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The New China and the Old


Paul Kurtz

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.2, March / April 2008

Twenty years of CSI and CFI interactions with China help reinforce Chinese scholars’ efforts in boosting scientific understanding and attaining some degree of harmony in a complex country grappling with an incredible development boom. It is in our interests to continue to work closely with the Chinese, and we intend to do so.

The Eleventh World Congress of Centers for Inquiry/Transnational convened in Beijing in October 2007, the culmination of almost twenty years of interchange between the Center for Inquiry and Chinese scientists. Inasmuch as Ken Frazier has so eloquently depicted the highlights of the Congress in this issue of Skeptical Inquirer, I will focus on the reasons for the Congress and what we hope will ensue from it. Like Frazier, I was fascinated by the remarkable changes that have occurred in China since our first visit in 1988. Lin Zixin, former editor of Science and Technology Daily, the largest-circulation scientific newspaper in the world, had invited the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) to visit China. Chinese scientists at that time, he said, were concerned about the growth of paranormal and occult beliefs. They wished to critically examine paranormal claims and assess the validity of external Qigong and the reality of Chi, psychokinesis, and alleged psychic diagnoses of medical ailments.

We gladly accepted the invitation and gathered a delegation of six well-known skeptics from North America, including Frazier, James Randi, James Alcock, Barry Karr, Philip Klass, and myself. We did not find any evidence of “extraordinary” paranormal powers and issued a report to that effect (see SI’s Summer and Fall issues, 1988).

We noted the chutzpah displayed by psychics, whether adults or children (much had been made at that time about so-called gifted children), who tried but didn’t succeed in hoodwinking us. Intrigued by our methods of testing, our Chinese hosts wanted to remain in contact with us. Actually, the Chinese Association for Science and Technology (CAST), a coalition of over 180 science organizations, sponsored the exchange program. CAST, a nongovernmental organization, is somewhat equivalent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The Chinese were especially interested in how they could raise the public’s appreciation and understanding of science, combat superstition, and improve scientific illiteracy. In time they created a new organization, the Chinese Research Institute for the Popularization of Science (CRISP), which overlapped with CSICOP in its concern with the prevalence of antiscientific attitudes and the public’s captivation with parapsychology, UFO abductions, astrology, alternative healing, and pseudoscience in general.

In the early 1990s, CSICOP became an integral part of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational. It has since changed its name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and broadened its agenda to defend science, reason, and free inquiry in every area of human interest. The Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) also became part of the Center for Inquiry. It was especially interested in responding to fundamentalist attacks on evolution and naturalistic methodology. CFI added to its agenda the defense of secularism and advanced humanist values not rooted in religion but secular in nature. The Chinese became interested in questions concerning individual morality and happiness, which were similar to the moral virtues of Confucianism, so they found this aspect of our work useful.

The agenda of CFI continued to interest Chinese scientists, who sent delegations to each of our Skeptics World Congresses (held in Heidelberg, Germany; Sydney, Australia; Padua, Italy; and Burbank and Amherst in the United States). More explicitly, they began to send dozens of students, scholars, and officials every year to the Summer Institute of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, and they translated many of our articles and books. CFI responded by sending two additional teams to lecture in China, and this eventually led to the establishment of a new Center for Inquiry in Beijing and the co-sponsorship of the Eleventh World Congress by the Centers for Inquiry (co-hosted by CAST, CRISP, CFI/Beijing, the Chinese Academy of Science, and many top universities and scientific institutes). CFI/Transnational was pleased to send a delegation of twenty distinguished scientists and philosophers from several countries to the Eleventh World Congress.

The basic theme of the World Congress was development of the public’s understanding of science—its methods of inquiry, its naturalistic worldview, and the relationship of science to ethics. These topics are relevant to many societies, but also to the planetary community. The Chinese are concerned with maintaining internal harmony within China and especially expressed worry about global warming and environmental pollution of the atmosphere and water resources. Although there is a preponderance of evidence about the reality of global warming, Ken Frazier pointed out in his paper, a minority of readers of Skeptical Inquirer adamantly claim there isn’t a problem.

