Chinese COVID science and its ‘cosmopolitan anxieties’

In 2012, I wrote The Cosmopolitanization of Science in which the Chinese life science community’s increasing engagement with global research and policy discussions was used to demonstrate a new era of North-South collaborations in identifying and responding to risks. In 2021, as China tries to stall WHO’s investigation on COVID-19’s origins, one may lament that, perhaps ‘cosmopolitan science’ is too fragile a project and is easily trumped by national interest. But transnational scientific endeavours are always something to be deliberated and ministered to rather than to be taken for granted. The Chinese government and its life science community has long wrestled with what I call a ‘cosmopolitan anxiety’ which is simultaneously a yearning for international recognition as a partner (not just a labourer or material provider), and a constant anguish over being misunderstood or worse, being alienated from cosmopolitan endeavours. The COVID-19 research is but its latest example.

For the Chinese government, perhaps not surprisingly, the COVID agenda is not on science advancement per se, but on political stability at home and influence abroad. On the one hand, Chinese authorities have been pushing hard on ’mask diplomacy’ and ‘vaccine diplomacy’ as attempts to maintain its global stature. On the other hand, as early as April 2020, only a month after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, China established censorship rules over domestic COVID-19 research, with origin studies at the centre of ministerial level scrutiny to curb the ‘China virus’ narrative.

In comparison, Chinese scientific communities have been more open with global exchange. As I argued before, a true indicator for the cosmopolitanization of science is bottom-up successes in sustaining transnational networks of research and policy exchanges despite institutional constraints. This is echoed in the COVID outbreak. During the first 3 months of the pandemic, more than 60% of the research papers were contributed by Chinese labs. When compared with the 2003 SARS epidemic, within the first four months of the current pandemic, Chinese scientists already published 6.6 times more on COVID than they did on SARS in 2003. While many Chinese scientists I knew still frown at the government’s censorship over COVID studies, growing Western media interests over whether the virus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute for Virology also make them anxious and nudge them towards thinking if the government’s approach was after all ‘justifiable’: If wrongdoings were found, would Chinese science as a whole be branded again as the reckless ‘Wild East’ and condemned with eternal suspicion? For many Chinese scientists, such blanket denunciation from the West and the costly repercussions were too fresh a memory.

While the findings from the origin studies will contribute to a range of areas such as virology, epidemiology, veterinary medicine, biosafety and biosecurity, perhaps there is another set of questions that we should be anxious about: Will the eventual outcome of the origin study give the Chinese government confidence to loosen its grip on disciplining scientific enquiries or will it re-affirm the government’s belief that censorship is the shortcut to political stability? Will it further encourage the Chinese scientific community’s self-perception as a partner in global search for scientific solutions and in minimising future risks, or will it make Chinese scientists feel they are trapped in a stereotype or worse, alienated? Given that 49 out of the worlds 50 fastest-rising science institutions are based in China, the stakes in the answers to these questions is also great for global science.

Joy Y. Zhang is Reader in Sociology at the University of Kent. Originally trained as a surgeon, she takes on an interdisciplinary approach and investigates the transnational governance of scientific uncertainty. Her work has fed into the policy making of the Royal Society in the UK, China’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Science and Technology. She is working on her third book which examines how India’s and China’s respective rise in the life sciences demand a de-colonised approach to global governance.