ZHAO Zhongxian: desiring to make greater contributions to the progress of civilization


Regardless of whether the scientist is homegrown or from abroad, he has to conduct research in a conscientious and principled manner.  



The renowned academician ZHAO Zhongxian is a Chinese physicist and leader in the field of superconductivity, one of only a handful of research areas in which China is internationally competitive. As a veritable trailblazer in the area, Mr. Zhao possesses singular insight and experience in the recruitment and cultivation of research talents in China. In particular, he maintains a high sense of responsibility for the advancement of China’s scientific and technological undertakings as well as a keen vested interest in the Qiu Shi Foundation. 


In October 2012, a group of representatives from the Qiu Shi Foundation paid a visit to Mr. Zhao, at the Institute of Physics of the China Academy of Sciences. Mr. Zhao’s office has the typical look of that owned by the older generation of scientists, modestly sized, with piles of books and papers in an already cramped room. After explaining to Mr. Zhao the occasion for our visit, he reaffirmed his belief in the significance of the Foundation’s work, and stated that, even though we cannot hope to solve every problem, we can nevertheless all contribute to finding the solutions. Many challenges facing China at present are tied to the cultural traditions which have settled after millennia of customs and norms. These cultural traditions are connected to each and every one of us; whether we see it or not, we all have a personal share in them.


As he was speaking, Mr. Zhao reached inside his inner coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper covered with writing, which he identified as key extracts taken from ZHANG Dainian’s work Cultural Tradition and Modernization (文化传统与现代化建设) that offer aid in analyzing the problems at hand. 


In the course of the interview, Mr. ZHAO shared his views and offered suggestions regarding a number of challenges that have arisen in the recruitment of top talents in China.


Regarding the existing talent recruitment programs. One of the prominent challenges today involves properly harmonizing the relationships between existing personnel and new recruits in terms of remuneration and the allocation of resources. This would require addressing, for instance, the disparity of personal income and resources allocated for research between two groups of equally capable scholars – namely, those who had returned prior to the implementation of the Thousand Talents Program and those returning thereafter. Several years ago, many scholars returning to China had attained outstanding results in their respective fields, and some had even risen to levels of international prominence. Despite their success, their salaries were less than that of the newcomers, and their allotment of resources for research was pinched, resulting in feelings of injustice. A scientist and laureate of a scientific award from a certain Foundation had once said at a symposium that “I wouldn’t say that my salary isn’t enough, but I also wouldn’t say it’s all I’m worthy of.”


This sentiment is quite typical: existing personnel are in support of the introduction of top talents, and to the favorable conditions and treatment established to entice them, but partiality is another matter. More importantly, talent recruitment should not in any way be conducted in the style of governmental vanity projects or political movements. This phenomenon deserves our serious attention. In the long run, the only way to solve the problem is to establish a uniform standard for faculty evaluation.


Based on the present situation, Mr. Zhao believes that two imperatives are in order: first, resolve to recruit new talent solely on the basis of demand, instead of turning it into vanity projects; second, strive to cull the most ideal and suitable talent so that those newly introduced would be able to flourish, have a team to lead, and enter a platform on which they can truly shine. In this, the highest requirements for personnel are their team-building skills; it is only when a solid team is built that individuals can emerge and fulfill the roles of academic leaders. If you truly possess the requisite skills, you are sure to gain the affirmation of your colleagues. It takes the help of everyone to create a good environment.


Taking the next steps in facilitating the recruitment of top talent. Mr. Zhao believes that two areas demand reflection if China is to retains its competitive edge in terms of talent recruitment. Firstly, China’s talent recruitment policies should be based on greater foresight and more exalted objectives. Talent harvesting should not be merely employed as a means to meet the demands of industrial restructuring and building an innovative nation; we must also keep in close view China’s contributions to human civilization at large in the 21st century.


As we continued the conversation, Mr. Zhao went on to mention a subject of profound significance. He pointed out that in the preceding century, the United States made tremendous contributions to modern civilization. The question then arises: What does China have to contribute in the 21st century? Will China be able to pave the way for human progress in the decades to come? Can the Chinese achieve new advances in human civilization worthy of our ancient predecessors?


Secondly, management of our educational and research bases must be in keeping with international standards, in order to resolve the problems mentioned above. As can be seen in some of Hong Kong’s universities, professors are recruited with salaries apportioned with reference to international standards – a practice for which China would do well to test the waters with some pilot projects. For example, China could seek to establish an authoritative, uniform system for the conferral of academic titles in addition to the current system, such as state-level professorship systems like the “Professor of the Collège de France.” 


The disparity between the competencies of domestic and abroad-trained talents. Mr. Zhao believes that the definition of the term “local talent” could use some clarification. He defines domestic talents as those who received their doctorate training in China. He believes that both domestic and foreign-trained talents have their own merits. In general, owing to the differences in research environments, foreign-trained scientists may be more willing to challenge authority, and more keenly observe academic norms and research ethics. Speaking of both the formation and reformation of China’s academic climate, Mr. Zhao holds that the present academic environment – including the myriad of problems encountered during talent recruitment – is related to the long-term accretions of Chinese cultural tradition as well as tis structure of doctoral education. Relatively speaking, the elite institutions of developed nations maintain a higher measure of strictness in the conferral of PhDs, though acceptance into the various programs may seem more relaxed. The same is difficult to replicate in China, where PhD supervisors and universities are reluctant to give prospective graduates the red light. This can be seen from an incident in Nanjing in which a school consented to each and every request made by a desperate graduate student who, incidentally, voiced his wants from the top of a building.


Furthermore, research environment in China is strongly influenced by its system of research management. Under the present system, scientific research personnel can be found spending most of their energy in a frantic rat-race to find and secure funds for their projects. They tend to be on the lookout for quick success and immediate payback. The upshot of their efforts to establish “guanxi” (strategic relationships) is not only damaging to the academic ethos, but also results the corruption of certain individuals. Mr. Zhao estimates that the most effective and straightforward solution is to cut out at least 80% of faculty evaluations and inspections, reduce administrative intervention, and optimize the appropriation of resources. The state also ought to continue offering steady support toward those reputable research teams and personnel who have stood the test of time. The only way to create a fertile environment for scientific breakthroughs is to ensure that research personnel are able to conduct their research without undue distraction.


As we bid farewell to Mr. Zhao, the issues he raised continue to echo in our minds: “China’s talent recruitment policies should be based on more exalted objectives. Talent harvesting should not be merely employed as a means to meet the demands of industrial restructuring and building an innovative nation; we must also keep in close view China’s contributions to human civilization at large in the 21st century. In particular, China should ask herself what she might contribute in terms of healthy, sustainable development, and other issues inextricably tied to societal progress.” These values accord nicely with the cause long championed by the Qiu Shi Foundation and the common value subscribed to by all truly outstanding scientists: a profound concern for the fate of mankind.

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