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China craving Nobel Prize success

Publication Date : 10-10-2012


The Chinese go back to work after their National Day holiday to celebrate how far they have come as a country, only to be reminded this week that they have some way to go when it comes to the Nobel Prize.

No Chinese citizen has ever won, except dissident Liu Xiaobo, and this looks to stay the same this year, at least in the sciences.

What's worse for the Chinese is that they are being eclipsed by Japan at the Nobels, at a time when Beijing and Tokyo are locking horns over turf.

Physician Shinya Yamanaka became Japan's latest laureate when he was unveiled on Monday as joint winner in physiology or medicine with Briton John Gurdon.

This makes Japan second only to the United States in the past decade when it comes to Nobel winners in the sciences - an area in which China craves success.

Japan has had 10 science winners since 2000, including stem cell researcher Yamanaka, said Japan's Kyodo News, compared with 43 for the US. Overall, Japan has 18 Nobel laureates.

"Sigh, it's just like football. China and Japan started at about the same time. (But) China is falling into hell, while Japan is rising to heaven," lamented a Chinese netizen nicknamed Poet Xiao Zheng.

As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech in Beijing last month, all eight Nobel Prize winners in science of Chinese descent either were or later became American citizens.

This means - embarrassingly for China - that Liu, locked up on charges of state subversion, is the only Chinese citizen who is a Nobel laureate. The democracy advocate won the peace prize in 2010.

China has been in a state of flux since reform and opening 30 years ago and most people, including scientists, are busy trying to go up the social ladder, noted social development scholar Qiao Xinsheng.

"Scientific research requires a relatively stable environment and the putting down of a quiet study table. In today's China, these don't exist," he said.

It is natural for Japan to produce many Nobel winners, as it is a mature industrial society with a rigorous research system, added Prof Qiao of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan.

But it is not just in the sciences. Japan can go one up over China again if Japanese author Haruki Murakami is named as the Nobel Prize winner in literature tomorrow, over the likes of novelists Mo Yan of China and Philip Roth of the US.

Murakami, famed for surreal stories on love and alienation, is rated by bookmakers as the favourite to win. But they also fancy the chances of Mo, best known for his book "Red Sorghum", later adapted by filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

In any case, Chinese fans of the Japanese author who wrote books like "Norwegian Wood" and "1Q84" would find it hard to buy his works in China.

China banned books linked to Japan two weeks ago, including novels by Japanese authors and language textbooks, in the midst of rising tensions with its neighbour. This prompted Murakami to criticise how nationalism has impaired cultural exchanges between the people of both sides.

Whatever it is, Prof Qiao is confident that it is a matter of time before China gets its first Nobel laureate in the sciences or arts.

Some scientists are dropping out of the rat race and returning to their studies or laboratories, he said. Chinese scientists had created the world's first synthetic bovine insulin in the Maoist period, but missed out on the Nobel Prize for political reasons, he noted.

"So I can very confidently say, in the next five to 10 years, China will have a major breakthrough in life sciences," he said.


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