This article is from the In-Depth Report China, the Olympics, and the Environment
Science Talk

Inside China: Science, Technology, Energy and the Environment

Former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, Philip Pan, author of Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, discusses the science, technology, environment and culture of China with Scientific American's David Biello, who recently spent almost a month reporting from the country. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.


Former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, Philip Pan, author of Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, discusses the science, technology, environment and culture of China with Scientific American's David Biello, who recently spent almost a month reporting from the country. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. 

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting August 6, 2008, I'm Steve Mirsky. China is what the entire planet is talking about right now, Philip Pan spent seven years there as the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. He is the author of the new book, Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China'. Scientific American's David Biello recently spent three weeks reporting in China. Philip, David, and I got together to talk about China in terms of science, technology, and environmental issues. We met on July 31st at Scientific American's office in New York City.

Steve: Dave, you spent little over three weeks in China.

Biello: Yes.

Steve: So, what is the scene as you saw there?

Biello: My take on China as a whole?

Steve: There you go, why not?

Biello: Well, I started off the trip in Beijing and obviously Beijing was very caught up in Olympics fever, everything from extending the subway lines to banning cars from the streets, attempting to rain in some of the woeful air pollution that they have there. It's not unlike L.A. because when the weather doesn't cooperate, basically an inversion layer sits and the pollution isn't going anywhere. So no matter how many cars you ban, you may not clear the skies of Beijing unless the weather cooperates. They also struggle with factories, both legal and illegal in the surrounding environments and surrounding provinces.

Steve: In terms of pollution sources?

Biello: In terms of pollution sources and so this has been a big challenge leading up to the Olympics and, you know, that has obviously led to some athletes deciding not to participate or to take what scientifically speaking is a foolish precaution wearing masks which actually would not help that much. But I also traveled throughout the country out to Shandong province to visit a city that's trying to go carbon neutral, something that no city in the U.S. has the temerity to attempt at this point and also out West, as you mentioned, I was there when earthquake took place. I didn't get any closer than Chongqing which is still some distance from the epicenter, but I did experience one of the aftershocks which just to give a frame of reference was 6.1 on the Richter scale bigger than the recent temblor in Los Angeles.

Steve: Let me turn to Philip. I just read a blog item that you put up speaking of the earthquake that was specifically related to the situation with the schools and school construction. Tell us about the infrastructure basically in China and, you know, the earthquake is an extreme example, but how is the country dealing with modernizing with that unbelievably huge population.

Pan: Well, there has been tremendous investment in infrastructure over the years. You have pretty good airports all around the country and just over the past 10 years, you've seen a real interstate highway system emerge in China as well. But there is persistent concern about the quality of some of the construction and this is because, local officials sometimes take bribes and allow construction companies to build things below standard and so we have a situation in the Sichuan province where the earthquake occurred, where schools were collapsing and collapsed at a much greater rate than other government buildings and the suspicion is of course that local officials have taken bribes and allowed the schools to be built this way. Thousands of children died as a result and it has become a real political headache right now for the government, because this kind of concern really resonates with the public.

Steve: Your blog item also mentioned how journalists have really pretty much ignored the warnings of government and gone in to investigate things that weren't supposed to and how that's paradoxically going to possibly help the government.

Pan: It did help the government and this is a pattern that we've seen again and again over the past few years and I described it in detail in the book. When the government acts more openly, more democratically, and is more tolerant of, for example, the journalists and others pushing for freedom, it becomes a more efficient government. So when the journalists rush to the scene of the earthquake despite an order by the government for them not to go, information traveled back to Beijing faster and they were also able to put more pressure on the government to respond to the earthquake and I think they also showed the leaders in a more positive light than what it had been if they didn't have journalists there. And certainly Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao looked better in the aftermath of that earthquake than President Bush did after hurricane Katrina and so this resulted in a big victory for the party, even though its initial instinct was to prevent the journalists from going, and so I think we see the situation where people are getting more freedom in China, and at the same time the party—the one-party system—is getting stronger and this is the dynamic that seems very contradictory, but I think we'll may be seeing for sometime yet still in China.

