This gives Chinese scientists an incentive to observe international rules—because that is what will win its researchers access to the best conferences, laboratories and journals, and because unethical science diminishes China’s soft power. Mr He’s gene-editing may well be remembered not just for his ethical breach, but also for the furious condemnation he received from his Chinese colleagues and the threat of punishment from the authorities. The satellite destruction in 2007 caused outrage in China. It has not been repeated.
The tantalising question is how this bears on Mr Democracy. Nothing says the best scientists have to believe in political freedom. And yet critical thinking, scepticism, empiricism and frequent contact with foreign colleagues threaten authoritarians. Soviet Russia sought to resolve that contradiction by giving its scientists privileges, but isolating many of them in closed cities.
China will not be able to corral its rapidly growing scientific elite in that way. Although many researchers will be satisfied with just their academic freedom, only a small number need seek broader self-expression to cause problems for the Communist Party. Think of Andrei Sakharov, who developed the Russian hydrogen bomb, and later became a chief Soviet dissident. When the official version of reality was tired and stilted, both stood out as seekers of the truth. That gave them immense moral authority.
Some in the West may feel threatened by China’s advances in science, and therefore aim to keep its researchers at arm’s length. That would be wise for weapons science and commercial research, where elaborate mechanisms to preserve secrecy already exist and could be strengthened. But to extend an arm’s-length approach to ordinary research would be self-defeating. Collaboration is the best way of ensuring that Chinese science is responsible and transparent.
Hard as it is to imagine, Mr Xi could end up facing a much tougher choice: to be content with lagging behind, or to give his scientists the freedom they need and risk the consequences. In that sense, he is running the biggest experiment of all.