“Now I firmly believe that the Nobel Prize is a hostile foreign force. Not to mention the previous (Chinese) winners, now they finally granted us one in the sciences, and they had to pick this particular field of study! In doing so it fulfilled its hidden agenda of tearing apart the Chinese society,” says Wuyuesanren, an influential personality on Weibo.
He meant it to be a half joke, yet it perfectly captures the bitter-sweet Chinese reaction to the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to 85-year-old Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for her contribution to the discovery of Artemisinin, a compound that helps the humanity to combat the deadly malaria that has ravaged many communities in the least developed parts of the world.
In many ways, it should have been the moment that the Chinese society has long awaited. In the quintessentially Chinese point of view, only the Nobel Prize in the sciences truly “counts”, as the peace prize proves to be too political and the one for literature too subjective. In the past, even when ethnically Chinese nominees such as Chinese American Steven Chu won the award, a joyful mood would sweep over China, and there has always been a discussion about when an “authentic” Chinese citizen, born, raised and educated in China, could win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. So you would expect Tu Youyou’s recognition by the Committee to be a cue for unconditional national celebration. Yet the prize somehow acts like a gigantic boulder rolling over an open field full of land mines, touching off all kinds of explosions and leaving behind a smoldering landscape that might utterly perplex an innocent observer.
How could a seemingly apolitical, objective and straightforward Nobel Prize lead to such complications? The answer lies in the country’s own state of mind and its fundamental inability to fully internalize the troubling legacy that Tu and her generation of scientists have left. And when the full weight of the world’s most prestigious recognition is suddenly thrown upon the edifice that used to support and justify China’s own way of pursuing scientific advancement, the structure starts to wobble due to its internal contradictions. Alfred Nobel’s gaze turns out to be too glaring for a country whose scientific endeavors have been discounted for so long.
The discovery of Artemisinin, an active compound extracted from a traditional Chinese herb, is the product of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution, two of the most tragic events of 20th century history. In 1967, Tu Youyou, then a young researcher at a Beijing-based Chinese medicine research institute, was dispatched by her superiors to participate in the secretive “523 Project“. It is widely believed that China initiated the project upon the desperate plead from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, whose soldiers were plagued by malaria while waging guerrilla warfare against the United States military in the unforgiving heat of Indochina’s tropical forests. No archival evidence seems to be available for this supposed origin of the Nobel-winning discovery, but it is clear that the scientists involved were operating under a pressing mandate detached from a general improvement of the human condition. Understandably, most of those involved were “volunteered” by an order from the top, just like Tu Youyou. Worse still, at a time when the country’s intellectual elites were being marginalized and “re-educated” en masse as “reactionary capitalist academic authorities”, the 523 Project, said to be directly overseen by Premier Zhou Enlai, might have become a shelter for those battered academicians.
It was under such conditions that Tu and her colleagues embarked on an improbable journey of groundbreaking discovery. Inspired by a thousand-year-old ancient record of herbal medicines, Tu came up with a way to extract a highly unstable compound from Artemisia carvifolia, later proved to be very effective against malaria. The pursuit met with unimaginable difficulties (the extreme shortage of proper instruments is but one of them) and involved tremendous personal sacrifices (including testing the new drug on the researchers themselves).
In recent years, the Project has become a subject of serious historical study, partly due to increasing international attention on the significance of the discovery (in 2011 Tu was awarded the prestigious Lasker Award in the United States). It has also become a source of bitter irony because of its special historical circumstances, as one Weibo post remarks after the Nobel announcement: “Just as China initiated a Cultural Revolution to completely destroy its traditional culture, it embarked on a parallel journey to seek a secret cure for malaria from its ancient medicines. How ironic! The fact that the 523 Project ‘incidentally’ protected hundreds of researchers from political persecution is a chilling reminder for every Chinese to remember.”