All told, some seventy papers—many provocative—were delivered at the Congress, including those by eminent Chinese scientists, such as Professor Qin Dahe, renowned climatologist and meteorologist and Chinese representative to the world agency concerned with global warming (that had just received a Nobel Prize), Cheng Donghong, executive secretary of CAST, and Ren Fujun, the energetic head of CRISP. Ren and I co-chaired the Congress.

Ren said that they wished to expand the role of the Center for Inquiry in China; the enterprise of science popularization has reached an opportune moment as the country grapples with an incredible development boom. It is important, he said, to continue research cooperation between CRISP, CFI/Beijing, and CFI/Transnational to increase the number of Chinese researchers who will participate in summer training classes at the CFI Institute in Amherst, New York, and to co-sponsor international conferences. Many of our Chinese counterparts expressed a desire to establish CFIs in other cities in China. On our trip to Shanghai we met Wang Xin, director of the Shanghai Association for Science and Technology in their new building, and he affirmed that they would like to establish a CFI/Shanghai.

Thus, the Eleventh World Congress ratified and solidified twenty years of interchange and pledged the continued cooperation in furthering the public’s understanding of science.

China’s Soaring Economy

The entire world community is vitally interested in the Chinese economy, and many international conglomerates have opened branch offices and invested heavily in China. Friendly governments have supported this. The world is eager to trade with the Chinese, and many countries are importing their goods and services at an increasing rate. This has led to complaints about displaced workers at home, because large companies have discovered that they can manufacture products in China and ship them back cheaper than they can produce them in their own countries, sparking tremendous economic expansion in China. Encouraged by its economic vitality, foreign capital investment in China is increasing. This is similar to what happened historically elsewhere when foreign capital enabled countries to develop.

The opening of China to the free market in the past two decades has led to its explosive economic growth. As Frazier notes, of the leading twenty companies in the world, in terms of stock valuation, eight of them are Chinese (including China Mobile, China Telecom, PetroChina, etc.). The sudden emergence of a new class of billionaires in China is an astounding development. Indeed, there are an estimated 100 billionaires living in mainland China (according to the Hurun Report and Forbes). Most of the wealth comes from real estate, construction, and manufacturing. The wealthiest person on the list is Yang Huiyan, who received a $17.5 billion gift of stock from her father, a real estate developer. Zhang Yin is worth $10 billion due to a surge in the share prices of his Nine Dragons Paper holdings (he owns 72 percent); Yu Rongman, owner of Shimao Property holdings, has $7.5 billion in wealth. And Huang Guangyu, founder of Gome Electrical Appliances, is worth $6 billion according to estimates. Most of this wealth comes from a real estate boom and soaring prices on the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges (similar to Google). The Shanghai and Hong Kong stock markets made more money last year from public offerings than the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ combined. China is now the chief engine of economic growth in the world—projections place it second to the U.S. by 2015.

This indicates, perhaps, that China is hardly a Communist country; it has a mixed economy—the private sector continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Official Chinese statistics indicate that privately owned companies comprise one-third of the total economy, but I think that this figure is too low. Chinese capitalism is now the dominant force accelerating the economy. What China is able to do on top of that, which other capitalist countries cannot, is use the power of the State to plan large projects and harness both private and public companies to achieve them—such as the vast effort to reconstruct a large section of Beijing for the Olympic Games.

Environmental, Societal Challenges

Like Frazier, I was stunned by the evident progress that China had made in the nineteen years since we were there. Everywhere we went new construction was bustling—factories and stores, highway systems, skyscrapers and apartment houses, and entire new towns and cities. China uses one-third of the cranes in the world, according to estimates. The four cities we visited—Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Guilin (we had visited the first three on our last trip)—are being transformed at a breakneck pace. The Chinese we met on the streets in restaurants and stores seemed proud of these accomplishments, which led to a noticeable improvement in the standard of living, at least in the major cities. This was especially the case in Shanghai, which is truly breathtaking. Daniel Dennett cajoled us into taking a boat ride around the Pudong part of Shanghai. At night the city is dazzling—almost nothing had been constructed when we were there in 1988. It was as if two new Manhattans had sprung up out of nowhere. There are dramatic plans to continue new construction, we were informed by a director of Shanghai’s Urban Planning Exhibition Center where a model city of the future was on display.

