Several weeks ago Fang, previously science editor at China Newsweek (unrelated to the U.S. magazine Newsweek), appeared alongside a fellow rationalist, the biochemist-turned-columnist Fang Shimin (no relation, better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi), on a Shenzhen TV debate about earthquake forecasting -- a largely discredited practice that remains an article of faith for many Chinese scientists and officials. One speaker, an official from China's national earthquake administration, a significant bureau under the State Council, spoke positively about parrots that can predict temblors and the paranormal abilities of a man who claimed he heard ringing in his ears before the quake in Yushu, in northwest China, in April. One guest on the show, Ren Zhenqiu of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, accused the science activists of accepting U.S. money to stifle Chinese innovation. Fang Shimin claimed on his blog that after the recording, Ren Zhenqiu called him a "big Chinese traitor" and threw a punch at him.
And this is not the full extent of the threats against Fang Shimin. On July 2, Fang said on his Sina microblog that he had received a threatening phone call. "Be careful in the next few days," the voice said. "Someone is going to fix you."
Scientific ideas have a complex life in China. Today an important government slogan is the "scientific view of development," yet academic fraud is widespread. In January, the scientific journal Acta Crystallographica Section E, a peer-reviewed international journal based in Britain, announced the wholesale retraction of more than 70 papers by Chinese scientists who had falsified data. Three months later, the same publication announced the removal of another 39 articles "as a result of problems with the data sets or incorrect atom assignments." According to New Threads, 37 of these were entirely produced at Chinese universities. One Chinese-government study cited by Nature found that about one-third of more than 6,000 scientists surveyed at six top Chinese institutions said they had practiced "plagiarism, falsification or fabrication."
Critics have blamed the pressure to produce fraudulent papers on unrealistic publication targets set by bureaucrats. But for Fang Xuanchang, the problem goes deeper still, as he told me when we met in May. It represents a slide backward from the scientific spirit of the anti-imperialist May 4th Movement -- the early 20th-century uprising that championed democracy, critical thought, and innovation. Speaking after the attack, Fang described himself and his colleagues as "quixotic." "Not many people understand the work we are doing," he said. "Most Chinese people's attitudes to science are superstitious and fearful." Things might be even worse at the elite level, he said, where science is encouraged in the abstract, without a grasp of the scientific method. Regarding scientific and critical thinking, Fang added, "Chinese people need a new enlightenment."
Such issues are not only of parochial concern: Renewing China's oft-cited historical reputation for scientific innovation is a matter of urgency for the world. Last month a report from Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts suggested that as China enters a new phase of economic and geopolitical might, the country's potential to roll out new, low-carbon technologies becomes an increasingly important factor in global efforts to address climate change.
Harnessing scientific prowess requires promoting good academic practice, scientific education, critical thinking -- and science journalism.