Review of Can Science and Technology Save China? Susan Greenhalgh and Li Zhang, eds., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020, 240 pp.

Reviewed Book

Can Science and Technology Save China? Susan Greenhalgh and Li Zhang, eds., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020, 240 pp.

Can Science and Technology Save China? Susan Greenhalgh and Li Zhang, eds., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020, 240 pp.

Book cover of Can Science and Technology Save China? A futuristic showroom with artistic displays of technology.
Cover of Can Science and Technology Save China?

Jennifer A. Liu

University of Waterloo

Writing in the 1960s, British historian Joseph Needham addressed the “problem of Chinese science” by asking why modern science arose only in the West, considering that China was so technoscientifically advanced and efficient early on. While Needham’s framing of the question has been sufficiently critiqued, a reframed problem of Chinese science retains analytic power in the present and underpins a burgeoning anthropological and historical scholarship, including this edited volume. Can Science and Technology Save China? offers ethnographic analyses of a wide variety of science and technology (S&T) projects in Chinese contexts, often with a focus on shortcomings, challenges, and, indeed, problems of Chinese science. While the titular question remains unanswered, the volume does not lean toward optimism.

The wide-ranging volume addresses public health sciences, biomedical therapies, the rise of the psy disciplines, environmental S&T, and other fields as such enterprises are entangled with governmental priorities, innovation, and commercialization mandates, and each is imbricated in specific (trans-)local social orders that both shape and constrain Chinese technoscientific dreams. Susan Greenhalgh’s historical introduction is critical to orienting readers new to China studies, and each of the subsequent chapters includes just enough historical context to frame the relevant “translocal sociohistorical formation(s)” (p. 215) that shape contemporary Chinese sciences and technologies and their practitioners. (Some readers might find it helpful to read Greenhalgh’s introduction alongside Fan [2022] for a deeper history of the appearance and background of Mr. Science in China in the early decades of the 20th century.) Mei Zhan’s excellent afterward succinctly locates the volume in relevant literatures including that of governmentality and science and technology studies (STS) while emphasizing the multivalent specificity of a China-centered STS.

The book is organized around four sets of paired chapters, each addressing distinct themes. The first pair of chapters centers on the psy disciplines, with Zhiying Ma’s chapter focusing at the level of the population and Li Zhang’s highlighting that of the individual. Ma builds on and contributes to a critical anthropology of numbers in global public health. She shows how community mental health workers are pressured to find the right number of suffering people based on quota-oriented calculations. Such specific numerical technologies simultaneously serve as technologies of surveillance and social control and as expressions of a caring and kind state. Zhang, on the other hand, focuses on the rise of positive psychology, writing on the ways that the “good life” in China is increasingly configured around ideas of science and biomedicine. This chapter contributes to the rich anthropological literature on the broad transformation in contemporary China from an overriding concern with collective and national well-being to that of the individual.

In the second pair of chapters, Priscilla Song and Katherine Mason write on experimental fetal cell therapies and public health sciences respectively, in rich examinations of how science is practiced and how facts are made (up). Song provides a thoughtful critical historical discussion on biomedical experiment, efficacy, and ethics and the ways in which these are rescripted in a Chinese context. Mason’s chapter examines the ways in which internationally trained and oriented public health scientists cope with the fraught production of data and tensions between a kind of “scientific truth” and “correct data” produced to satisfy relationships with higher-ups. Both authors illustrate the ways in which Chinese science is inherently international.

The next pair engages with the role of markets in S&T production specifically as they drive commercialization in environmental and obesity sciences. Elizabeth Lord details how environmental protection is subordinated to economic development, even as they are narrated as complementary. She argues that environmental sciences rely on and reproduce inequalities. In particular, rural areas act as protectors and providers for urban populations and as sites for the disposal of urban pollution. Writing on the rise of obesity in China, Susan Greenhalgh describes Dr. Chen, an obesity researcher who started an NGO to raise funds for research. Supporters include corporations implicated in the growing obesity problem (i.e., soft drink companies) that have an obvious interest in how obesity is defined and addressed. While this might appear to inhere an obvious conflict of interest, Dr. Chen reframes her project as good scientific research in part through a sort of division of ethical labor into two realms—one of formal ethical rules and one of practical ethics, both formed in part through strategic silences.

Finally, Amy Zhang’s chapter on the Black Soldier Fly (BSF) as a technology of organic waste management, and Matthew Kohrman’s on gender and filtration technologies examine the complexities of technological production and uptake. Zhang details the fascinating story of Dr. Wu’s use of the voracious BSF appetites as a way to address urban waste management while marketing the resultant larvae as livestock feed. Contextualized in a lively discussion of human–insect interactions, this is at once a story of indigenous innovation and market pressure along with emergent forms of interspecies dependencies. Kohrman gives a social and political history of filtration devices: masks, cigarette filters, and home air filters. He explores how elements of race, sociality and gender shape the ways that people relate to filtration in what he calls “filtered life.” Herein, home filtration devices come to represent a gendered sense of being either encaged or liberated as they reconfigure domestic space.

I have followed the pairings as they are presented in the book but, as always, the content could have been organized differently as multiple themes intersect across non-coupled chapters. A few examples include: critical studies of numbers and data; scientific truth and trust; the analytic and strategic value of silences and gaps; chronicity and infectivity; rural/urban; inequalities; rising individualism in both psychological and scientific practice. As all the chapters show, Chinese scientists work within complex networks and face pressures and constraints of many kinds shaped by situated sociocultural, political, and economic conditions. They are also international scientists keenly aware of their often-delicate position on the global stage of science. They continually adapt to a shifting landscape of science driven largely by a push toward innovation and commercialization; any “dream” of Chinese S&T is situated within a complex and shifting assemblage. This collection shows clearly the sociality of science that STS scholars have long emphasized; scientists are beholden to specific goals (e.g., government, economic, therapeutic), and specific people (e.g., local cadre leaders, scientific seniors, international colleagues) and may need to reframe their practices as appropriately scientific and ethical.

The book points generally to insufficiencies, disappointments, and challenges of Chinese S&T, however, I wonder if this truly reflects the broader situation or if it might also reflect an anthropological critical bias. Additionally, key strategic S&Ts—such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors, clean energy, aerospace—are beyond the scope of this volume, raising the question of whether their inclusion might have impacted the collective analysis or thrust of the book.

This book is appropriate for both experienced China and STS scholars and newcomers. It offers adequate sociocultural, political, and historical content to orient non-specialists to China’s complex context. I taught this book in an undergraduate anthropology course on contemporary China and the student response was overall very positive. While some students found that it would have benefited from a more coherent structure throughout, most appreciated the content variety and found it a compelling way to learn about China. The book argues against globalization narratives that decenter the state and shows, in fact, how the Chinese state remains a potent source of governmental power in shaping notions of the good life and good science. Its ethnographic depictions offer important texture, stories, and analyses of close-to-the-ground encounters with Chinese technoscience and its varied practitioners and publics. It makes an important contribution to the anthropological literature on China and to studies of Chinese STS.

Reference Cited

Fan, Fa-ti. 2022. “Mr. Science,” May Fourth, and the Global History of Science. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal.