When Chinese science wakes

The video shows endless rows of dog-like robots rising and then resting on all fours to the tune of Darth Vader’s theme.

“The Force Awakens! China’s Unitree Robotics is building an army of Boston Dynamics look-alike Spot robots,” right-wing US media outlet Disclose TV warns in the video.

Boston Dynamics is a leading US-based designer and manufacturer of robots; Spot, one of its signature creations, can (among other things) canvass dangerous milieus such as underground mines on behalf of humans.

Disclose TV’s clip caused me great alarm. If The Force that is CCP had unrestricted access to the latest technology, what would await those who, say, write for Apple Daily? I’d imagine soon, I’d have a robot stationed right next to my work desk: if I write something CCP doesn’t like, the robot will rough me up. I still hold out hope that some members of the Hong Kong Police may have a stricken conscience one day; a robot, however, can be fully relied upon to carry out Beijing’s orders.

To find out whether my dread of the robot-at-my-work-desk scenario has grounds, I showed the Disclose TV video to a couple of tech-savvy mainland friends. Has China already stolen the IP of robot-building, the way it has with solar panels and wind turbines?

It seems as with so many things about China, the Spot clones are more hype than substance.

“Those in the know have told me mainland’s copy of Spot resembles Spot in appearance only. The Chinese version has none of the original’s load carrying capacity; it’s therefore not functional. People in China only bothered to make it because they wanted to fool Beijing into giving them some of the funds earmarked for cutting-edge science,” an informed source told me.

Another reassured me: “no need to worry at all. Even if the CCP got all the software and blueprints, they wouldn’t take over Boston Dynamics by any stretch of imagination. Mainland’s servomotor (the “joints” that enable machine parts to rotate) is way behind the US’s.”

Of late we’ve had another chance to place China’s supposed prowess in science under scrutiny. Last week, when the US banned seven Chinese companies involved in building supercomputers from buying US technology without approval, the China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian excoriated the US for “impeding China’s development out of a desire to maintain its monopoly on technology.” Zhao’s response casts doubts on Beijing’s previous claim that China can produce supercomputers that are run on domestically-produced chips, according to overseas mainland commentator Heng He.

“China announced the supercomputer chip milestone in 2016, a year after the US banned Intel from selling chips to China’s supercomputer sector – meaning China managed to produce its own chips in a year’s time! Back then, this already struck me as implausible. And now Zhao is bothered by the latest sanction. If Chinese supercomputers were really using domestic technology, then the US wouldn’t be having a monopoly as Zhao has claimed,” said Heng.

Actually, in China, problems with honesty in the sciences begin at school.

“In the absence of academic ethics, China’s technological development will lag behind the US by at least 20 years,” notes the famous Harvard math professor Yau Shing-Tung (丘成桐), who in his time has met a Peking University Phd working at the level of the typical Chinese University of Hong Kong undergraduate; Peking University professors whose papers are inferior to those produced by the best Harvard undergraduates; a former mainland student of his who started out with great promise, but who over time got corrupted by the culture in the mainland academic world – he has lots of job titles, earns lots of money, globe-trotts all the time, and claims Yau’s work as his own.

“The high rank of that former student makes him an intimidating figure whom no one dares cross. Some of his young staff are more knowledgeable than him, yet they earn less than 1/20 of his salary,” Yau added.

Perhaps the young staff of this crook can provide one clue to China’s lack of bona fide research and development. The most gifted among them must be in a quandary similar to that of this brewery manager in communist Czechoslovakia Václav Havel has written about: passionate about making beer, the manager’s relentless effort to improve the plant’s offerings earned him the ire of his superiors, who got their positions through political influence and didn’t care about beer at all. The manager was eventually ousted; his genuine love for work had made those above him too uncomfortable.

If this comparison with Havel’s brewery manager isn’t enough to make you feel sorry for the unfulfilled Chinese talent in the sciences, consider the rise of classical singers from Russia and Eastern Europe as stars of global repute10 years after the fall of communism: they are now easily outshining their contemporaries from western Europe and North America, and it was political liberation that led to this wondrous flourishing of human potential. The sad reality is, just as these artists had to wait for the collapse of communism to see a change in their fortunes, Chinese scientists may have to wait for the CCP to get out of the picture before Chinese science can truly become a force to be reckoned with.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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