What did my recent trip to China teach me?

I recently had the chance to go to Shanghai. Situated between Beijing and Hong Kong on the East Coast, with a rich history and more people than the entire population of Australia it offers a lot to think about. At first glance it reminded me of Singapore, its modern feel reflecting all the new skyscrapers along the waterfront, so many of which had been built within the last twenty years.

The Sydney taxi driver who took me to the airport said he had come to Australia twenty years ago and left his younger brother in Shanghai – his brother had bet he’d be a millionaire before his elder sibling and my taxi driver confirmed his brother had won the bet.

I stayed in a beautiful part of the city in a grand hotel with the longest breakfast buffet I had ever seen – cuisine from across the world was available. There is no convergent evolution when it comes to breakfasts. The room was comfortable and modern with curtains, lights, television and a high-tech Japanese style toilet all under remote control. A sign on the desk reminded me that certain internet sites, Twitter, Google, Facebook, NY Times and Bloomberg were unavailable. I signed up to WeChat and my phone informed me that it was accessing my list of contacts.

The number of scientific publications from China now exceeds those produced in the US and in Europe. The centre of humanity and biomass has historically been in Asia and the strengths of the great eastern empires are again becoming apparent. I would never say that American, European or even Japanese science was in decline but the proportion of discoveries made by these former leaders is bound to lesson in coming years.

The quality of science in China is as good as anywhere at the top end but like anywhere there is variation. I wanted to find out the response to Jiankui He’s revelation that he had modified human embryos using CRISPR to generate twin girls with mutations in their CCR5 genes, who he suggested may be resistant to HIV infection. Everyone I talked to was very aware of this work and explained it simply – the government had now made it clear that this was illegal and such work would not occur again in China. Other genetic analysis, including the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis was widespread but modification had been outlawed.

I enjoyed talking to the local people I met, many of whom had been trained in Australian universities. They had a much greater admiration for the west and for Australia than I had expected. It was nice to hear about the things they admired, our approach to science and our educational culture. I was also struck by a deep and formal politeness that perhaps is more evident in old civilisations than amongst the frontier settler stock responsible for colonising the new world and Australia. Part of the politeness included an obedience to the established order of things, and the vast population and underlying competition for success perhaps drives the sense of hard work and industry that one sometimes feels when visiting Asia.

When I was younger I remember a colleague stereotyping Japanese science as imitative and lacking originality, succeeding more by brute force than creativity. I think Yamanaka’s work on the magic four transcription factors that reprogram somatic cells into stem cells is a one of many examples of highly creative science from Japan.

I do think that in Australia we are very good at teaching students a healthy disrespect for authority and I think this strengthens our science. We have seldom reached the heights of the MRC Molecular Biology Lab in Cambridge but there is a pervading effort to be original, creative and to look for unexplored areas to work in.

Whether this yearning for individual creativity will prevail and which system will prove most innovative in the long run only time will tell, but from my trip I would certainly expect a lot of very good science to keep coming out of China in the future.

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