Rereading China: Science Walks on Two Legs in 2021


By Sigrid Schmalzer


In 1973, a delegation of scientists, engineers, health professionals, and graduate students from the radical US organization Science for the People traveled to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to see what science could be in a revolutionary society. Over the course of one month, the delegates visited farms, factories, laboratories, campuses, hospitals, communes, and urban communities. When they returned to the United States, they published their observations and glowing assessments as a book, China: Science Walks on Two Legs (Avon, 1974). The title referenced an overarching principle of socialist Chinese science: the coordinated mobilization of university-based, internationally circulated, professional knowledge on the one hand (or “leg”) and mass-based, native/local, vernacular knowledge on the other. This two-legged model of scientific development was understood to be inseparable from the goals of achieving self-reliance, revolutionizing social relations, and transforming the material basis of people’s lives.

In 2019, members of the new Science for the People expressed interest in republishing the 1974 book in digital form. The suggestion prompted a spirited discussion on the organization’s listserv. Some members continued to see in China of the Mao era (1949–76) a model for revolutionary, people-oriented science, and they trusted the account provided by the 1973 delegates. To them, republishing the book would help remind the world of the valuable legacy of Chinese socialism, a worthy goal especially in this time, when Sinophobic and anti-communist US political machinations (increasingly involving the world of science and technology) threaten to create a “new Cold War,” with deadly consequences for Asian American people as well.

However, others in the organization worried that the 1973 delegates had seen only what the PRC state had chosen to show them and that the book failed to do justice to the actual experiences (many of them extremely negative) of the people who lived through the upheavals of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76). If so, republishing the book today might be seen as an embarrassing display of SftP’s ignorance, or worse yet would contribute to erasing the realities of hundreds of millions of people who deserve to have their histories recorded accurately.

There is also the problem of whose perspectives and voices are privileged. In 2021, we should be beyond imagining that China is such a mysterious and newfound object of inquiry that our best source of information is white Americans who do not speak Chinese and whose knowledge of China comes from a short stack of books and a few weeks of travel orchestrated by the state. And yet, Americans are still apt to treat China as though it were Mars, or at least as a place so profoundly alien and fundamentally unconnected to the United States that we must rely on the travel diaries of the few intrepid, typically white explorers who venture there and return to share their tales. The political principles of SftP should make us highly conscious of the dangerous absurdities underlying such ideas. In truth, of course, Chinese people live and work in communities throughout the United States, and historians (including historians of science) have come a very long way in documenting and analyzing the Mao era using archival materials and oral-history interviews. We have learned far more about the reality of life in 1970s China, and indeed the narrative has changed greatly as a result. Why then would we want to return to this artifact? Should China: Science Walks on Two Legs be thrown away, or at least confined to one of the dustier shelves of a few personal libraries?

No. I would argue that SftP’s account of Mao-era science remains an important source of historical and political insight, especially for Americans seeking critical leftist perspectives on science, history, and US-China relations. I see at least four compelling reasons to reread China: Science Walks on Two Legs today.

In 2021, we should be beyond imagining that China is such a mysterious and newfound object of inquiry.

First, for all its limitations, it continues to offer the most substantial and systematic explanation available in English (and arguably in any language) of the vision of revolutionary science pursued by the PRC state in Mao-era China. And in that sense, the book is very accurate: it is highly consistent with the story we would be able to tell if we translated and pieced together the accounts produced by the Mao-era state in newspapers, magazines, instructional booklets, and other materials. Although we know that conditions were very different on the ground, it is still worth being able to immerse ourselves in that coherent vision for the space of a few hundred pages, to contemplate an extraordinary historical example where an entire nation (and a large one at that) pursued science and technology based on a philosophy of knowledge different from any of the dominant paradigms in the United States and most other parts of the world, past or present.

In this way, SftP’s 1974 book serves as a valuable antidote to political narratives produced in more recent decades. Although I said above that survivor testimonies and evidence-based historical research have led to changes in the dominant narrative about science in Mao-era China, another and more problematic factor has also played an important role in that transformation. During the 1980s in China and across the world, political and economic elites paved the way for neoliberalism by discrediting the radical politics of the 1960s and 70s. With remarkable rapidity, what had once seemed so compelling about revolutionary models for science and society now became difficult for many to take seriously. Even as we listen to survivors and scholars, we should be skeptical of such wholesale ideological refashionings that serve the interests of new regimes (I will return to this point below). China: Science Walks on Two Legs thus provides an important corrective to the one-sided historical narrative of Mao-era Chinese science that emerged in the 1980s and that continues to obscure many aspects of socialist Chinese science so compellingly captured in the book’s pages.

