same period.
This turbo-charged performance reflects a long-term policy of rebuilding Chinese research and education in the post-Mao Zedong era, says political scientist and China watcher Anna Ahlers of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin. Starting from the 1980s, the Chinese government began investing heavily in infrastructure, mass education and the training of a cadre of sophisticated researchers across all Stem disciplines. Then, 20 years ago, its focus shifted outward – to achieving global prominence.