We enjoyed royal treatment by our Chinese hosts, first in Beijing, where we were chauffeured by limousine to see the massive preparations for the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games. It appeared to us that they had a long way to go if they are to complete the Olympic facilities on time. But the construction manager assured us that they were working three shifts around the clock and that it would be finished. We didn’t doubt that; China has a vast pool of cheap labor that they can apply to such projects. The rest of the world has discovered the availability of this skilled labor force, transferring vast new industries to China and abandoning their own industrial bases for the allure of Chinese productivity.

Incredibly, the rate of growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been 10 to 11 percent over the last four years. In gross terms, it reached $2.7 trillion U.S. dollars in 2006—this is one-fourth that of the U.S., though China has four times the U.S. population. The Chinese hope to quadruple their economy by 2020, despite unforeseen obstacles that may slow it down.

We found the streets of China choked with automobile congestion. Surprisingly, many of the cars in Beijing and Shanghai are four-door, replacing the ubiquitous bicycles that we saw on our earlier trip. As Frazier observed, the air pollution was thick, far worse than Los Angeles on its bad days. One Chinese official told me that a recent public poll asked the Chinese what they most wanted: a huge majority responded that their main interest was to own a large four-door automobile! Given the vast increase in energy consumption, the environmental problems that China faces are awesome. The Chinese government is aware of the need to reach sustainable development without pollution. By all accounts, 85 percent of the streams and rivers are fouled or rancid, depleting fresh water supplies. China produces 70 percent of the world’s farmed fish in coastal cities and in the mighty Yangtze River, frequently contaminated by mercury, lead, and other toxic chemicals. Murray Gell-Mann reported that Chinese officials said that China is constructing two new power plants per week, fired by polluting coal, but they cannot get provincial leaders to reduce emissions. Moreover, we did not see any great emphasis on the conservation of energy by producing smaller cars (they seemed to have followed Detroit) or dimming their bright lights (much like Las Vegas and Broadway). In this sense, they seem to be emulating America in wasteful, conspicuous consumption, though the government has recently issued guidelines to radically alter how they grow.

No doubt the chief cause of China’s energy/resource/environmental problem is the fact that the population keeps growing. The streets are teeming with pedestrians. Many years ago China instituted a stringent one child per/family policy to restrain population growth. Criticized by the Western world for its restraint on freedom of choice, the Chinese nevertheless felt it was an urgent necessity. This has had unexpected consequences, however, for there may not be enough workers to support their aging parents, the custom in ancient China. The growth of the population is due primarily to the decline of the death rate because of better nutrition and sanitary conditions. The average lifespan has risen from thirty-five years to seventy-two years in the past four decades. Were China to catch up with Japan (where the average lifespan is now over eighty), this would place still greater strains on natural resources. Demographic projections indicate that China will add 300,000,000 people by the year 2030—equivalent to the entire U.S. population! The most likely place they can migrate to is Western China—even then, will China have enough resources to feed and satisfy its vast population?

Another urgent problem confronting them is the great disparity in wealth, which could lead to intense internal conflicts. Hence, the Chinese government has focused on harmony as a central social goal. “Harmony” is Confucian in origin and a moral norm. Traditional Confucian thought emphasizes the cultivation of a virtuous and happy life. One way to do this is to fulfill your station and its duties; another is to reach personal fulfillment. Presumably, in a socialist society, it is to strive for the common good. In any case, there is now interest in classical China, something spurned by Mao.

