The sad state of U.S.-China scientific collaboration


Deborah Seligsohn, the former science counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, returns to talk about the rise and fall of scientific collaboration between the United States and China.

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Deborah Seligsohn.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily, newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China, from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and, of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to China’s travails as it wrestles with a surging wave of COVID-19. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

This week on Sinica, we’re going to take a break from talking about the Russo-Ukrainian War to focus on what I believe is a critical issue that really accelerated the precipitous downturn in the U.S.-China relationship, and unless it is addressed, it will likely exacerbate problems in the relationship to the great detriment, I think, of not only both countries, but all of humanity.

The issue that I’m talking about is the crumbling, the atrophy, the willful dismantling of scientific collaboration between China and the United States. The deterioration over the last several years of what was not all that long ago, a really fruitful relationship in many fields of science, has already taken a ghastly human toll. I’m talking of course about the millions of deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the countless livelihoods devastated by it. And my guest today will certainly talk about that facet of the issue, but she’ll also share her own ideas observed at firsthand of what we gained, what we’ve lost beyond the already incalculable price of COVID-19, and what we still stand to lose.

Joining me again is Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor in political science at Villanova University, who right now is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, where she recently gave a talk that I had the pleasure of watching and which inspired me to reach out about getting her back on the show. Debbi, of course, has been on the show quite a number of times now, especially since the pandemic began, as she’s just been one of the most reliably informed, insightful, and fair-minded observers of the debates around COVID-19 and China. When I say that she’s observed the U.S.-China science relationship firsthand, I am referring to the fact that Debbi served as the Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2007. And then, from 2007 to 2012, she was the principal adviser to the World Resources Institute’s China Energy and Climate program. After coming back to the U.S., she got her Ph.D. from UC San Diego. Debbi, welcome back to Sinica.

Deborah: Thanks. Good to see you again, Kaiser.

Kaiser: It’s always lovely to have you, and thanks so much for making the time on a Friday afternoon.

Debbi, the main question that you address in your talk, which you answered, I think, in a way that I’m convinced is correct, is really why is the U.S. walking away from scientific collaboration with China and doing so just at the moment when it actually stands to gain from it, just as China had gained from it for so many years? But before we get to that, perhaps we can first talk about how and why scientific collaboration between the U.S. and China was a priority for the U.S. in the first place. As both a political scientist and a former diplomat, I think you’d be a great person to explain this. What was the impetus for it? And why did the U.S. pursue a deepening scientific relationship with China initially after the normalization of relations some 40-odd years ago?

Deborah: So that was what was really interesting to me when I started doing the research on this project, because as a science counselor, of course I knew it was important, that it was a mainstay of the relationship. I always called it the ballast of the relationship, the thing that we could keep going and keep gaining from and sharing even when other parts of the relationship were fraught up until the last five years or so, but I didn’t really understand where it had started. And when I went back to look at the literature, essentially from the Carter era, when the U.S. and China normalized relations, you find that first of all, both the U.S. and China thought that China’s economic development would be good for both countries, that the U.S. saw China as a potential market and was very excited about that. And then both the U.S. and China saw science and technology as a key to development.

For China, I think this goes back a long way. You and I both love the May 4 movement. And we know about Sài Xiānshēng 赛先生. So Mr. Sai is an important part going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. The idea that basic scientific research might be good for economic growth in the U.S. was actually a pretty new idea in the ’70s that if you go back to the ’50s and ’60s, science had more to do with national security, national prestige, but not so much with a direct economic link. But in the seventies, this idea had caught on. And this guy, Richard Atkinson, who was the head of the National Science Foundation sponsored a study on this. And he was really pushing this idea. And so the U.S. had this idea that helping China develop technologically was going to be good for helping China’s economy and helping China’s economy would create a market for the U.S.

So we both were interested in seeing the same things happen, basically. And then Atkinson went to China. There were a couple of visits even before normalization and they were very nervous. They didn’t know what the Chinese side would want or anything. And Atkinson goes and sort of proposes, can we do some kind of student exchange? And they thought, well, maybe we can get them to agree to 50 or a hundred students. And the Chinese come back that they want thousands to be sent to the U.S. And they demand that Atkinson called the white house in the middle of the night and get this agreed to, and he’s told that basically Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 wants this himself and he should get a move on it. So the science and technology umbrella agreement becomes the first agreement that Carter and Deng sign under after normalization. It really is the start of the modern U.S. China relationship.

Kaiser: So Debbi, I remember a conversation that I had with Chas W. Freeman Jr. who was, of course, one of the diplomats who was at the very heart of that early period. And he explained to me the rationale of what the U.S. wanted to do, not just in terms of the commercial possibilities that it would open up, but also because we wanted to enmesh China in kind of a comprehensive set of relationships, not just diplomatic, military, commercial, as you say, but extending throughout society to arts and culture, to education, to public health, and of course, science.

And that made a whole ton of sense to me, of course, because bringing China in and on all those different levels would just simply make it difficult for China to be a disruptive actor. It wouldn’t be able to sort of repeat what it had been doing in the 1960s and the 1970s. And Susan Thornton when she was on this show recently also talked about the importance of engagement at all levels of society. So that must have been part of the thinking too, that drove us to pursue this collaborative, scientific relationship. I don’t think it was just that we thought let’s grow their market and make some money, right?

Deborah: Well, yeah, to be honest, Atkinson, doesn’t talk about that that much at all. And so in terms of the science advisors, they were very excited about this because the grow-the-market thing was not just about grow China’s market. It was also about grow the U.S. market. This was just where thinking about science policy was at that moment in time, but you’re absolutely right. That starts even earlier, right? With ping-pong diplomacy and the National Committee, this idea that we wanted people to people relationships. And so yes, I think part of the idea that you start by proposing bringing students over is because you really do want to create those human relationships.