Steve: Let's talk about science and technology in China since that's what Scientific American is most concerned about. Is there a change in the flow of brains? I mean, when I was in grad school, we had many kids from China who would go to grad school here and many of them would stay here, but what's that flow like, are more and more people going back to China now to take advantage of the skills they've picked up elsewhere in the world and applying them at home.

Pan: Yes, we do see more people going back to China because the economy there is growing so fast. Many of them feel that there are more opportunities for them in China than in West and in the United States, but I think the overall numbers still show that most of these students, who go overseas to study, especially in science and technology field end up staying overseas. The government is trying to do more to bring them back and this goes to the sort of the central contradiction between science and authoritarianism in some ways. You have a situation, you know, where the party is very much in control of the education system of the labs and, you know, science wants to be free, information wants to flow freely and you have a government that's not used to that and so scientists sometimes prefer to stay overseas because of that.

Steve: Is the kind of creeping xenophobia that we are seeing here in the United States is that helping China keep some of its home grown talent?

Pan: Yes, I think that's definitely the case. You know, people sometimes say that when students from China come here and study and they go back, that they are bringing back western ideas, bringing back, you know, values of human rights and democracy, but that's partly true and definitely I have seen a lot of people come back with these kinds of ideas, well others come back and they have had such a negative experience in the United States that they become defensive about the one-party system, they become fans of it in someways. After all they really benefited and they grew up in this period where the one-party system has resulted in this tremendous boom and they were beneficiaries of it and so I think it cuts both ways.

Steve: What's the aftermath of all the tainted products that seem to come out of China, I believe, last summer. What's been going on there in relation to that?

Pan: Well, there hasn't been a lot of discussion of it really in the Chinese media, but this is another example of the weakness of the one-party political system, you know, they have shown that the one-party system can deliver economic growth, but it's an open question whether they can deliver other public goods for clean environment, as they discuss, has been a real challenge for them and because local officials are so addicted to economic growth, they are not willing to, addicted because they profit from it personally, they haven't been willing to really enforce environmental laws about, you know, good health care system, and education system. So, these are all things that the one-party system is struggling to deliver and it will be interesting to see if people are going to be willing to put up with deficiencies in these areas.

Steve: What's the attitude about global warming. I know there are coal plants, you know, seemingly in endless number in the pipeline of fuel. So, what other than, you know, we heard Dave talk about the city that China will be carbon neutral, but what's the overall scheme there, they try to deal with global warming.

Pan: Well the central government, I think, has. There are people in the central government who recognize this is a problem and who understand that something has to be done, but again this party is in power because of economic growth and they are wary of doing anything that is going to slow that down. Part of the people in power, I think, they also resent on some of the finger-pointing at China, even though they are now, I think, the number one producer of these greenhouse gases.

Steve: That happened about a month ago...

Pan: Over the course of the last year.

Steve: Yeah.

Pan: Per capita, they are still obviously way behind the United States and other industrial nations and there is this argument that the United States and the West, you know, they went through their industrial revolutions and we need to go through ours, but still that ignores the argument that the others, the lessons learnt, you know, China should be able to take a different path and there is a budding environmental movement right now in China, trying to put pressure on the government to do something about this, but again, you know, these officials are addicted to economic growth. They needed to stay in power, they needed to enrich themselves and they haven't been willing to take the hard steps to shut down for example, coal plants and other factories that are contributing to the problem.

Biello: What I was surprised by in my own kind of interviews and interactions with people was, how aware everybody I spoke to, from people in the most remote villages to, you know, sophisticated urbanites, were aware of global warming and had a fairly progressive view of action that needed to be taken to do something about that now. They didn't necessarily know what exactly that action should be or how it should inconvenience their lives, but certainly awareness of the issue was universal, at least as far as I could see.

Steve: So it sounds like, you have a population that's primed to act once some kind of a reasonable plan is developed to do something about the problem.

Pan: There is definitely constituency for change, you know, to act on this, whether that public demand for change and ever it gets translated into policy one and whether that policy can ever be implemented because of this bureaucratic structure that they have over there that's very top down and dependent on profits and that's an open question, I think.

