Such is the pressure on Chinese scientists to make breakthroughs that some put ends before means. Last year He Jiankui, an academic from Shenzhen, edited the genomes of embryos without proper regard for their post-partum welfare—or that of any children they might go on to have. Chinese artificial-intelligence (AI) researchers are thought to train their algorithms on data harvested from Chinese citizens with little oversight.
The looming prospect of a dominant, rule-breaking, high-tech China alarms Western politicians, and not just because of the new weaponry it will develop. China already deploys AI techniques like facial recognition to monitor its population in real time. The outside world might find a China dabbling in genetic enhancement, autonomous AIs or geoengineering extremely frightening.
These fears are justified. A scientific superpower wrapped up in a one-party dictatorship is indeed intimidating. But the effects of China’s growing scientific clout do not all point one way.
For a start, Chinese science is about much more than weapons and oppression. From better batteries and new treatments for disease to fundamental discoveries about, say, dark matter, the world has much to gain from China’s efforts.
Moreover, it is unclear whether Mr Xi is right. If Chinese research really is to lead the field, then science may end up changing China in ways he is not expecting.
Mr Xi talks of science and technology as a national project. However, in most scientific research, chauvinism is a handicap. Expertise, good ideas and creativity do not respect national frontiers. Research takes place in teams, which may involve dozens of scientists. Published papers get you only so far: conferences and face-to-face encounters are essential to grasp the subtleties of what everyone else is up to. There is competition, to be sure; military and commercial research must remain secret. But pure science thrives on collaboration and exchange.