Kaiser: Absolutely. So maybe we can do a quick overview of what came of those broadly collaborative decades and what the major milestones were, the highlights, the important inflection points, the great things that came out of that collaboration. You covered a lot of that in your talk. And some of it was really quite new to me and really pleasantly surprising. Maybe we can start with a highlight reel of the relatively unambiguous good stuff that came out of that relationship.

Deborah: Well, so obviously one of the huge ones is human health because there was this 1978 scientist visit from NIH, CDC, FDA. Well actually, I don’t know if FDA but NSF and DOE and all these people to China and the NIH and CDC people were immediately excited about things that could be done with Chinese collaborators. And one of the things that they got very interested in very early was that Chinese medical care is actually pretty organized, that people are registered with their local clinics or hospitals. And they introduced early in the ’80s kind of data collection and wound up with these enormous cohort studies where you could look at 250,000 pregnant women or 250,000 people with diabetes and the pregnant women’s study wound up being where they determined that folic acid was critical for preventing neural tube defects. That study was so successful that they called it off in the middle. When a medical study winds up with really rapid great results, you stop it and start giving the treatment to everyone. And that’s what they did. And then they kept that cohort going and they continued for decades to look at new ideas, new data, environmental impacts, different vitamins, all kinds of things, followed the kids as they grew up. There was this huge diabetes study I think up in Harbin. Again, Chinese medicine was actually well organized to collect data on just enormous numbers of people, which is what you often need, especially for finding any result for a dietary impact, like folic acid. And then working together on influenza was huge. China is one of the places where a lot of new influenzas arise because of the close proximity of humans, pigs, and-

Kaiser: Chickens.

Deborah: Chickens and ducks. And so within the World Health Organization (WHO), global collaboration, the U.S. worked with China to increase the number of surveillance sites. And that’s gone from tens to tens of thousands. And also to help the Chinese get their national lab up to the standard where it could become a WHO coordinating center. So one of the things in terms of trust in working together for years, the Chinese sent all their samples to Atlanta until they got up to this WHO level where they could test them all and do the sequencing themselves. They now are one of the global centers, and that’s been a huge triumph and enormously helpful for tracking influenzas and looking for these rare bird flus, et cetera. So health has been a huge one and we work together closely on AIDS and we’ve worked together on cancer drugs, cancer treatments, Artemisinin of course introduced as an anti-malarial drug.

But then we have from the beginning, a lot of interest in fossils, China has a lot of dinosaurs and that’s been a very successful collaboration that continues to this day and kind of cool because there were these folks up, especially in Northeastern China kind of collecting fossils on their own before the Smithsonian got involved and they really could ramp up that effort. Early on, I think we all know the interest by American scientists in Chinese physicists. Americans tend to know Fāng Lìzhī 方励之 as a dissident, but before that he was a physicist known in the U.S. and Chinese theoretical physicists were among the first scientists that were really sort of welcomed by their international collaborators because the kind of work they do was not so equipment dependent. If you remember back to the ’80s when we all went to China for the first time, Chinese bio labs or chem labs just didn’t have the kind of equipment that would be needed to do something.

But if your main work was mostly in your head, you could do work that was at a global level. And of course, Fang’s university, the Chinese University of Science and Technology in Hefei became this big source of graduate students. And that’s where this sort of the graduate student poll really started, that Chinese students became known as fantastic Ph.D. students. And originally it was this focus on Hefei and then it sort of expanded throughout the country.

But I was just talking today with a guy who works on space geology basically, and has worked with Chinese collaborators now for more than a decade. It’s everything because another really important one is that China was 10% of the Human Genome Project. And that’s where the Beijing Genomics Institute that has become a global powerhouse and gene sequencing really got its start. Similarly, Chinese scientists are huge climate scientists. They’re great at modeling. That really has been a big issue area and one where U.S. and Chinese scientists are both huge parts of the intergovernmental panel on climate change that does these big studies at various points. U.S. and Chinese scientists have been co-chairs. There’s a lot of cooperation in that area, but I think there’s a lot of cooperation in many, many areas. And there are many probably that I just don’t know anything about.

Kaiser: Yeah. There’s basically no -ology where there isn’t collaboration in some form. I guess lets talk about what went wrong. You actually, in your talk, which was really great, you gave a couple of milestones that you said changed thinking or were expressions of changed thinking both in Beijing and in Washington when it came to scientific collaboration. One was the suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations in June of 1989. And the other was the Cox Report of 1998. Can you talk about the significance of these and how they impacted the course of scientific collaboration between China and the U.S.?

Deborah: So the basic idea back in ’79 was that Chinese students were going to come to the U.S., they were going to study something and they were going to go back to China, that this was how the people to people part of it happens, this is how the economic development part of it happens. And actually a lot of Chinese students in the ’80s did because a lot of them were on these one and two year visiting scholar type things. They didn’t really settle in that much, but what happens then is in 1989, after the Tiananmen demonstrations, the U.S. allows all Chinese who were in the U.S. at the time to stay, that they’re all given parole, I think is the actual technical term, but they’re basically allowed to stay beyond their student visas or whatever kind of visa they had. And that really creates just a completely different dynamic moving forward, because you get this enormous cohort of students who settle in the U.S. get jobs at American universities and essentially create the pathway for their younger peers to do that in the ’80s and the 2000s.

And so right by the ’90s, basically 95% of the graduate students who go to the U.S. are staying in the U.S. after graduation. And especially among Ph.D. students, it’s just considered the norm. That’s gone down now to maybe 80%, but it still tends to be the case that Chinese who come and study in the U.S. for advanced degrees tend to choose to stay. And so that changes the dynamic to most American scientists. That means that America is benefiting more. But from the Chinese point of view, they’re not getting what they originally had planned for. And it leads directly to ideas like the Thousand Talents program and all these other sort of recruitment tools in China because they’re not getting back the students that they wanted.

It’s interesting that it actually took them about 15 years before they started to do this, but by the mid aughts, they’re working pretty hard to try to get some of these professors back. And they also do a lot of deals which now have become controversial where they offer professors to maintain their U.S. affiliation and have an affiliation in China if they’ll come back for a couple months, a year. Basically they’re trying to get anything they can get. So that was the big impact of 1989. Not so much on the politics, but on the sort of the migration pattern.

Kaiser: Yeah. So before we go to the Cox Report, on ’89, I remember… So I was a graduate student right after that, I went back and I was actually working on S&T intellectuals in China, the policies toward them, that was one of the things. And one of the things they did right away, right after Tiananmen before the year ’89 was out, they launched this program called National Level Scientists where they chose about a thousand, actually, scientists who would be given reimbursement for all transportation fees domestically. In other words, all their taxi fares, it would be issued passports to take part in international scientific conferences and all airfare to those conferences would be taken care of by the state. And so this was in effort already. You say that it started by the mid aughts, but actually early on, they realized, I think that there was an anxiety. They realized that they did not want S&T intellectuals defecting to the sort of dissident side of things. And so they were making a push to… And there was also sort of consonant with the whole technocratic flavor of govern at that time in the late ’80s, early 90s.

Deborah: But that one was for scientists who were already in China.

Kaiser: That’s right. That’s right. Not trying to lure them back, but prevent them from –

Deborah: Right. And then they got more and more interested in trying to figure out how to lure folks back. But also they became more and more willing to do these things where they weren’t luring them back a hundred percent. They were willing to sort of create these joint appointments and stuff. And that kind of stuff is not unfamiliar in the U.S. There are lots of American professors who have gigs teaching in Europe or somewhere in the summer. So that kind of thing, it’s not a China specific thing.

The fact that most Chinese who go study in the U.S. don’t come back is relatively specific to China. The percentages from other countries that go home are much higher. But I think they got more and more creative and more and more willing to be flexible as time went on because simply saying come back and we’ll give you taxi fare was not going really cut it. And for many scientists, having a foot in both places is ideal in terms of finding the best graduate students, having the best collaborators, you just want to be in as many places as possible.

Kaiser: That’s right.

Deborah: So, that was the big impact of Tiananmen. And then the Cox Report is more political and had to do with sort of American domestic politics in the ’90s and a lot of the politics around the Tiananmen sanctions. And as those sanctions started to come off and American companies were doing more and more in China, then a conservative part of the U.S. Congress became concerned about us China relations and looking for issues where they felt there was a problem. And in the late ’90s, there was this huge issue because two of the rocket companies Hughes, and Loral did give export controlled information to their Chinese counterparts.

Now they were companies, they were not university scientists, they were not government scientists. It had nothing to do with government labs. And the reason the companies did it, I don’t know that they ever said in public why they did it. But the basic thing was Hughes and Loral had satellites that were being launched from Chinese rockets, and there were technical problems with the rockets that they were trying to solve, basically. And so that was clearly against the law. They later paid enormous fines, I think unprecedented levels of fines for the time. But in the Cox hearings, and then the subsequent Cox Report, the big focus was not really on companies, it was on government to government science relations and concern about the department of energy labs that tend to work with Chinese general armaments division labs. And a lot of that had to do with things like nuclear safety.

We want to make sure if China’s going to have nuclear weapons that they’re actually secure. And so we share a lot of information about security because we think that’s good for the world. People may be concerned about the government of China having nuclear weapons, but we way rather have the government of China have them than a bunch of terrorists stealing them from the government of China. So that was one big area. The other big area they went after was NASA. And NASA’s actual relationship with Chinese in the ’90s was not actually that deep, but because of this Hughes Loral rocket thing, that became a big part of the focus.

So the Cox Report made a lot of sort of allegations and implications that the U.S. government was somehow giving away a lot of secrets that there wasn’t a lot of basis for that when proprietary information is given away, it generally over the years has involved companies. As often as not, it’s actually involved companies selling it legally at times when the market is not that great and the Chinese are the best buyer in town. So we saw that with coal-fired power plants in the 1980s, the core technology that the Chinese have then improved on time after time. They bought in the U.S. when there was no market here for coal fire power plants.

And so the company was looking for somebody and the Chinese bought it with a tech transfer provision. Similar thing happened with Westinghouse and nuclear technology in the early aughts because the Chinese were the only buyers. And so if you could sell five nuclear power plants and then transfer the technology, that was the best deal they were going to get. The Japanese had a similar situation with steel technology in the ’90s. Again, it was a low point in the market. So Chinese buyers have been smart, but that’s not against any global rule. And there’ve also been some cases where there’ve been export control violations. There’ve also been some cases of technology theft, almost always involving companies. But what we’ve seen over the years is instead of focusing on company behavior, there’s been a tendency in U.S. politics to focus on government or academic behavior, where there really isn’t much evidence that we’re giving away anything.

Kaiser: Right. That’s where we’re really barking up the wrong tree. And I think that it’s one of the reasons why we see this decline in collaboration. It’s this still very persistent notion, still incredibly prevalent among many Americans that China got where it is in terms of science and technology primarily through acts of theft. So if you put your figure on one of the things that we’re getting wrong, one being that, why are we so concerned about academic and government to government, lab to lab cooperation when that is not where IP theft is happening. Why aren’t we more focused on the other stuff? We can drill down and you can expand on that idea a little bit, because I think it’s really important, but what else are we getting wrong about this idea of China and IP? Because it really does seem very stubbornly rooted in our thinking right now.

Deborah: Right, so the basic thing I think we’re getting wrong goes back to the fact that we started with this teacher student model, that we assumed that we were the teachers and the Chinese were the students. And that certainly was true in 1979. Chinese science had been a backwater for a number of years, really suffered under the Culture Revolution and they needed to catch up. But, you had an awful lot of people very eager to catch up. And so people moved pretty quickly and Chinese science has made incredible headway. And I don’t think we’ve gotten out of that model. And so the problem is instead of realizing, oh, the student has now grown up and can actually teach the teacher something, instead, the attitude has really been well, if they’re doing something as good as what we’re doing, it must be because they stole it.

So that’s sort of the fundamental mindset. And then the problem, especially when it’s applied to academic science, is that most academic science isn’t about intellectual property anyway. So most scientists, everything they do is published in open source journals. They’re not doing classified stuff. So it’s non export control. They’re not doing anything that’s patentable. When I looked into the literature on patents and U.S. universities, so since the 1986 Bayh-Dole Act, universities have been encouraged to take out patents. But in reality, the vast majority of universities have very few and the universities that have made a lot of money from patents, it’s typically because they have one patent that hits the jackpot. It’s not because a huge part of their research is patentable and money making, it’s often some very specific thing. So the idea that most academic science is in any way related to patents is just misplaced.

And then of course, we tend to talk about almost everything as if it were IP. So IP is patents, trademarks, and copyrights, but often we’re talking about Chinese hacking and you could hack into a company to steal some patented information, I suppose, but I’ve yet to hear an example where that’s what’s actually going on. Maybe it’s happened. And one of the issues in the U.S. is that companies are not very good at reporting when they’ve been hacked. But more often than not, they’re just stealing some information. And while I really don’t want you to hack into my computer and take my social security number, that is not a patented item. That’s not intellectual property, that’s just theft of information. So the IP conversation, it’s way too broad and it’s often misapplied.

Kaiser: Yeah. I can see that. Related to this idea is this notion that I think is still quite, again, stubbornly rooted in American thinking. This idea that freedom and democracy are somehow necessary or even sufficient conditions for innovation. It’s always struck me that this is a basic axiomatic American assumption, or at least it used to be. It’s alive, definitely in some quarters, but I’m inclined to think that we’ve inverted parts of it as part of this kind of 10 foot tall syndrome that we apply to China. We somehow think that China’s out-innovating us precisely because it has an authoritarian political system, which leans on industrial policy and pushes science from the top down, throws a whole ton of money at it, all the while stealing, of course. Where are you on this? Where are we on this? Where do you think we are right now in our national conversation about the relationship between political authoritarianism and innovation?

Deborah: So first of all, throwing a ton of money is really a good way to have a lot more scientific research happening in your country. And you can do that regardless of the system. So I think that’s the fundamental problem is we seem to be stuck right now at this weird moment where we assign everything to the autocracy, democracy binary. And any aspect of China is apparently due to its autocracy and any aspect of the U.S. is due to its democracy. And in fact, there are many other reasons in both countries why things happen. Maybe this is a bit of an improvement over cultural essentialism, but it’s still way too simplistic.

Deborah: And so the scientific research one leaves me really scratching my head because for a long time, we said you needed this freedom to get good science. And of course if you couldn’t live in an autocracy and produce good science, we would have no Newton or Galileo. So it’s clearly good science precedes widespread adoption of democracy, but also widespread adoption of democracy did not hurt science. So they just don’t seem all that related and a bunch of other things, including peace, stability, good funding for science, good education systems, competitive markets for products probably does help. There are a lot of other things that are obviously important for getting to good science, but I wish people would just realize that democracy is great because it provides freedom in human rights. And those are really wonderful things. And stop trying to claim that democracy produces benefits in all these non-political realms that it’s not that closely related to.

Kaiser: Deb, you had this really funny kind of half tongue-in-cheek hypothesis as to why we are now locked into this democracy/autocracy framing, this binary, and why, I think, maybe a little knowledge about the amount that you get in an undergraduate education is a truly dangerous thing. I want you to share that with our listeners. That was hysterical.

Deborah: Oh, so my theory is 30 years ago, when I was first going to Washington, everyone had been an undergraduate econ major. And so they all knew about supply and demand and they believed in free markets because you really have to do the higher level math to understand oligopolies and product differentiation and all that stuff. So they all sort of would give you this free market mantra that you still get a certain amount. Now, the math and undergraduate econ majors has gotten more complex. And so actually poli sci is usually a bigger major at most universities than econ. So all the people in Washington are undergrad poli sci majors, and again, they all have this simple binary of democracy and autocracy, but they’ve never taken the upper level courses that will tell them how much more complicated it really is.

Kaiser: Truly a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. That’s fantastic. I love it. I’m glad you spelled that out. The other important insight in your work, and you touched on this is you talked about how the teacher, student framing, the learner model has really kind of misshaped our thinking on this. Talk about the other ways in which that framing has led us astray, not just to disparage China’s capacity for innovation, but it seems to be that there’s a lot packed into this, that this framing has done. Can you expand that a little bit?

Deborah: Well, especially in the Washington policy world, it’s made people skeptical that there’s any benefit in continuing these relationships. And it’s done that precisely at the time where first as we discussed, there’s a lot to be learned from China. And I think scientists know it in the U.S. What I’m talking about is not what people who are actually working in a field feel about their counterparts, it’s people who cut the deals and write the agreements and set up the data exchange programs.

And so that’s a real loss. And then the other problem is because things are tougher in China today than they were 10 or 20 years ago, these government relationships, government programs, government agreements are actually more important, not less, than they used to be, that there is a need in certain areas for example, for the NIH to have data exchange relationships with its counterparts in China, and it both increases access to data. It also protects scientists from getting on the wrong side of this 2018 Chinese data law, that if we engage, we can get a lot more out of it and we can protect our scientists a lot better than when we disengage.

Kaiser: Yeah, no, I think you’re absolutely right because I have heard a lot of people who, I’m sure a lot of people listening to this would say, look, yeah, collaboration wasn’t just shut down on our side. Isn’t it true that China has made this a whole lot more difficult too? Look at the 2018 data law or look at the national security law, all these restrictions that they’ve imposed on sharing data. And so, yeah, I think that you’re absolutely right. It’s precisely because it is more difficult that we need to have these tighter government to government collaboration efforts. And yeah, as you say, if I were working with the NIH and I were in China now I’d feel a whole lot less sanguine about the outcome if I were to, yeah, like you said, get on the wrong side of the data law, then I would a few years ago.

Deborah: Or if you’re not working with the NIH. If you’re there completely on your own, you have nobody who’s created that relationship with the Chinese government and you may have a relationship with a specific university, but, I remember cases in the past where a bunch of biologists are out sample collecting in the middle of nowhere and the local county government decides to round them up and NSF calls over to the China NSF and says, hey, you guys, we got a problem. And they just call up the local government, say, hey, they’re with us, don’t worry about it. And these problems get solved very quickly. And so that’s where this government to government relationship can really help. And yeah, we are in a time when Chinese local government officials tend to think that being very suspicious is a good idea. And so it’s good to have an agreement behind you when you’re out in the field.

Kaiser: For sure. So when I think about all that we’ve lost and how we’ve really paid a pretty terrible price for deliberately degrading scientific collaboration, I immediately think of the gutting of our CDC office in China and how we might have really avoided some of the horrors the last two and a half years, but there have also been other negative consequences unrelated to COVID. And can you share what some of those are? What are some of the other really kind of bad outcomes of us having degraded the relationship?

Deborah: Well, the health one is the most obvious. I think working together on climate stuff is detrimental to us because there’s a lot of learning going on in China right now. They’re deploying a lot of things at scale. It would be helpful to have a much more robust relationship. Quantum computing is another area where we are apparently leaving the Chinese to just rush off ahead of us. And that’s one where like a lot of the green energy, we’re just not pouring the right amount of money in, that one of the ways that we could collaborate better would be if we were investing heavily on our side so that we could actually have something where we’re able to learn from each other because we have the facilities.

And it’s just, at this point, we’re in a situation where, of course in China, it’s very hard to get in and out. And we’re not even really talking about that as far as I can tell at a government to government level. We should be talking about how we want to see more exchange and more back and forth. And instead you get the feeling that everybody in Washington is like, well, as long as they’re not letting anyone in, we don’t have to worry for a while. And it’s like, no, this is really bad.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, it’s frustrating to me because so many of the people who apparently are happy about the collapse of scientific collaboration are so because they look at everything through this sort of lens of national security. So it seems to me that national security arguments have to be deployed against them. I think you make a really good case that it is not in our national security interest at all to blow up this relationship in science that it’s actually in our national security interest to keep it going and to deepen it and to strengthen it. The same can be said with military to military ties.

Deborah: Yeah. The idea that we’re going to keep China from developing into a formidable economic power with global interest, to me doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And so the more we understand it, the better off we’ll be, and we don’t understand it if we’re not there and we’re not working with Chinese and learning what they’re learning. And obviously that would be the argument for military to military exchange. But I think it’s the argument for exchange more broadly. And we also make the situation more hostile every time we feed into a Chinese perception that our goal is to keep China down. We can’t keep China down. And so feeding that concern does not cause that to be the result, it just causes China to be more suspicious and hostile.

Kaiser: Suspicious and hostile and to double down on indigenous innovation, which is a weird thing because –

Deborah: So, indigenous innovation to me is one of the weirdest ones though, because if we accuse them of stealing and then we tell them that when they say they want to do it on their own, that’s bad.

Kaiser: Exactly what I was going to say. How do we square that? We’re so concerned about intellectual property theft and then we freak out anytime China wants to avoid intellectual property theft by actually innovating on their own. I guess that makes sense in light of your explanations about how we frame the relationship. It’s just sort of this element of resentment in it. Anyway. So it’s impossible not to connect — we’ve already done this in the conversation — this deterioration of collaboration with the now nominally defunct China initiative, which was launched in November, 2018 under then attorney general Jeff Sessions.

We’ve talked about it quite a bit on this show. We’ve had Maggie Lewis from Seton Hall and Eileen Gu (谷爱凌 Gǔ’ Àilíng) and Jess Aloe from the MIT Technology Review to talk about it. So the thing hasn’t been killed, it’s kind of been rechristened. And as we’ve seen, even just today, there was another China initiative case where a mathematician in Southern Illinois was found guilty of tax evasion or something like that, but not actually of anything like intellectual property theft, but maybe you could tie this decline in scientific collaboration, more explicitly to the pathologies that have really led our government now to cut off our nose to spite our face.

Deborah: Yeah. It’s a tragedy and it’s particularly a tragedy for the Chinese American scientists who are caught in the middle of this thing. Certainly for the ones who are investigated or convicted, their lives are really upended, but I think most scientists of Chinese origin are really very nervous at this point with what the U.S. is going to do and as it became very clear in the Chen Gang] case, which is the MIT professor. And this is true of all of them, but it was much more explicit in that case because MIT spoke up for him so eloquently. He’s out there creating these relationships in significant part because MIT encouraged him to do so often because the U.S. Department of Energy and other institutions really encouraged MIT to do so. And then suddenly he’s being investigated for these same cooperative relationships.

So I think it creates a lot of concern, hostility. It certainly makes people doubt the idea that the U.S. is really this bastion of freedom and openness that we claim. And certainly when we’re speaking to Chinese students, it creates enormous skepticism about who we are.

But it also doesn’t do very much because as I say, these guys are not producing intellectual property. Most of them have not done anything that’s in any way known as classified. So what is it that we’re afraid they’re telling their Chinese counterparts? For the most part, they’re just engaging in normal science, all of which is going to get published in normal journals for everyone to read. And so we’re creating a lot of anxiety and real harm to people and it’s not obvious to me what the benefit is.

And intellectual property even was not considered a criminal matter until 1996 when there was a law that the name has now slipped my mind, but it basically criminalized international intellectual property theft. It’s still not illegal for one’s U.S. company to steal intellectual property from another U.S. company. You can sue them. It’s a civil matter. It’s not a criminal matter.

So everybody’s getting caught up in this thing that through the vast majority of commercial history was never even considered criminal. So that’s one part. So that was what the FBI was ostensibly looking at, but they found very, very few cases and those that they have mostly are in the sort of company commercial range, they have nothing to do with academics. So that’s been, I think, really, really harmful. And it really has also caused Chinese scientists looking at the U.S. to say, why would we want to work with you? You seem just suspicious and paranoid.

Kaiser: Exactly. And it makes me wonder whether it’s now even too late to rebuild scientific collaboration or if it’s not, I think it would take a pretty herculean effort. What do we need to do, Deb, to start to relay the foundations of trust and to reconnect? I’m not entirely pessimistic about it because I think that there’s still a lot of goodwill among the scientists themselves.

Deborah: Yeah. I agree with you. And so I think there is an opportunity to do it if we wanted to. One thing would be to tone down the rhetoric in general. Another thing would be to recognize where the Chinese are doing well. You still hear just kind of knee jerk criticism of China, for example, on climate change, where of course China has to do more, but actually we’re the ones who don’t have a national climate policy. And I’ve said over and over again, if the U.S. had actually adopted build back better, the Chinese would’ve responded competitively by having a much more ambitious program to promote green industry in China. They’re already doing a lot and everybody thinks they’re going to actually way exceed what they’ve announced as their own goals.

Deborah: So, they’re moving in the right direction. We still rarely compliment them for anything on the climate front. So one thing would be to actually recognize things where they do well. Also, I think we could tone down our language on the Russia Ukraine thing. They aren’t actually helping them. They have abided by sanctions. There’s a lot of nasty rhetoric in China, but in terms of what they’re actually doing, it’s not that much. So I think we have chosen to have this very sort of rhetorically aggressive stance and I don’t see what we’re getting out of it. And the idea that it’s going to slow down China, I don’t know. So, overall I think toning down the rhetoric would be helpful.

I think you’re right. I think that we could rebuild the scientific relationships because at the person to person, professor to professor level, there’s still enormous connections. And a lot of people are still talking to their counterparts in China, sharing things, getting on Zoom and talking to each other. There’s a lot that actually is happening at the people to people level still, despite all. So I think we could rebuild. And of course, nadirs in U.S.-China relations have been worse than this in the past. The great relationship that we had and after normalization was after we had almost no relationship for many decades. So I don’t think the fact that it’s bad now means it has to be bad forever, but I do think that it’s not clear to me that sort of anybody has any clear sense of what hostility to China is getting the United States.

Kaiser: Political benefit to individual politicians and that’s about it.

So Deb, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you a bit about how all of this plays into the current American discourse on COVID-19 and China. And I’ll try to keep this to just a couple of questions. So two years ago, when this was all starting… And by the way, I should add that in the early months of COVID one of the things that I was cheered by actually was that I sat in lots of sessions where doctors who had been in Wuhan were getting on zoom calls, and these were open, and talking to doctors in the United States, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in other cities and sharing therapeutic best practices. Treatment best practices. It was really heartening.

And this was sort of like the kind of people-to-people that I thought… This wasn’t organized by any government. This was one hospital or one group of researchers in one country reaching out to another group of researchers in another country. And that was great. But anyway, I was saying, a little over two years ago when this whole thing started, Jeremy and I were talking about why, despite weeks and weeks of watching what was happening in Wuhan, and even then in Italy and then in Iran, Americans were still kind of collectively blindsided when SARS CoV-2 started infecting people by the thousands in the U.S.

And we had talked back then about how there was some very fine, very heroic, very empathetic reporting out of China, Times and Journal reporters who were behind the lines. They were in Wuhan, they were writing deeply human stories. And some of them were great. But again, kind of the exception. And most of them kind of covered it as a political story and the chattering classes in the states, as far as I could see, were mostly thinking of it in terms of regime type. And we kept trying to fit this regime type framing under what was happening just who was handling it better, who was handling it worse, even though I think most of us realized it was a bad fit early on. There were plenty of liberal democracies that were handling things admirably well, and a lot of authoritarian countries, they were doing just a total crap job, even ones with a lot of state capacity. We all started using that word.

And then people tried that culture fit, you were talking about culture essentialist explanations. My favorite theory was countries that use chopsticks are doing well, but then that didn’t work either. But clearly there was something to it. Ed Yong, who, I’m sure you also really admire the stuff he’s been writing, he’s just been my hero in the journalist world through this whole pandemic. He gave a really great talk. I’ll make sure to put a link to it. You can see it on Vimeo. And talked about toxic individualism in America. And I think it’s hard not to see that as a factor in the U.S. and the UK for all the deaths here. Within America, it’s obviously political. You look at the vaccination rates between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s obviously there’s a political element to it.

But anyway, where are you in your thinking on this question? Because you have been somebody I’ve been in dialogue with kind of directly on this and indirectly, and you’ve always had really good ideas about this. So where are you when you’re thinking about this question of why different governments, different societies had such disparate outcomes when it comes to managing the disease? And maybe you can bring it all the way up to the present. Why is it that some stuff has worked at some stages of the pandemic and not well at all on the other. I’m thinking obviously about Shanghai.

Deborah: Right. So I think the things that some of the earlier research tended to show mattered. One was social trust, that high levels of social trust generally helped countries do better, but you needed to have a good policy. I think Sweden has high social trust, but they decided to go for herd immunity. And that was a bad idea. That was one. A second one, though, in the negative direction is it’s pretty clear that populous leaders did particularly badly. So it’s not just Trump and Johnson, it’s Bolsonaro.

Kaiser: Duterte.

Deborah: Venezuela, the Philippines, that populism was specifically bad. And I feel like that more than toxic individualism actually is the criteria that I would look at is how populist sort of a country is at a given moment, but I don’t know, I’m not sure who else is really an individualist.

So, those were some of the criteria, but one of the things I think is there is a need for flexibility over time because this has been a long haul and the story constantly changes. You see the reminders of a year ago on Facebook now. And it was like this glorious time when I had just been vaccinated and I felt like I actually had a certain amount of protection, not just from hospitalization and death, but from getting the disease. And I now know that my vaccination is going to really help me from severe disease, but it doesn’t help me at all from getting sick. So we’ve seen some of the countries that have a zero COVID policy, like New Zealand and Australia realize it’s not going to work anymore with Omicron.

And then we see the Chinese just doubling down and they have gotten themselves in a massive policy problem where we have these kind of pronouncements from Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 about how using the basis of the communist party or whatever the heck that thing was that Victor Shih tweeted out this morning. So embedding it in sort of communist ideology and the kind of stuff that local leaders don’t feel like they can argue with and we always have this problem whenever there’s disease control that at the local level, everybody wants to show their jiji (积极 jījí), their enthusiasm. So remember during SARS they were spraying these chemicals absolutely everywhere. And you saw the pictures early in COVID, right, of these trucks driving through the street.

Kaiser: Again now. Yeah.

Deborah: So now that it becomes like lockdown, somebody I saw posted on Twitter that his complex was now in lockdown plus. I don’t know what the plus is and I don’t think he did either. So it was interesting talking to a friend the other day about what has been one of the market advantages of the Chinese regime throughout the reform period was this willingness to have flexible policy, local innovation, things like that. And one of the interesting questions is at this moment in Chinese political history, has that gone away? And that the regime has become much more centralized.

And in certain ways, of course that’s been an advantage. They’ve been able to enforce environmental regulations much more effectively than they could 20 years ago. But at this moment there’s clearly a need for innovation and nobody seems to feel like they’re politically free to innovate. So I think China’s in a very difficult situation. And given the nature of Omicron, this could go on for a very long time, with a lockdown here, then a lockdown there, and then a lockdown in another city.

I don’t see what the way out is with a disease that vaccination does not prevent infection. The Chinese vaccines, there’s been a lot of misinformation floating around, especially people comparing the mainland to Hong Kong without really paying attention. There are things we know from the Hong Kong experience. One is that the Chinese vaccines are helpful. They’re not as good as mRNA, but they are actually reasonably helpful. The thing everybody seems to miss is the vaccination rate in China is actually higher than in Hong Kong. And of course, most Chinese cities are far less dense than Hong Kong is. So even though they’re dense, they’re not the same. So we don’t know how it’s going to play out, but there’s a real risk that this is going to go on for a very long time. So I think they’ve gotten themselves stuck in a policy sense. And the question is, when do they get themselves unstuck? I don’t really have a good idea on it.

Kaiser: The problem is that a lot of the critics of the policy don’t have very good ideas themselves either. I haven’t heard anyone suggest to me how it is that approaching it as a lot of other countries have allowing it to sort of burn through the population, how that is a tenable idea.

Deborah: Well, much stricter mask mandates, making sure everyone in the population actually has high quality masks and improving ventilation, doing a lot of work from home, reducing densities. It would burn through the population, but at a low ebb if you could actually keep people in N95 masks, for example. You could reduce density of offices and things like that, would work from home, et cetera, et cetera, without locking people in their homes.

Because it’s not going to go away. How long are they going to keep people locked in their homes? The point I’m always trying to make to the people who want to blame China, blame China, is this thing is crazy infectious. And it was on planes out of Wuhan by the middle of December before anybody knew what was going on. So there was never a way to put this genie back in a bottle, but similarly, they’re not going to put it back in a bottle now.

This thing is going to be floating around the world for a very long time. So I think there are good policies and many of them are not being pursued well enough by the west. And it is this layered approach, that you want everybody vaccinated, you want everybody in masks, you want to significantly improve ventilation. You want to reduce densities. This is what you need to do.

Kaiser: Wisdom, Deb, thank you. And thanks so much for taking the time to join me and for sharing your experience and your insights. This is just such an important subject and we will want to revisit it. So I look forward to having you back on the show again, again. Let’s move on to recommendations, Deb, but first, a quick reminder that the Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina. If you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica and with the other shows in the Sinica network, shows like the wonderful China-Africa podcast, China Stories, the Caixin Sinica Business Brief, You Can Learn Chinese, Strangers in China, the China Sports Insider, China Corner Office. The best thing that you can do to help us out is to subscribe to the China Access newsletter. You know the drill. Go to if you’re just interested in Access and some of our other premium products. Or go to if you want to check out several of our excellent free newsletters, like the Vibe newsletter that Jiayun Feng puts together. It’s a weekly and it’s just terrific.

All right, Deb, we’re moving to our recommendations and what do you have for us?

Deborah: So I had two, but I feel like I’m going to have to add one because you and I never discussed the lab leak. And there’s a new article by Buzzfeed about the sort of right wing political origins of pushing the lab leak allegations.

Kaiser: Oh, good.

Deborah: So, I have to recommend that.

Kaiser: So Buzzfeed, do you remember the author?

Deborah: No, but I’ll find it for you again and send you the link.

Kaiser: Okay, great.

Deborah: But basically, there’ve been a few really good academic articles recently on the Huanan market and the origins have become clearer and clearer actually. But the origins of the allegations is new information. It has to do with right wing animal rights people.

Kaiser: Really?

Deborah: Yeah. It’s a crazy story.

Kaiser: Okay. I’ll have to check it out. Somehow it got to Matt Pottinger and from him to Josh, what’s his name?

Deborah: Oh, this is a whole different gr… These are real animal rights people. So that’s one thing, but I wanted to recommend two podcasts. So one is this podcast I keep recommending to you Odd Lots, which is a Bloomberg podcast.

Kaiser: Yeah, no, it’s great. I’ve been listening.

Deborah: And I thought there was one on how the supply chain was working in Shanghai at the very, very granular level last week of how you actually do group buys in a Shanghai apartment block was fantastic, but they often go very deep and very granular. And on the supply chain, the stuff they’ve done about the port of LA has been amazing. And I just really find the level of detail fantastic. And then I wanted to recommend Dollar and Sense, David Dollar’s Brooking podcast because-

Kaiser: Oh really? Yeah. I love David Dollar. He’s great.

Deborah: He’s great. And he has his own podcast with no ads, even better.

Kaiser: I did not know that.

Deborah: And he usually interviews his fellow Brookings colleagues. And he talks about China I would say two thirds of the time, at least, maybe more and gives you sort of a good economist view of what’s going on in the world.

Kaiser: What’s what the names of people in the China field. How do we have people like Elizabeth Economy and David Dollar and Derek Scissors?

Deborah: I don’t know. Haven’t had such apt names since I lived in New Zealand where there really were doctors named both Blade and Pain.

Kaiser: Oh man. That’s too on the nose to even be Dickensian. All right. Those are great. Really psyched to listen to David Dollar’s podcast because I really admire him, but Odd Lots I have you to thank for turning me on to that. And I’ve been really grateful. It’s a great listen, so I totally endorse that one. I’m going to recommend a show that I binged last weekend at the recommendation of two of my colleagues Jiayun and Alex who both loved it. I saw them in New York. It’s called Severance. It’s on Apple TV, and oh my God, it’s great. It succeeds at so many levels for me. It’s just really, really excellent. It stars Adam Scott, who you guys might know from Parks and Recreation, as well as just like kind of an all-star cast, it’s got John Turturro, and Patricia Arquette and even Christopher Walken who’s really great in it.

And I really can’t wait for the next season. The whole aesthetic of the show is fantastic. Everything about it, the plotting, the writing, it’s just great. It’s got me on the edge of my seat. I can’t wait for the next season. So, if you’re out there and you have Apple TV, I just signed up for apple TV to get to watch this thing. And so if there are other shows on Apple TV that you want to recommend to me besides Ted Lasso, everyone’s already told me Ted Lasso, Ted lasso, and yeah, I’ll watch Ted lasso, but if there’s anything else on there…

Deborah: I watch Dickinson.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Deborah: It’s one of these weird deliberately… They have all the sort of the non historical stuff mixed in, about Emily Dickinson. It’s kind of entertaining. I hate the Apple interface, I have to say it’s the worst of all the streamings.

Kaiser: I like the abundance of subtitle languages. That’s kind of cool.

Deborah: The other day I was trying to go back to an earlier episode-

Kaiser: Oh, yeah, that’s tough.

Deborah: … the episode where Emily Dickinson visits Thoreau is hilarious. Really, really funny. And I wanted to show it to a friend and I wound up having to Google it. I couldn’t even find it within the app.

Kaiser: Wow. All right. You’ve been warned folks. Debbi, thanks once again. So lovely to see you and so great to have you on. And if you want to see the thing, I’ll put a link to it, but Debbi’s talk at the Watson Institute on her paper is really good. You should definitely check it out. It’s got lots, lots more detail than we were able to cover. So folks that’s all and we’ll see you all soon. Debbi. I’ll see you soon.

Deborah: Thanks so much, Kaiser.

Kaiser: Alrighty. The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email or just give us a rating and a review on apple podcasts as this really does help people discover the show and the interface isn’t that terrible. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at, @SupChinaNews and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week. Take care.