Biello: And they do have some more aggressive policies than even the U.S. at present as far as renewable energy goes, whether those who actually realized they have had a lot of problems with kind of wind farms that didn't perform up to expectations, but they do have fairly aggressive targets for how much energy it needs to come from renewable resources like the wind and the sun, they have become the manufacturer, as in all things, for Photovoltaics and the wind turbine blades that are basically powering the green revolution in the West. You know, they are manufacturing all that stuff and eventually if the China price gets applied to renewables that may be what makes those energy sources viable globally.

Pan: It's a good point.

Steve: Let's talk a little bit more about energy in a related subject. What's the car situation. How many people have, how many cars are there on the roads in China?

Pan: China has 24 cars for every thousand people out of a population of 1.3 billion or so. We have 800 for every thousand people out of a population of 350 million or so.

Steve: And in the next generation, the car population in China is going to explode.

Biello: Very easily could. Certainly everybody that I saw in my short time was extremely interested in purchasing a car and if they happen to be from the more upwardly mobile kind of middle class, they were very interested in buying not a fuel-efficient car but a hummer even, you know, pretty much following the exact same model as the American aspiration or, you know, the "American dream" model and certainly the suburbs seem to be a growing trend and if you noticed that, Philip, you know, I visited a suburb called Orange County outside of Beijing and it really looked like Orange County and they even had like the palm trees and everything and I saw these in all the cities I visited Chongqing, Chengdu, various other cities that I visited, they were ringed by suburbs and the folks who live there, you know, the privileged few were using cars to commute into the cities for work.

Steve: So there is, there would be more and more cars obviously dealing with the pollution problem is going to wind up being something people want to deal with for its own sake but also because it is going to be a health issue.

Pan: Yes.

Steve: More and more Chinese are going to start to be concerned about respiratory conditions that the pollution is going to be tied to.

Pan: 17 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China and they recognize that this is a problem and certainly the people recognize it. The health care system is a complete mess too right now. They are really struggling to solve these problems, but I think it's this political system that's in place that's making it very difficult to do so. You know, we'll have to see if they can tackle this without public pressure, you know, directly affecting the policy makers.

Biello: The World Bank last year put out a report saying that air pollution was causing the Chinese economy a 100-billion dollars a year and that's about 750,000 extra deaths could be attributed to that air pollution. Now that's not just the air pollution from cars, you've to remember that even though China may present a developed face to the world via the Olympics, the vast majority of Chinese are still living in the country side and indoor air pollution is the biggest challenge they're facing.

Steve: These people cook in their house with wood and charcoal.

Biello: Yeah, smoke from stoves and they are burning coal, they're burning charcoal, they're burning wood and the particular matter, everything else is getting into their lungs and are cutting short their lives.

Pan: And the situation is only going to get worse. You know, you said the vast majority of the population was in the countryside, but that has already begun to change. I think the latest population figures now, majority of the people live in the cities and that's only going to increase. Now this is the big and most massive urbanization that, you know, migration that we've ever seen in the history of the world. And so you're going to see development of mega cities all across this country and the environmental pressure is on the land there are only going to be intensified because of that.

Biello: It's amazing just the scale of development in China. It's really, I have never seen anything like it, they call the construction crane, the national bird of China, because really everywhere you go, that's what you see and you don't see too many real birds.

Pan: And key to the future of this, I think, are the environmental groups. You know, the government sort of has a love-hate relationship with these environmental groups. The government doesn't like NGOs and civil organizations that it doesn't control. It doesn't allow labor unions, it doesn't allow independent churches, and it generally wouldn't allow these environmental organizations except that it needs them, I think. And so they tolerated the environmental organizations because they're on the right message. Now the question is going to come up at some point when these environmental groups push too far, what is the government going to do or they are going to stand with the environmentalists or stand with the people who are pushing and challenging the government or they are going to back down side with the cronies, you know, in the businesses and the party officials were profiting from, for example, the new dams that are being built.

Biello: Yeah, in and off the record conversations many of the folks involved in government that I talked to, you know, were as candid as they could be and saying that the environmental groups were performing very useful function in terms of raising public awareness of these issues and also policing these issues. The government for all its reach can't be everywhere and can't be at every, you know, outflow pipe or smoke stack and the environmental groups seem to be doing a better job, of kind of pointing to problematic outflows of water pollution and saying, hey this is a problem can we clean this up and then the government can in some cases step in and in other cases...

Pan: In other cases they'll arrest the environmentalists.

