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Why I worry about China

If you don’t want your grandchildren speaking Chinese as their mother tongue, do whatever you can to encourage your lawmakers to support the University of Minnesota with research money.

I worry about China. I have been worried about China most of my life — for different reasons, every 10 years or so. I was born to parents who were afraid of China’s military might and penchant for being against whatever Americans were for. I grew up being afraid of China’s nuclear arsenal and Mao Tse Tung and his “Little Red Book” of quotations I saw my radical classmates carrying around in college. China, I was sure, would convert the masses, including me, to communism. There was a cultural revolution happening. Mao’s sayings became so ubiquitous on campus, that I quit college. I joined the service, and the friend of my enemy was — China.

China became my friend for a short time when it became the enemy of my real enemy, Russia. There was Richard Nixon smiling and shaking hands with China. That got me through the 1980s. Late in that decade a fledgling democratic movement burst to life in Tiananmen Square and the government moved in and killed or imprisoned the protesters. The actual numbers have never been released by Chinese authorities. Authorities in China don’t often release actual numbers on anything, and when they do, I rarely believe them.

Nevertheless, I find myself going to the NDRC website every week to find out how the old enemy is doing. You can find the site here. The last part of that URL stands for Chinese Government. The first part stands for the National Development and Reform Commission.

It is a big website that has a function which will translate the words into any language spoken on the planet. There, Chinese politicians and scientists lay out, in plain English (if you hit the right key), how China will lead the world. If my nightly dreams have not been recently visited with thoughts of China taking over my life, I go to this site to reassure myself that I’m not delusional. The website doesn’t so much confirm that the Chinese will take over as it confirms that the Chinese are already doing it.

So, if you don’t want your grandchildren speaking Chinese as their mother tongue, do whatever you can to encourage your lawmakers to support the University of Minnesota with research money. The Gophers are the Marines in this science war with the Chinese. They are boots on the ground.

According to the NDRC, China already leads the world in the production of wind turbine technology. It leads the world in solar technology. It has grand goals for the development of alternative energy sources, it intends to raise the price of petroleum to curb demand and it is setting up its own cap and trade system, in its new free market, to drive down its CO2 emissions. It is pouring government money into the development of its renewable energy portfolio while, to the consternation of environmentalists everywhere, developing nuclear power to eventually replace its coal-fired electricity generating plants.  

The Chinese nuclear plant of the future isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile. China is talking about fast neutron reactors that produce no plutonium (from which nuclear weapons are made) and produces little waste for storage. China is also messing around with thorium. It is a slightly radioactive salt that can do the work of uranium more safely. And it is four times as abundant. It is found in what is called “rare earth.” Guess who has the lion’s share of the earth’s “rare earth”? Not us.

So, meanwhile, over on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, the Institute on the Environment (IonE) and its off-shoot, the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), is taking on China. It is like hand-to-hand combat, except they are using their minds.

Jonathan Foley is the director of IonE. Foley says:“The Chinese might be beating us today. So, we’ve got to get ahead of them. We’ve got to be thinking about tomorrow, and that’s where America shines — tomorrow’s technology.”

If the University of Minnesota were a start-up company, you might want to invest. IonE recently reported that it picks up $20 for each one dollar invested. But a definite anti-science gloom has descended over the state Capitol, and with budget cutting on everyone’s mind, the University is trying to convince skeptical legislators that it is perilous to cut funding for research. The same legislators would never dream of cutting a defense budget.

Steve Kelley spent 13 years at the state Legislature and is now a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute and director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy. Kelley says: “It is essential to this country’s economic future to support science. And that means more than dollars.  It means leaders, when they speak publicly, ought to be supporting science as a concept. If they don’t, it is like surrendering to the Chinese before we are halfway through the battle.”

Then, Kelley emphatically adds, “It is not patriotic!”

The University of Minnesota is in a war of science with the Chinese. The Prussian von Clausewitz said war is simply politics by other means. To win this war, it seems, we need to get our politics straight when it comes to putting tax money into the part of our budget once the domain of science nerds. At the University of Minnesota, they are nerds no more. Think bulging muscles, tattoos, rifles in both hands and chomping on a cigar. The GI Joes in this war wear a white lab coats.

IonE’s director Jon Foley, a mild scientist by day, says, “We are ready to fight.”

I say, support our troops.