The Cultural Revolution mark on Tu Youyou’s discovery not just affected how people view its legitimacy, but also caused practical problems that later led to controversies dogging Tu for decades. A key problem is around how the work was organized and how the breakthroughs at every key stage of the drug’s development should be properly attributed. At a time when “private property” was seen as an evil concept, scientists involved in the 523 Project hardly had the luxury to consider things such as intellectual property or patent. The few key pieces of published work were collectively authored in the name of “The Artemisinin Working Group” and other pseudonyms, a common practice during the revolution. This causes headaches for back attributing the discovery. And in this area, Western academic norms and a unique Chinese historical reality inevitably clashes. In 2011, Cell, an authoritative journal in life sciences, published a paper that elaborated the rationale for the Lasker Committee to grant its 2011 award to Tu Youyou. The authors of the article upheld three key principles whereby they determined Tu’s “primary contribution” to the discovery: Who first brought the idea of Artemisinin to the 523 Project; who first extracted the compound with a 100% inhibition; and who conducted the first clinical trial. But Chinese researchers Li Ruihong, Rao Yi and Zhang Daqing contested this way of attributing credit, arguing that this approach imposes a modern appraisal method to a piece of research conducted outside the Western academic norm, i.e. Tu (or any of her colleagues) did not act strictly as a primary investigator (PI) as defined by contemporary scientific project management. They further argued that discovery of an active compound is not equivalent to the invention of a successful therapy. The latter requires a string of steps including not just the extraction and separation of the chemical substance but also the assessment of its therapeutic mechanisms, effects and its chemical structure. And their comprehensive review of the 523 Project reveals that other Chinese scientists played equally important roles in those multiple steps of the medicine’s development, even though Tu’s contribution is still considered “pivotal”.
The attribution controversy, not surprisingly, sucks up much of the oxygen in the aftermath of Tu’s winning of the most craved science award in China. Rumors about her fight with other colleagues to get the Lasker Award spread widely in the cyberspace. Some of the gossip-type posts almost border on personal attack, suggesting that she has “a bad personality” and is “very arrogant and unreasonable”, therefore “deserves to be criticized”. The phenomenon led some to deride the Chinese society for its “foul cultural roots,” full of jealousy and ill-will toward its heroes.
Luckily, credit for the discovery is not the only focus. The Cultural Revolution background of Tu’s research also inspires a completely different discussion: a critical scrutiny of China’s current scientific efforts. If China could achieve such an important scientific development under extremely modest Mao-era conditions, how come modern day state-sponsored science projects with much more abundant cash supplies do not deliver results with the same significance? This line of questioning touches upon a long-time sore point: rampant corruption in China’s academic field and the misaligned incentives for Chinese academicians. A series of 2011 People’s Daily commentaries on Tu’s recognition by the Lasker Award were reposted on social network sites, still creating strong resonance today. The commentaries take their aims at China’s wasteful academic systems that incentivize quantity over quality, which encourages Chinese researchers to produce loads of low-quality publications just to meet their quotas. The result is a “frivolous” academic culture. China’s mechanism to elect its fellows of the Academy of Science is also under fire after the revelation that Tu never made it to that empyrean of Chinese science despite multiple attempts in the past. Web posts remind the public that many sitting fellows of the Academy have been involved in plagiarism scandals or are mere opportunists good at pulling strings in the system.
The discontent was so intensive that it almost brought about a full-blown revolt against China’s scientific establishment: even the congratulatory letters to Tu from the “big bosses” of Chinese science, including the Minister of Science and Technology and the President of the Academy of Science, were openly ridiculed for their grammatical errors and inappropriate wording.
Compared to the above, the bickering over whether Tu’s award “vindicates” Chinese medicine is almost a side show. The fight over the value of Chinese traditional medicine is a perpetual fault line cutting deep into the Chinese cyberspace, with one side (the “science disseminators”) declaring it as nothing more than primitive voodooism and the other (the “traditionalist”) seeing it as a correction to the extremes of Western medicine. Both sides found condolence (and ammunition) in the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision. And when a Chinese journalist brought the issue before the Nobel Committee at the press conference, the spokesperson again handed both sides the sweets they wanted: Tu’s research had been “inspired” by traditional Chinese medicine, but the award was for her scientific discovery using modern methods.
It looks like the Chinese society still needs some time to absorb the aftershocks of Tu’s Nobel Prize. The breakthrough happened in such unique circumstances that some already claims that the journey to find Artemisinin is both unrepeatable and unrepeatworthy, for its toll on those Chinese scientists and its moral compromises. If that’s the case, then the question is: what’s still left with the Tu Youyou legacy? Maybe prominent Chinese scientist Rao Yi is right. He believes Tu’s achievement shows that “science is not the work of geniuses, but the result of a relentless pursuit of ordinary people with very limited resources.” An inspiration for generations of Chinese scientists to come.
A more sophisticated observer looks at the whole Nobel affair with a naughty grin on his face: “The Nobel Prize committees seem to have reached a kind of tacit understanding among themselves: experiment with multiple awards to trigger political discussions in China. In a society at once de-politicized and highly politicized, politics is everywhere. Even an award in the sciences can tap into abundant resources for (political) criticism. Because China is under such a magic spell, the Nobel Prize likes China.”