Biello: Yeah, exactly.

Pan: You know we have a total number—I think more than a dozen different environmental activists have been imprisoned in China over the past several years for challenging local officials who were polluting.

Biello: And getting back to the schools, China just imprisoned a man, blanking on his name, who had posted a video showing the school collapses.

Steve: You mentioned him in your blog item, I think...

Pan: That's another guy there...

Steve: Oh... another guy...

Pan: He was a Web master basically. He ran a Web site that basically did several rights activism in these communities and he was trying to help these parents organize and demand investigation into the collapse of these schools and he has been arrested. This is the second time actually that he has been arrested on these types of charges. So, it takes a lot courage to push forward for this change.

Biello: A lot of courage.

Steve: What are some of the real success stories other than just the unbelievable economic development that we've seen in the last decade or so. What struck you in the seven years you spent there?

Pan: What comes to mind really is what happened during the SARS epidemic. You know, you had a situation where the government was covering up this disease and if it could have continued this way, the disease could have spread much faster and it could have been a much more dangerous situation for the entire world. If it weren't really for one man, a doctor who worked at a military hospital. He is an older fellow. His name is Jiang Yanyong and, you know, he had been an ardent communist in his youth. He was the member of the People's Liberation Army, a senior party official really and during the culture revolution he had suffered and he sort of lost his faith in communism like almost everyone in the country really. But he needed to believe in something and what he turned to was medicine and science as a profession. He felt if he couldn't change society at least he could do right by his patients. And when during the SARS epidemic, the minister of health went on television and lied to the country and to the world about the situation. I think he said there were only seven people who had died. This doctor knew there were more, just in his own hospital and he knew from other colleagues and other hospitals that the total was probably well over 100 already. In fact it was over 300, I think, at that time, and so he was infuriated because the minister of health was also a doctor. He felt that this man was violating the ethics of his profession and so, he wrote a letter that eventually made its way to the foreign press and, you know, almost overnight, you know, really within a matter of weeks, the government backed down and ended the cover-up, fired the minister of health, fired the mayor of Beijing and it was really to me an inspiring example of how one person, you know, who had something to believe in can really change the course of events and the course of history really.

Steve: What's different about the government. This isn't really a science issue but I am just fascinated because I remember, I am old enough to remember, if you did something like that in China, let's say 25 years ago, you're going to get away with it.

Pan: That's right.

Steve: So, as the party learned how to be flexible and that's how it stays, I mean, you've sort of said this already. It stays in power by being flexible enough to back-down at some things.

Pan: That's right. I think, well the most dramatic example of it backing down is the back-down on its ideals. You know, it was once a Marxist socialist party, now it's essentially a capitalist party and it still calls itself the communist party, but it doesn't really do anything communist anymore except, you know, try to stay in power. Well, the other thing that has happened, I think, is the explosion of media in China. You know, the Internet has had a tremendous impact but also, you know, newspapers, television stations, radio stations, they all are doing much more than they could before. The party when embraced market reforms, you know, these media outlets realized that they needed to deliver something that people wanted to watch and so real journalism was part of that and so when this man was able to stand up to the government and the word got out in the international media, it quickly made its way onto the Internet, so people in China could see it and then it spread very quickly on text messages on cell phones and on instant messaging, and e-mail. It wasn't something that the government could completely control anymore. So they've, you know, they still run all the newspapers and the television stations, but they don't have the iron grip on it that they used to, but the government is fine about this. They also recognize that it's more than just censorship. It's also using the Internet to get their message across, and so they've actually hired hundreds of thousands of people around the country who go into Internet chat rooms and built in boards and post things in favor of the government to support the government and these people obviously don't identify themselves on the payroll of the propaganda bureau and so they're trying to use the Internet to direct public opinion in that way and that can be very effective as well.

Steve: Hundreds of thousands of people...

Pan: I think, you know, by some estimates, I think it's as many as 200,000, a lot of them college kids.

Biello: Remember it's 1.3 billions, so hundred thousand is a different fraction.

Pan: They call this group the 50-Cent Party because the rumor is that they're paid 50 cents for each posting they put up on the Internet that's favorable to the party.

Biello: And I would add two things to that. The older gentleman that you're mentioning, it seemed to me...

