Letter from China: A scholar’s prescription for getting to next level

The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
SHANGHAI Sometimes a single person’s life can tell you more about a
country’s experience than a shelf full of history books. Among Chinese
people of a certain age, such lives, rich in struggle, in suffering and
in the consequences of man’s folly and often enough in a measure of
redemption, come in abundance.
These are people who are today in their 40s, whose transition to
adulthood was hijacked by the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution.
Their high school and college studies alike were aborted. Among urban
dwellers, many were “sent down” to the countryside to labor as
peasants, or assigned to antiquated factories to churn out rough hewn goods.
For the lucky, life resumed, productive life, that is.
Such is the story of Xu Tian, a 43-year-old Chinese scientist from
Zhejiang Province whose discoveries involving the transposition of
genes were featured last month on the cover of the prestigious scientific
review, Cell. People who know about such things say that Xu’s work has
a very good chance of affecting all of our lives, making it possible to
switch genes on and off, facilitating therapies for diabetes,
depression, you name it.
So significant are his findings that the scientist, who divides his
time between Yale University and Fudan University, in Shanghai, is already
being mentioned by his peers as a potential Nobel laureate. But this is
not a column about Xu’s work. It is about his life, and its relevance
to the history and future of China.
“I never expected to go to college,” Xu said during a recent visit to
Shanghai, speaking of the great suspension of normal life that was the
Cultural Revolution. “Nobody in my high school went to college. We had
half-pound rations of meat and of cooking oil. Matches were rationed.
Toilet paper was rationed.”
The most striking thing about returning home from the States, he said,
is the intensity of commerce in today’s China.
“People try to sell you things,” Xu said with the pinch-me air of
disbelief of someone who grew up in an era of persistent scarcity.
Xu was fortunate to enter Fudan University, one of the greatest names
in Chinese education, shortly after the Cultural Revolution.
He remembers traveling to Shanghai to visit the school, wide-eyed and
thoroughly uncertain about what route to take in academia. Parents and
relatives had been active in the humanities and had suffered
persecution as a result. All cautioned him against following their path.
“I saw that Fudan offered genetics, so I asked my family what is
genetics, and they had no clue,” Xu said without affectation. “I asked
my neighbors, and they had no clue, so I thought genetics must not be
very popular. Maybe I’ll have a chance.”
There is a dreamily idealized quality to the way Xu described the
academic environment of the day.
“People were very eager to teach and to learn,” he said. “Many of the
people had been trained in the West, and had never had the opportunity
to teach before. The students were incredibly ambitious. We had no clue
what the outside world looked like, and suddenly we had an opportunity
to study.”
It is at this point in the narrative curve that China must hope that
Xu’s experiences no longer track reality with such fidelity. China has
ambitions to build one of the world’s greatest educational
establishments, and like almost everything here these days, the
authorities want to achieve their goals in a hurry.
And yet Xu suspects that in some ways, the country peaked academically
back in those days, at least where the spirit of pure inquiry is
concerned, and although his comments are particularly pointed, among
his peers he is far from alone.
Xu made his way to the United States in 1983, landing in Harlem, the
New York City neighborhood, with $50 in his pocket. After six months, Yale
offered him a full scholarship, allowing him to pursue his graduate
studies, and work there ever since.
His visits home now are very much those of a prodigal son, and his
feelings toward China are at once hopeful and deeply critical. What he
has found is a nation investing furiously, and with some notable
successes, in educating its people. At the same time, he fears the
implications of a system heavily invested in control, and the culture
of rampant and mindless materialism, careerism and cronyism that it has
“The best people have left and the old people have retired, and
commercialization has taken hold,” Xu said.
Referring to scholarly investigation, he added: “The tradition has been
broken, and we who were seeking the truth have moved on. It is very
difficult to rebuild this sort of thing.”
Materialism, he said, has fueled a overpowering urge to “get rich
quickly,” leaving few with the patience for pure inquiry. Everywhere
one looks in education, he said, one sees the controlling hand of
government, meaning that those with the best connections, not those
with the best ideas, prevail. Those who answer the fixed questions of a
system based on the planning of nearly everything are rewarded, not
those who answer questions that few had dared dream about, he said.
“They are putting more into education than perhaps any country,” Xu
said, “but what we haven’t taught people yet is to value ideas, and to
value the life of the scholar.”
Speaking boldly for a person who keeps a foot in China, Xu says what
the country needs is a “new revolution” to get away from what he said was a
“system that teaches people to follow the rules, not to be an
The greatest thing China has done in the past 20 years, he said, is
lift 200 million people out of poverty.
“What China has not realized, if it truly wants to go to the next
level, is that numbers are not enough,” Xu said. “You must reward innovation,
and reward scholarly work.”
To get there, Xu warned, China will have to overcome thousands of years
of tradition “that has always avoided exploring different ways of
thinking and exploring, and has emphasized staying within the system.”
“In the ’70s and ’80s, people thought Japan was going to surpass the
United States because they made more cars or more video players, but
they were wrong, and I knew it,” he continued.
“Japan emphasized obeying rules, too, eliminating problems, having no

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