Nandita Mohan / Sun Staff Photographer

Yangyang Cheng, postdoc research associate, expressed her concerns about the Chinese government's use of scientific research for propaganda at a lecture on Monday.

March 7, 2018

Researcher Warns Against Chinese Government Using Science as Propaganda

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Global academic scholars should stand up to protect academic values against the use of science for propaganda by the Chinese government, said Yangyang Cheng, postdoc research associate at Cornell’s laboratory for accelerator-based sciences and education, during a lecture Monday.

The lecture was the latest installment in the Cornell Contemporary China Initiative spring lecture series and addressed the repercussions of rapid scientific advancement in China.

According to Cheng, China’s scientific development slowed while Mao Zedong was chairman in the 1950s, but has quickly caught up in some specific fields. Cheng said that China’s “Four Modernization” plan, enacted in 1977, modernized agriculture, industry, national defense and science and technology.

“The country has made remarkable progress,” she said.

However, Cheng said she believes that China is abusing scientific research to establish an “authoritarian government.”

Last year, The New York Times reported that Springer, one of the world’s largest academic publishers, agreed to the Chinese government’s request to block hundreds of its articles from its Chinese website. Cheng said Springer’s actions are aiding China in “growing its propaganda.”

Cheng also said that the Chinese government is collecting massive amounts of biometrics data, including DNA of residents in the Xinjiang province, as a “mandatory medical check-up.”

“When the Chinese government supports science, it sees science as a tool for both surveillance and military means,” Cheng said.

Cheng also claimed that, to the imperial Chinese government, even “the movement of the stars somehow is a divine implication of emperor’s rule,” referencing historical Chinese astronomy.

Cheng disagreed with this ideology, calling it the “opposite of respecting science.” She said that a government’s control over science can lead to absolute power.

“If a government is scientific, and if science is the one and only truth, then this government holds on power must be undefiable, and absolute, so as the ideology goes,” Cheng said.

Cheng also expressed concerns about the current Chinese government’s recruitment of overseas Chinese scientists, including those in the United States, for research that “doesn’t leave room for any ethical considerations.”

Cheng pointed to the example of Deng Jiaxian, a Chinese scientist in the U.S. during the 1950s  who became the father of the Chinese nuclear program.

“Why would a scientist choose to build bombs, the most powerful weapon on Earth, for a regime that has killed more of its own people than any foreign invaders in history?” Cheng asked.

Though the love for “motherland” and scientific curiosity are genuine, returning scientists are subjecting themselves to the control of the Chinese Communist Party, according to Cheng.

In an interview with The Sun, Cheng acknowledged the strong sentiment of some of the thousands of Cornell students who are originally from China.

“Some [Chinese students] would say that they are more patriotic since leaving China, and some will even make excuses to defend for the Chinese government,” Cheng told The Sun. “That nature is understandable, but did that just come from an emotional standpoint or is it actually valid?”

Cheng says academic scholars, especially those in the “free world,” should not underestimate their “collective power” to protect science, or the world will become “China’s playbook.”

“One should recognize that China needs the rest of the world more than the rest of the world needs China,” Cheng said.