Steve: The SARS case?

Biello: Yeah, the SARS case [showed] that the retired congress were far more critical and open about their criticism of the government, of the country, of the state of affairs—primarily, I think, because they had far less to lose as they got older.

Pan: That's definitely part of it. I also think part of it is that they in many ways are more idealistic because they grew up with the revolution they believed in it, if they had to let go of that belief, but they turned to something else. A lot of the people coming up through the Chinese scientific and medical ranks today are much more cynical about their purpose—you know, the state has basically trained them to serve the state and, you know, they are more concerned now about providing for their own families, about making a profit. You know, they are not sure what to believe in. So, this older generation still has a role to play even though they are fading from the scene in many ways.

Biello: And on the censorship side of things, I can say, you know, frankly that the tentacles of censorship reach all the way to the United States. There are a number of researchers in the U.S. who, you know, do not want to talk to me on the record for fear of losing their ability to travel back to China, to investigate various issues that a number of researchers in China who, you know, were more than happy to share their research, you know, want to make sure that it's presented in the appropriate light and a lot of that, I think, is a self-censorship. It's not that there is any direct government effort to control you. It's just a generalized fear of what the repercussions could be if I don't present the right information.

Pan: And this goes back to the original issue of, you know, whether an authoritarian state can really have real innovation—real scientific innovation—because when people are afraid to speak out. And actually in academia, you know, there are—I don't think there's one really good academic journal in China, for example, because it's so corrupt right now and so, you know, whether without a, you know, free flow of information exchange of ideas, if everyone is always being careful about what they say, you know, in a kind of environment like that really faster innovation, real research and development, China hasn't been able to show that yet.

Steve: Phil, you're off to Moscow next.

Pan: I'm going to Moscow in a few weeks, yes.

Steve: To be the bureau chief for The Washington Post in Moscow.

Pan: Yeah, for something different. But something similar, too...

Steve: Something similar and something different.

Biello: They have got a few polluted cities there, too.

Pan: That's right.

Steve: And Dave, tell us just a little bit about the package—the China package we have up on the Web.

Biello: So, since Monday we've had a suite of articles up online Mind from my brief time in China, and some other research I've been able to do in the U.S. covering everything from renewables in China to kind of, the state of the environment as well as some of these issues like indoor air pollution and the carbon neutral city and the rest of it.

Steve: Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China is Philip Pan's book and again our China coverage is up on the Web. Guys, thanks very much, fascinating conversation.

Biello: Thank you.

Pan: Thank you.

Steve: To get to Philip Pan's blog, just go to his book's page at Amazon and scroll down to the link for the blog.


Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: The current U.S. population of red imported fire ants that infests millions of acres across southern states was founded by no more than 25 fire ant queens.

Story number 2: Contagious yawning, where you yawn because you see your friend yawn can only occur in humans and other primates such as chimps.

Story number 3: The world's smallest species of snake has been discovered. It averages less than four inches in length.

And story number 4: The louder the music in a bar, the more beers people drink.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. No more than 20 queens and possibly as few as nine were the founders of the gazillions of red fire ants that now infests the South. That's according to a genetic study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. The tiny founder group originated in South America and stowed away on a boat that landed in Mobile, Ala., about 75 years ago. Ironically E. O. Wilson, the world's foremost authority on ants spent a lot of his youth roaming around natural areas near Mobile, just as the ants were getting a good grip on their new home.

Story number 4 is true. People in bars with louder music drank more in less time. That's according to a study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. The music may get people more hopped up or it just may be harder to talk, so might as well imbibe. For more, check out the August 4th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

And story number 3 is true. A snake thin as spaghetti that can rest comfortably on a quarter has been found in Barbados. The Penn State research team that found the snake has also identified the world's smallest frog and lizard. The findings appear in the journal, Zootaxa. Science has identified about 3,000 species of snakes worldwide.

All of which means that story number 2 about contagious yawning being limited to primates is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because a new study finds that human yawning can induce yawning in dogs. The study appears in the journal, Biology Letters. The researchers think that the interspecies yawn transfer could be part of the complex ways our two species have developed to communicate with each other. (dog barking) What's that Lassie? There's trouble at the old... (yawning)

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit for the latest science news, videos, and blogs. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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