Second, the book offers insight into the significance of Chinese socialism for a generation of science activists globally, and especially in the United States. The Mao-era vision of self-reliant, anti-technocratic, people’s science that “walked on two legs” inspired people all over the world, in Third World and developed countries alike, especially leftists but also including mainstream scientists frustrated with the pernicious influences of corporations and the military on their research. During the 1950s and 1960s, scientific exchanges and conferences already offered opportunities for the PRC to introduce its vision especially to countries in south Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. In the 1970s, with the beginning of rapprochement between the United States and China, and the entrance of China into the United Nations, such opportunities expanded considerably, especially (though by no means exclusively) for Americans. The US and PRC governments energetically arranged visits for groups of scientists in a wide range of fields; meanwhile, delegations of US leftists traveled to China on visits organized by the US-China People’s Friendship Association and other organizations. Science for the People’s 1973 delegation was remarkable both because it occurred relatively early in this process, because it was not organized by the US government, and because it occupied the intersection of the two populations the PRC most sought to attract: scientists and leftists.

Like many other US leftist visitors to China in the 1970s, the Science for the People delegates prepared for their visit by meeting in study groups where they discussed the writings of Mao Zedong and accounts of the Chinese revolution penned by such radical luminaries as Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, and William Hinton. However, SftP was one of the only groups of leftist US visitors to focus explicitly on science. Their reports, among which China: Science Walks on Two Legs was by far the most extensive, provided the radical science movement with information and inspiration to enrich efforts to critique and reimagine agriculture, health, education, and numerous other areas of science. Notably, the reports of dozens of mainstream US scientists who visited China in the 1970s offered remarkably similar accounts that highlighted many of the same inspiring features of socialist Chinese science: the mobilization of youth, women, peasants, and other members of the larger society; effective use of locally available resources; development of environmentally sustainable technologies; rational application of traditional and folk knowledge; and above all an emphasis on science and technology that addressed the most pressing social needs. Thus, a contextualized reading of China: Science Walks on Two Legs sheds light not just on the meanings socialist China held within the radical politics of SftP and like-minded organizations, but on the degree to which at least some of those meanings were appreciated more broadly in the scientific community at that time. If those perspectives now seem marginal, that speaks to the larger transformations in political imagination which have since occurred throughout society in the United States and many other parts of the world.

To summarize this second point, rereading China: Science Walks on Two Legs in the historical context of 1970s science activism offers an opportunity to reflect on what socialist Chinese science meant to our predecessors: how leftist activists, along with mainstream scientists, found in China a model of science for the people. The fact that the SftP delegates, along with their fellow leftists and fellow scientists, failed to see and report on the many negative aspects of Chinese politics and society during that period only increases the importance of rereading the book today. Leftist activists continue to look to other countries for inspiration. How can we do so with open minds, without cynicism but also without the kind of romanticization that prevents us from acknowledging the truth of our comrades’ experiences? In short, how can we cross the world’s borders with the humility and consciousness necessary to achieve true international solidarity? Critical reflection on our past will help us get there.

Rereading China: Science Walks on Two Legs in the historical context of 1970s science activism offers an opportunity to reflect on what socialist Chinese science meant to our predecessors.

Third, a critical rereading of China: Science Walks on Two Legs in historical context can aid us in sifting through the confusing, conflicting analyses of past and present US-China relations. Leftist perspectives on China today continue to split along a fault line produced by the seismic ruptures of Mao Zedong’s death and the fall of the Cultural Revolution radicals in 1976, followed by the rise of technocracy under Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Science for the People sent a follow-up delegation to China earlier that year, toward the end of Hua Guofeng’s brief administration. Although Hua maintained more of the Maoist rhetoric than his successor, he was already committed to a similar program of modernization and to the reconstruction of scientific institutions following the disruptions of the Cultural Revolution. And so, what SftP encountered was a society in the midst of denying the narrative that had so impressed and convinced the first delegation. The members of that second delegation, along with the US left more generally, found themselves deeply divided as to how to interpret the political changes: did the Chinese Communist Party continue to represent a revolutionary agenda and the interests of the Chinese masses and oppressed people around the world, or was it engaged in a revisionist or even counter-revolutionary seizure of power for the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy? Upon their return to the United States, the delegates determined they could not come to an agreement on how to present what they saw, and they gave up on that second book—though individual members published articles on their observations of agricultural science. Today, leftists outside of China continue to struggle with this apparent conundrum: to support the PRC as the left’s best hope to challenge US capitalism and imperialism, or to stand with Chinese dissidents in their struggles against the PRC state for labor rights, civil liberties, gender equality, and freedom from religious persecution.

Fourth and finally, echoes of Mao-era revolutionary science continue to reverberate in China today, but the meaning of those resonances do not resolve simply. On the one hand, the experiences of the older generations with collectivism and Marxist analysis, the eagerness of the current regime to tap the power of the CCP’s “red heritage,” and the continued need to mobilize people at the grassroots to address enduring problems of economic development all help facilitate the lasting influence of ideas and practices from the Mao era. Mao-era legacies can be seen, for example, in contemporary China’s coordinated state approaches to research that serves broad national priorities; neighborhood mobilization around campaigns and crises; and projects with very specific ties to Mao-era campaigns—for example, public health and agricultural terracing. All of these examples can be seen operating in the PRC’s response to COVID-19.