Overcoming poverty is now a focus of Chinese leadership. The per-capita income in 2006, according to government statistics (which may or may not be reliable), was approximately $2,042, up nearly 20 percent from the previous year, yet still much lower than other industrial countries of Europe, the U.S., and Japan. In major cities such as Shanghai, the per-capita income is approximately $4,000 per person, but in the countryside (we visited model farms outside of Guilin) the peasants only earn $300 per year, barely enough for food and shelter. They live at a subsistence level and use farming methods that go back millennia. Large numbers of people are leaving rural areas for the cities—but there are not enough jobs for everyone. Hence, rising levels of affluence will no doubt lead to a comparative rise in aspirations. Demands from poorer regions point to an explosive powder keg. There are already reports of tens of thousands of protests throughout the country. Perhaps that is why, although the Chinese leadership is strenuously attempting to expand the GDP, it is now emphasizing the need for distribution of consumer goods in poorer areas to achieve social harmony.

One thing is clear: China is not a “Cold War” Communist country. Although its government may be authoritarian, it is not totalitarian; it encourages innovation and enterprise and tolerates some diversity. It has a pluralistic economy with a strong capitalist sector and a great number of privately held stores and restaurants. Former premier Deng Xiaoping’s policies are heralded as the salvation of China. The leadership plans to quadruple its GDP by 2020, and thereby increase the per-capita income and standard of living. There is a growing middle class in major industrial centers and cities of perhaps 15 to 20 million people and a large underclass longing to share in the good life. For these reasons, the Chinese continue to keep the throttles on “high” in order to increase production, enabling a wider distribution of consumer goods and services to vast numbers of the indigent population.

China’s Political Future

While we were in Beijing, the Seventeenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (73 million members) was in session. Some 2,200 delegates attended. Viewing the meetings on television news each evening (on an English-translation channel) seemed like an anachronism. Two-thousand Communist Party (CPC) officials were shown in the People’s Hall—the men were dressed in somber, dark suits or uniforms and the women in staid attire. The Congress opened with a statement of allegiance to Marxism/Leninism. There seemed almost no dissent in the sessions of the Congress, at least none was broadcast. A Central Committee (Politburo) and a standing committee of seven run China. They call it collective leadership. Hu Jinatao, head of the Communist Party, laid out the new party line at the Congress. He pointed out that China had not yet reached socialism and that their goal was to move toward “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The aim, he said, would be to strive for “a moderately prosperous society,” which they hoped to reach by 2020. The agenda sounded—at least on paper—worthy: it recognized the need of the people to “exercise democratic rights” and to act only under “the constitution and by the rule of law.” According to China Daily (Oct. 28, 2007), Chinese democracy will seek “to guarantee freedom, equality, and other rights of citizens.” Yu Keping of the CPC Central Committee declared that “universal values serve to bolster political reforms,” and these include freedom, justice, democracy, equality, and human rights. Presumably, this will contribute to a harmonious society.

Hu promised to appoint more noncommunists as cabinet ministers to governmental positions. The CPC announced on the eve of the Congress the appointment of two noncommunists, Wan Gang, the new Minister of Science and Technology, and Chen Zu, the new Minster of Health, the first such appointees since the 1970s.

Hu also said that although China will continue its rapid growth, it needs to be balanced and sustainable—the Chinese press hailed this as a new “conservation culture.” Reducing the depletion of natural resources and providing environmental protection is the only way to do this. China also plans, he said, to reduce absolute poverty with a reasonable system of income distribution and a growing middle class, guaranteeing everyone a basic standard of living. Thus, they hope to reverse the growing disparity in income. China does not have universal health care, a system of social security, or universal education—services which virtually all of the industrialized democracies of the world have. Compulsory education, where it exists in China, is only for nine years, and large sectors of the country have not even implemented that. One member of the cadre said to me plaintively that the glamour of Beijing and Shanghai do not reflect the massive catch-up that China needs to achieve in the countryside if it is to fulfill its ambitious goals.

