California-China Connection: China Syndromes (2 or 2)

Having gushed effusively about Leroy Hood, I’d like to turn to the China part of the conference. First, through, one last note about Hood. He had three messages for the Chinese:

  1. Everything he’s ever done that was important (including current work) has been met with great resistance.
  2. It’s not too late to get in on the ground floor of systems biology.
  3. They could be big, big players in the future of medical science and manufacturing (remember those PDAs he predicts will make 10,000 measurements in one drop of blood?).

The thing I most regretted on arrival at the meeting was that I didn’t have my pal and fellow FI Center member, June Chen, along. She would have been in her element: lots of Chinese people to talk to. And it would have been great for the ACS. How better to introduce a new organization than with a native speaker?


The conference consisted mainly of presentations by Chinese ex-patriot scientists or biotech executives living in the US and of presentations by the heads of Chinese universities, hospitals or ministries. There was an uncommon amount of comedic scrambling by AV kids to get computer cables untangled for PowerPoint presentations. There were assistants from Nature, the university, even the audience, mounting the stage frequently to help dignified, elder university heads get back on track with their PowerPoints without having them loose too much face.

Distractions aside, the speeches painted a picture about what’s happening with respect to Chinese biotechnology and medicine I’d tend to boil down into two lists, one pro and one con.

PRO

  • A lot of reform is going on in China regarding business laws, bureaucracy, property protection, transparency of deals, and other areas.
  • The Chinese are investing a lot of money in new scientific research institutes, facilities, and equipment.
  • They are trying to change things to make practicing science in China more attractive to their “best and brightest.”
  • They have a very large reservoir of talented, well-educated students and the reservoir is still growing.
  • They are using ex-pats from the US and elsewhere to show them how to set up new institutes.
  • Their economy is booming to support new developments, and it is a huge market for products in itself.
  • Their existing hospital and university systems provide a good infrastructure for drug development testing.

CONS

  • They still have a long way to go with reform.
  • There is still a lot of bureaucracy.
  • Old institutions still operate by old traditions rather than science merit.
  • It is still a “political economy,” i.e., often it’s not possible to separate their political values from economic processes.
  • It’s difficult to generate the right “environment” for quality scientific research.

Indeed, it’s a couple of cultural things are really interesting challenges. For one, the overall Chinese society calls for respect for elders, deference to those in authority, not challenging the ideas of superiors, and so on. This is not an attitude that works well to stimulate creative science. Many scientists would say it’s the iconoclastic, competitive, almost heretical attitude toward established ideas and their holders that boils the pot of scientific innovation in the US and other successful nations. The tolerance of challenges, the climate of questioning without risk of disgrace are the “secret sauce” that enable great learning and creative environments, and it’s part of the overall culture that’s key. It’s not really very possible to tolerate challenge of authority in the isolated context of a lab or university if it isn’t reinforced in society as a whole. That’s not possible in China, and they know it’s hampering their efforts to produce competitive science. Some institutes are trying to create an environment supportive of innovation, but it’s not easy.

The Chinese speakers said, however, that you will find a very different attitude about this matter of deference between the “older” generation and the young in China. Do I hear the distant thunder of social turmoil?

The other cultural thing that got my attention is the flat declaration that, in China, relationships come before other practices in business. You have to create and maintain good personal relationships before business can work smoothly. The “deal is done” when they shake on it, not necessarily when the contract is signed. Evidently, in China “a man’s word” is still his bond. Imagine that! In the US we never do any business on a handshake and a promise. A man’s word is nearly worthless. Man, them comm-u-nists are naïve!

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