After over 20 years of travelling regularly to China, I think I am becoming less sceptical. Well slightly.
Where else in the world could you see a girl, no more than 10 years old, leaving an after-school activity at 9:30 in the evening, hailing a taxi with the app on her mobile phone and taking that taxi home by herself? Above all else, people feel safe in China and, with saturation coverage by CCTV with facial recognition capacity, who would dare abduct a child?
On the other hand, in a country where picking up ‘the rule book’ would challenge an Olympic weightlifter, it is not uncommon to see people smoking in restaurants, against the law, while sitting next the a ‘No smoking’ sign with impunity. Small victories I guess.
Most of what I find out about what is happening China I find out by speaking to people. For most things there is no other source of information that I can read. My experience here has stretched neither to reading nor speaking Chinese. Some of what happens here possibly could only happen here but from some of what happens we could learn in the U.K.
International academic publishing has become contaminated by the predatory publishers. These are all online, they are all ‘open access’ and charge authors for publishing with them. They include a spectrum of publishers, from some which just produce very poor quality journals, paying scant regard to peer review and publication ethics, to others which are patently criminal enterprises that take your money (and your bank account details) but fail to publish your article.
In U.K. academia we seem to lack the will to tackle the predatory publishers. A colleague — Professor Mark Hayter of Manchester Metropolitan University — and I published some suggestions in the Times Higher for how universities could introduce systems at departmental and institutional levels to prevent academics publishing in predatory journals. All we got was abuse in return. Those in charge of the U.K. Research Excellence Framework, whereby research infrastructure funding is distributed to universities, refused to consider whether or not research outputs returned in the 2021 exercise were predatory despite the efforts of a few academics, myself included.
No such hesitation in China where the Ministry of Education produces lists of journals which are considered acceptable places to publish across disciplines. China tends to rely on journals included in the Clarivate list, where those with impact factor (a measure of citations) are included. This ensures that the journals meet certain minimum standards related to ethics, peer review and the associated personnel. Now, China has ramped up the campaign to prevent academics publishing in predatory journals by scanning the publications from universities, identifying predatory journals and the academics who have published in them and asking Deans to investigate those members of staff. I met a Dean who had been asked to investigate members of staff. This is only a very recent initiative and outcomes are not available yet, but my guess is that, without a plausible explanation — or, perhaps, even with one — that these members of staff will soon be seeking alternative employment.
I also discovered that China leads the way in promoting female academics. This is something that seems to be an obsession in U.K. universities but which we seem powerless — ironically due to our own equal opportunities policies — to address. The main outcome has been the creation of the monster known as Athena Swan which, while it creates mounds of paperwork and occupies hours of academic time, achieves little else. We agonise on promotion panels and in the Research Excellence Framework over how to consider the time taken off by women who have babies and devote time to childcare. Formulae are considered too, er, formulaic and, in any case, most people involved would rather spend time on committees discussing the issue at length. Perish the thought that we would simply award women a fixed amount of additional time to achieve career goals; feminists may object even to this positive discrimination and what about women who do not have any children?
Again, China has the answer. Female academics across the board are now given five years of credit when they are seeking promotion to the next level. Of course, there is also method in China’s seeming madness. They are suffering a severe shortage of children, and their demographics are severely skewed towards the least economically active, older people. What better incentive to have children than additional time? And Chinese couples may have up to three children now.
The only regular, if not entirely reliable, source of news for non-Chinese speakers here is China Daily. I have never seen it for sale, but it does apparently cost RMB2 (20p) and is available on internal flights in the VIP lounges and on the plane. Nevertheless, it is worth scanning. Much was made of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This policy has long been in development and has been relentlessly pursued by China to extend and ease its trading with an ever-increasing number of countries. We can be sure that it also aims to extend Chinese influence across the globe.
Also from China Daily, China seeks to become independent in the production of the microchips required to run artificial intelligence (AI) systems including large language models, of which ChatGPT is but one example. China sees great potential in AI, especially in the field of health for everything from information systems to aid clinical decision making to the use of machines for surgery. Conversations with clinical colleagues revealed that better results are already being obtained from AI guided robotic surgery over human surgery for a limited range of procedures. In the West, again, we dither Canute-like over the AI wave that is soon going to engulf us. China takes a more proactive approach. At a more mundane level I saw robots delivering food to tables in a restaurant in Dongguan in Guandong province, and delivery robots regularly whizz around the campus where I work at Southwest Medical University.
On the downside, China seems to have gone full Hamas if reports of the impending conflict between Israel and Hamas are anything to go by. There is absolutely no mention of the immediate cause of the current situation, the slaughter of 1,400 Israelis on the Gaza border. And they have fallen (possibly wilfully), hook, line and fortune cookie for claims that Israel destroyed a hospital in Gaza. They are sending peace envoys to the region, which is probably another means of extending the BRI. Like all good communists, first they will offer to help with the oars, but their aim will be to end up at the tiller.
Finally, I met a fellow Scot at a conference, and he gave me one of those two-flag lapel pins with both the Saltire and the Chinese flag. This has been a source of much comment as people here love to see their flag. One person even looked at the other lapel badge I wear above it and commented on how much they liked it; “the clenched fist looks strong” they said “what does it represent?” Is this possibly the first sighting of the Free Speech Union logo in China? From such small beginnings…
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry. He writes in a personal capacity.