The provision of the Communist Party’s Congress that I found most surprising is the supremacy it accords science and technology in its future plans. The Party Congress—it is perhaps the only major power in the world to do so—supports as its highest priority the “scientific outlook on development,” a goal adopted as an amendment to the CPC Constitution. China is now the fastest-growing sustainer of scientific research and development in the world with a growth rate of 18 percent per year over the past five years. It is now in third place behind the U.S. and Japan and moving up fast. The U.S., Japan, and Europe had an overall growth rate in research and development of only 2.9 percent per year. By all reports, the equipment in its laboratories is equal in quality to the rest of the world. Moreover, the Chinese are seeking to attract the brightest researchers to China, and they are eager for partnerships. (See the lead editorial in Science, “Chinese Science on the Move,” by Alan I. Leshner and Vaughan Turekian, December 7, 2007.)

Hu, trained as an engineer, was quoted as saying: “Uphold science; don’t be ignorant and unenlightened.” What a contrast with the current U.S. administration where “intelligent design” theorists oppose evolution and stem-cell research is effectively thwarted. Traditional Marxist theory emphasizes that the expansion of “the forces of production” is essential to economic growth—the Chinese have recognized that increased expenditures for science and technology are crucial to their effective development.

What role does socialism play in China’s future? China is supposed to be in the preliminary stages of socialism. According to Hu, the first aspect is that China should be “people-oriented,” and second, its development should be “sustainable and contribute to social harmony.” They now recognize that basing policies on economic GDP indexes alone is insufficient. They need to pay attention to wasted resources, social unrest, environmental degradation, and regional imbalances. China has vowed to reduce its per-capita energy consumption 20 percent by 2010 and emission of pollutants by 10 percent in the same period. Are these mere ideological slogans, or will China embrace these challenges as it continues to lunge ahead?

More important perhaps for the future is whether there will be conflict within the “relationships of production” between two powerful forces—the free market/capitalist system and its powerful billionaires and thriving middle class versus the Communist Party cadre. Castrating the private sector could halt Chinese productive power as part of the global economy. On the other hand, if its power grows, would it in time dislodge the Communist bureaucracy and lead to a collapse of the system or the emergence of an outright military dictatorship? Will the diplomatic policies of the current regime be supplanted by hostile confrontations in the future? All of these possible scenarios are disturbing, for it may lead to China’s decline, and given the interdependence of the entire global economy, could lead to the unraveling of the world economic-political system as we know it.

Prudence suggests that we should continue to work closely with the Chinese and encourage the democratization of the political system, the growth of other parties besides the Communist Party, the right of dissent, a free press, respect for human rights, and widespread participation and grassroots involvement in the policies of the country.

China is perhaps the oldest continuous culture on the planet with strong family traditions, a set of moral virtues with deep roots in its past, and resourceful, intelligent, and hard-working people. Skilled in business, artful in negotiation, we should not push them—backs to the wall—into a classical confrontation of national power-politics. We should continue to welcome them into the new planetary civilization emerging in this age of instantaneous electronic communication where cultural, scientific, philosophical, artistic, and economic exchange is vital for everyone.

I should add that our contacts with the Chinese people over the years, whether scientists, professors, students, or ordinary folks, have been most gratifying. The Chinese invariably bestow gifts when people visit them or when they travel abroad. They are generous hosts. Everywhere we went we were feted with sumptuous banquets overflowing with savory dishes, and of course hot tea. The Chinese people we met were invariably polite and well spoken and sought not to offend. They display the refined manners that their ancient civilization and rich culture have cultivated for so long.

In its small way, the Center for Inquiry intends to embrace continuous dialogue, intercommunication, and interchange with the Chinese people. Hopefully, this will lead in a modest way not only to the development of a more peaceful and humanistic world, but one that recognizes the mutual interests and needs of everyone in the planetary community as we try to work out values that we share.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz's photo

Professor Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, CFI's former chairman, the former Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz has spent much of his life on the critical examination of religion, but believes that naturalists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God, but to affirm the positive implications of the secular humanist perspective.