On the other hand, the magnitude of the transformation in the political economy since 1978 is beyond question, and at the level of ideology as well the current regime is by no means willing to tie itself to the humble vision of self-reliant science that walks equally on two legs. The awarding of Tu Youyou with the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2015 is a case in point. The post-1978 technocratic turn heightened the stakes of the Nobel Prize for China: while the Mao-era state had seen the Nobel as a bourgeois individualist institution, post-Mao leaders have coveted the prize as evidence that China had finally taken its rightful place as a global leader in science and technology. But when China finally broke into the Nobel club, it was for research that took place during the Cultural Revolution under “backward” conditions that favored the mass-science, locally self-reliant side of the Mao-era “two legs” model. The response in China to Tu Youyou’s honor was therefore conflicted: it appeared not as evidence of China’s recent triumphs but as a quaint reminder of a more humble past. In the eyes of the current state, there are far more fitting candidates for the prize in the gleaming laboratories that represent massive state investments in high-powered, high-prestige professional science.

In republishing China: Science Walks on Two Legs in digital form, the new Science for the People is thus endorsing a responsible, critical, historically contextualized rereading of this landmark publication from the early years of our organization. Those of us involved in creating this critical edition believe that it is possible to come away from such a rereading with an appreciation for the radical, liberatory vision of science that the Mao-era state promoted and that inspired people in China and around the world, without ignoring or denying the experiences of people who found nothing like liberation in their encounters with Mao-era science. But to achieve this critical consciousness, we must recognize the limitations of the source and go beyond it. We must listen to people who experienced the history and those who grapple directly with the legacies of that history in China today. Of course, we should never imagine that any one person or group of people can represent the vast diversity of Chinese people’s perspectives, and so it is not just individual testimonies we require but also analyses provided by those who have studied this past and its impact on the present.

It is possible to come away from such a rereading with an appreciation for the radical, liberatory vision of science that the Mao-era state promoted and that inspired people in China and around the world, without ignoring or denying the experiences of people who found nothing like liberation in their encounters with Mao-era science.

Together, the materials we have gathered here will help make a rereading of China: Science Walks on Two Legs more productive and responsible. We begin with a commentary by Zuoyue Wang, who writes with stereoscopic vision as an eye-witness who lived through the Cultural Revolution and went on to study under important dissident scientists, and as a historian who has written influentially on science in the Cold War United States and China. Here he shares stories of a kind not seen or recorded by the SftP delegates, including alternative perspectives on the experiences of some of the very people quoted in the 1974 book. And yet, even as he highlights the limitations of the book, he underscores its value in the history of US-China scientific relations. He also has a direct challenge for SftP members today: he asks how we respond to dissidents like Fang Lizhi who called for the liberation of science from political control—a liberal value that US leftist academics cannot easily dismiss nor wholly uphold.

Our second contribution comes from Vinton Thompson, a member of the Chicago chapter of the original Science for the People, a participant in the 1973 delegation, and a co-author of China: Science Walks on Two Legs. His reflections provide essential context for understanding what the experience of traveling to China meant for the delegates and the many people who participated vicariously by reading the book and attending their presentations (Vinton alone offered more than 50 slide shows). He also provides backstage knowledge of the book’s limitations—experiences they opted not to share in the book and the persistent barriers to communication they faced. Perhaps most important to the movement today will be his thoughtful comments on the whiteness of the organization (so white that upon hearing of a “George Lee” involved in the US-China People’s Friendship Association, Vinton recalls not realizing that he was likely Chinese-American) and how that whiteness shaped SftP’s relationship to China.

The third contribution offers a rare glimpse into the workings of the second SftP delegation, which traveled to China in 1978. The essay, written by an anonymous SftP delegate, captures the watershed political moment in China, which in turn produced a dramatic shift in the meaning that China held for leftists around the world. As in Vinton’s contribution, we gain a behind-the-scenes look at some of what delegates saw but either did not report or at least downplayed at the time—especially the significant problems regarding occupational health and safety that visitors frequently observed, and which were briefly noted in chapter 3 of China: Science Walks on Two Legs, but should certainly have been more prominent. The anonymous delegate shares Vinton’s admirably self-critical lens, recognizing the problem of “China-worship on the left” along with cringe-worthy moments that represented the “height of bourgeois left-tourism.” He concludes with reflections on how this history helps us wrestle with the central question for SftP of what socialism actually means for science.

From JS Tan we learn of an inspiring recent solidarity campaign in which US tech workers have supported their counterparts in China, who are engaged in a struggle against the brutal working conditions known as 996 (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week). His piece traces the enormous changes in China’s political economy since the 1970s, especially the shift from prioritizing self-reliance to actively seeking engagement in global capitalism, and the simultaneous emergence of a vast wealth gap among the Chinese citizenry. JS also underscores the significance of the US-China relationship, rising nationalism, and the impact on workers in China—something far too rarely emphasized in US mainstream media. Most important, we gain an appreciation for the real possibilities of transnational solidarity, though this will mean bridging some very different organizing contexts and identifying sometimes elusive common interests. And, of course, it means that US-based leftists will need to substantially increase their understanding of a place that for too long has been treated as an exotic, unknowable territory.

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