Final Public Oral Exam: Yang Li

Biopolitical Socialism: Antibiosis, Scientific Capital, and China’s Cold War Rationality, 1949–1990
Thursday, June 27, 2024, 10:00 am12:00 pm


Event Description


He Bian, adviser
Keith Wailoo
Janet Chen
Mary Augusta Brazelton, University of Cambridge


This dissertation examines the crucial role of biopolitics in shaping and sustaining Chinese socialism through pharmaceuticals. It demonstrates how the peasant-based Chinese Communist Party evolved into a modern industrial regime by developing socialist governmentalities intertwined with biological science, technology, and medicine during the global Cold War. Centering on the rationality of socialist governance, this dissertation presents an alternative narrative to capitalism-centric accounts in the historiographies of modern science and medicine. Instead of attributing intrinsic qualities to socialist science in opposition to capitalist science, it views science as a form of capital, managed diversely across different societies.

In the 1950s, the communist state nationalized not only private industry and commerce but also scientific capital to control the vital technology of life——antibiotic drugs. This process involved technology transfers from other socialist countries and the management of Western-trained antibiotic experts. It resulted in a new generation of “ideologically correct scientists” and novel paradigms of knowledge creation and dissemination. It also fundamentally redefined China’s biotech topography.

Chinese socialist science profoundly influenced the global biotechnological landscape. By tracing the dissemination of antibiotic technology during the Cold War, this research highlights a lesser-known biotechnology network spanning many regions in the socialist bloc and the developing world. The tension between self-reliance and collaboration within this network provides a framework for contemplating the realities of “really existing socialism.”

Furthermore, this dissertation introduces an alternative framework for understanding the pharmaceutical industry’s relationship with society, emphasizing the role of non-profit pharmaceutical factories in a patent-free world. The establishment of socialist big pharma and the domestic supply of biomedical drugs laid the groundwork for the Barefoot Doctor Program initiated in 1968. The interactions between antibiotics and Chinese medicine transformed both medical systems and shaped Chinese perceptions of diseases and health. The experience with antibiotic drugs also had a lasting influence on the Chinese practice of drug evaluation and regulation. I characterize this set of transformations as “Therapeutic Modernity,” emerged in socialist China, following the “Hygienic Modernity” termed by historian Ruth Rogaski in the colonial period.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Lee Horinko Reed
20th Century
21st Century
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense