China Mourns Scientist Who Curbed Famine

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China Mourns Scientist Who Curbed Famine

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China mourns the death of the agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, the debate over the origins of the coronavirus yields no new evidence, and official comments suggest a cryptocurrency crackdown looms.

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National Icon Yuan Longping Dies at 90

The Chinese scientist Yuan Longping, whose development of hybrid rice in the 1970s helped bring an end to famine for millions of people throughout Asia and Africa, died Saturday at the age of 90. In most of the world, his death was remarked in passing. In China, where Yuan was a national icon, it dominated the news.

Yuan’s early years were marked by war and hunger, as a child during the Japanese invasion and as a young man during the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961), when somewhere between 20 million and 45 million Chinese starved to death. As an agricultural scientist, Yuan crossbred a rice species to produce 20 to 30 percent greater yields than previous strains. His work was part of the Green Revolution that transformed global food supplies and staved off warnings of overpopulation and mass famine in the 1960s and 1970s.

Numerous factors make Yuan a particularly beloved figure in China. He was the first modern scientist working in the country to make a breakthrough with global recognition—without clashing with the politics of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when he did his most significant work. Agricultural science was to some degree politically shielded from assaults on universities and scientific institutions. (Yuan’s initial genetic research was conducted in secrecy since Mendelian theory was politically anathema.)

Yuan was a personally modest man with a deep commitment to young scientists. He resisted being turned into a propaganda figure as best he could. His death sparked widespread mourning, especially in his home city of Changsha, Hunan province. It also prompted the authorities to arrest several people for posting insulting comments about him online.

China owes much to Yuan, whose work helped bring the country out of the persistent food insecurity that reached its nadir in the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to overpopulation, political collapse, and ecological disaster. Malnutrition remained the norm in many parts of China throughout the 1970s, and food rationing only officially ended in 1993. Even today, the first central government document issued every year still concerns China’s food supply.

What We’re Following

Coronavirus origin debate. Proponents of the coronavirus lab leak theory have seized on a U.S. intelligence report that three employees at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought “hospital care” in November 2019. There’s just one problem: Hospitals are the primary point of care in Chinese cities, and it is often necessary to get sick notes for paid time off, even for minor illnesses. Three people going to the doctor during China’s annual cold and flu season doesn’t prove anything.

The actual evidence for the origins of the coronavirus has not significantly changed since April 2020. A lab leak remains theoretically possible, but there is no evidence of it. The botched World Health Organization investigation only managed to raise more doubts among scientists about the official Chinese account. But Chinese obfuscation doesn’t mean Beijing is hiding evidence: The political system obfuscates everything, particularly when dealing with foreigners.

Calls for an independent, open investigation on the origins of the pandemic are fantasies. Even if the Wuhan authorities had a smoking gun, Beijing would stonewall any outside investigators—out of instinct and because of the official lies by local and likely national authorities about the extent and virulence of the initial outbreak. Former Trump administration officials have mounted a campaign to talk up supposed evidence without context.

Read Yangyang Cheng, who has significant knowledge of Chinese science and politics, on the topic.

Endless Frontier Act curtailed. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has limited the scope of the Endless Frontier Act, which aims to counter the rise of China’s technological power, as discussed last week. The committee cut the original $100 billion budget for a new technology directorate to less than $40 billion, with just $10 billion earmarked for research and development. The move prompted fierce complaint from the bill’s supporters.

The ChinaTalk podcast has a good discussion of how logrolling and lack of ambition neutered the legislation.

Europe freezes China deal. A major trade deal reached between the European Union and China in January—to much criticism from human rights advocates and the U.S. government—has been frozen by the EU parliament in a landslide vote. China shot itself in the foot by imposing sanctions on EU think tanks and researchers in March in response to sanctions over its ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Despite German leaders pushing the deal, the EU parliament has halted ratification until the sanctions are lifted, a politically tricky move for Beijing.

Meanwhile, Lithuania is the latest country to describe the state atrocities in Xinjiang as genocide, withdrawing from the Chinese-led 17+1 bloc in Eastern Europe and banning Chinese 5G products from its network at the same time. The move prompted a state media outburst. Eastern European skepticism about China has grown since the bloc was launched nine years ago, although Beijing still has strong allies in authoritarian leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Tech and Business

Crypto crackdown. Comments from Chinese Vice Premier Liu He that further restricting bitcoin mining was “necessary” sparked another sudden crash in the volatile cryptocurrency market, knocking bitcoin prices down from $42,000 to $32,000. A significant amount of Bitcoin remains controlled by Chinese traders, mostly because of its value for money laundering in a country with extremely tight currency laws. The cost of moving money illegally significantly increased after anti-corruption purges in 2013.

Inner Mongolia is a very popular region for bitcoin miners due to cheap electricity and cold temperatures, which help prevent overheating on the enormous computer rigs necessary for mining. The authorities there have discussed a specific provincial crackdown, which could limit mining even more than the national plan.

Another Hollywood apology. Actor and wrestler John Cena was forced into apologizing for violating Chinese political norms this week. In an interview, Cena described Taiwan as “the first country that can watch” his latest movie, Fast & Furious 9, inadvertently ignoring Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan should never be referred to as a country. After angry nationalists attacked Cena on social media, he made an awkward apology in Mandarin—the latest instance of a celebrity appeasing Chinese censors for the sake of the market.

With new attention from the U.S. public on the relationship between film studios and Beijing, however, that era may be changing.

Social media difficulties. The proliferation of social media accounts for official departments of all kinds—down to local police stations and traffic departments—is causing concern among the top levels of government, according to a report from the China Media Project. Officials use these accounts in part to curry favor with the leadership by posting ultranationalist memes, some of which have been picked up by foreign media—overshadowing official party messaging. More mundanely, poor response times are common. Finally, top officials may worry about the data such accounts provide foreign researchers, even as access to China becomes more difficult.

What We’re Reading

We Tibetans, by Rinchen Lhamo

This 1926 memoir, the first English-language book by a Tibetan about their homeland, is a fascinating—if somewhat rose-tinted—portrayal of Tibet decades before the Chinese invasion. Rinchen Lhamo was the wife of Louis Magrath King, a British diplomat who was kicked out of his job for marrying a woman of color. She dictated the book to him in Chinese, their shared language, before she died tragically young in 1929.

Lhamo has a sharp eye for the prejudices of foreigners writing about Tibet, as well as for the idiosyncrasies of Western life. “I got used to shaking people by the hand, to the evening gown, which makes a human being look like a stork, and after a toss or two, to high-heeled shoes,” she writes. To Lhamo, Tibet is not a “land of ice and snow” but one bathed in sunshine, even in the winter.

Desk Team