ChinAI #46: Science, Zhonghua Minzu, and Nation-Building

Translations from a platform that covers the state of science in China, founded by Chinese and Chinese-American scientists

Welcome to the ChinAI Newsletter!

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of writings on AI policy and strategy from Chinese thinkers. I'll also include general links to all things at the intersection of China and AI. Please share the subscription link if you think this stuff is cool. Here's an archive of all past issues. *Subscribers are welcome to share excerpts from these translations as long as my original translation is cited.

I'm a grad student at the University of Oxford where I'm based at the Center for the Governance of AI, Future of Humanity Institute.

Science, Zhonghua Minzu, and Nation-Building

This week we’re diving into past articles (both from 2016) from zhishi fenzi ("知识分子") - a fascinating media platform dedicated to discussing the state of science in China, founded by three big-shot scholars, Rao Yi, Lu Bai and Xie Yu. The author of this first translation, Rao Yi, was a faculty member at WashU and Northwestern before taking up the deanship of life sciences at Peking University.

In this essay, he discusses China’s lack of scientific traditions, the emphasis on pragmatism among the ethnic Chinese community (both in China and overseas), a historical review of the importance of science and technology to the strength of nations, China’s failings in the natural sciences (makes an interesting comparison to the “Jewish nation” in the piece) and the lack of talented people interested in pursuing the natural sciences.

READ FULL TRANSLATION: Rao Yi: The Hidden Dangers — China’s Future and Science

As a Chinese American, I want to take this space to share some personal thoughts on the phrase Zhonghua Minzu [中华民族 - Chinese nation is the phrase I use in the translation], which Rao Yi uses a few times throughout the piece. James Leibold has called it an "imagined community" first used by Sun Yat-sen to incorporate the ethnically heterogeneous polities of the former Qing empire (1644-1911) into a new national imaginary during the Republican Era (1911-1949). It has since been used to encompass non-Han ethnic groups and overseas Chinese under the umbrella of the Chinese nation.

I was born in Shanghai and immigrated to the United States at the age of three. Being Chinese American is a wonderful, confusing thing. It’s wonderful because you get to navigate two worlds with rich cultures and sometimes bring them closer together, because you learn to always see the other point of view as you yourself are always occupying multiple identities, because Panda Express is really delicious. Being Chinese American is also confusing thing, as it seems you can never be completely Chinese and completely American. When you meet your girlfriend’s grandparents in Beijing for the first time, and you proudly tell them about how you interned for the U.S. State Department in D.C. and Senegal, her grandpa cuts you off and reminds you that your roots are in China. After all, your Chinese roots are the answer to the question “where are you really from,” a question you got a lot growing up in a predominantly white state and one you still frequently get — even from reporters from well-known outlets who would never ask the same question to someone named Jeffrey Donaldson.

Chinese Americans contain multitudes. Sure, generalizations can be made: for instance, we are overrepresented in some STEM fields such as computer science. But seek out the individual stories behind the figures. My dad took up computer science when he immigrated to the states, giving up his dream of being a math professor, in order to give his kids a better chance at the American dream. I’m still searching for what the American dream means to me. Sometimes you wonder if you are confusing it with becoming fully American — to be so excellent (maybe you even luck into becoming a Rhodes Scholar), to be so devoted to public service so that no one can question your claim to this land of the free. You are finding out that you can be invited to brief generals on China’s technology policy and still hear jokes about how you would be the perfect Chinese spy.

Akin to the way the current President of the United States has called “almost every student” from China a spy, Zhonghua Minzu is a tool deployed to paper over the diverse fabric of Chinese Americans and other overseas Chinese, flattening out individual stories into the general category of a Chinese nation. Perhaps the essence of the American dream is the belief that you can come from anywhere and still be fully American — that no one is defined by what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.” In a sense, this is what I am trying to do with ChinAI — to combat notions of a single story to describe China and Chinese people.

Call for a Fairer Competitive Environment for Local Young Talents

Another zhishi fenzi translation from 2016, this time from researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who warn against unfair talent policies that prioritize overseas talent over local scientists. Most coverage of China’s talent policies often only go as far as “China’s stealing our best and brightest” - this piece goes beyond that:

  • The difficulties faced by talented scientists who don’t go abroad - many of the top universities require young teachers to have overseas study experience

  • Authors argue that talent policies haven’t caught up to growing scientific research strength of Chinese local young talents

  • Write, “As for China's enormous scientific research system, "bringing in (talent) from the outside" can only be a "transfusion" of expediency, while "training (talent) internally" is a "self-renewing" type of physical fitness.”

READ FULL TRANSLATION: Call for a Fairer Competitive Environment for Local Young Talents

This Week's ChinAI Links

Chinese phrase of the Week:  学好数理化,走遍天下都不怕 (xue2hao3 shu4li3hua4, zou3pian1 tian1xia4 dou1 bu4pa4 - learn math, physics, and chemistry well, and you can drift astray anywhere in the world without being afraid. Context: Rao references this as a slogan for pragmatism.

Congrats to the team at the newly established Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), which will provide nonpartisan analysis on the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies (focused on AI and advanced computing in first two years). For more, see this Washington Post story on the launch and this interview with Jason Matheny, the founding director. Excited to be affiliated as a research fellow at CSET and for the much-needed injection of diverse and new viewpoints into what Obama’s White House labeled the DC foreign policy Blob.

Cool New York Times story on how a team of researchers from UC San Diego and Guangzhou Medical University collaborated to build a deep-learning diagnostic tool for common childhood illnesses. The Nature Medicine paper spells out how they used natural language processing to extract clinically relevant information from electronic health records of nearly 600,000 patients at Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center.

Well-reported Bloomberg article on China’s digital silk road with an emphasis on Chinese digital infrastructure-building in Zambia. Oftentimes stories like this discount the agency of Zambians in relations with China; to its credit, this one doesn’t. Also includes some cool graphics based on RWR Advisory Group data.

Check out February’s excellent DigiChina digest, which features a translation of excerpts of an AI Security White Paper from CAICT (think tank under China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology).

Thank you for reading and engaging.

Shout out to everyone who is commenting on the translations - idea is to build up a community of people interested in this stuff. You can contact me at or on Twitter at @jjding99