A student majoring in plant protection checks an insect specimen with a textbook inside a laboratory of Zhejiang Agriculture & Forestry University in Lin'an, Zhejiang province September 1, 2013. (CHINA DAILY/REUTERS)

No country can be a global power without an engineering and scientific base. It’s necessary to run modern factories, develop new products, analyze and deal with complex social problems — pollution, food safety, sickness and disease — and (if the country chooses) to build and project military might. China’s rise to power once again confirms this truism.

It is a stunning reversal. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) — Mao Zedong’s grisly effort to purify the Communist Party by banishing millions of Chinese to the countryside — China repudiated modern science. It effectively shut many universities. Admission exams were suspended. No new undergraduates entered from 1966 to 1969. The ban on graduate students lasted until 1977.

Since then, China has been on a science and technology tear, as a new study by Harvard economists Richard Freeman and Wei Huang shows. Here are highlights:

● From being a “bit player” in research and development, China now spends more on R&D than any other country except the United States. In 2011, China’s R&D totaled $208 billion compared with $429 billion for the United States and $147 billion for Japan, says the National Science Foundation. However, the entire European Union (about $300 billion) topped China.

● The pool of scientists and engineers has exploded. From 1990 to 2012, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to science and engineering graduates rose from 148,886 to 1,258,643. (These figures exclude students who receive technical degrees and typically graduate in two or three years.) Large gains have also occurred for higher degrees. From 1990 to 2012, the number of scientific and engineering PhDs jumped from 1,626 to 27,652.

● China’s share of worldwide scientific papers has increased dramatically, from 6,285 in 1990 (1.2 percent of the global total) to 116,633 (13.7 percent) in 2012. The United States remains the leader, however. It accounted for 30.8 percent of worldwide papers in 2012, down slightly from 32.5 percent in 1990.

“China’s leap forward in science and engineering,” write Freeman and Huang, “is one of the defining events in modern intellectual history.”

Still, they caution against overstating China’s advances. They note that China’s population is roughly four times America’s; the huge numbers of college graduates reflect this — not “high rates of college-going.” As important, the quality of China’s colleges and universities lags. In one global ranking of universities, no Chinese institution made the top 100 (52 U.S. universities did). Among the top 1 percent of scientific papers cited in other studies, American papers led at 46.4 percent in 2012; China’s share was 5.8 percent.

The United States has played an important role in China’s advance. It is the destination of choice for Chinese students. In 2012, almost 60 percent of the roughly 400,000 Chinese students studying abroad did so at American schools. They constituted one-quarter of foreign students in the United States. Freeman and Huang don’t say how many ultimately remain, though they do cite one estimate that three-quarters of Chinese PhD s were still in the United States a decade after receiving their degrees.

The other avenue of U.S. influence has been collaboration. American and Chinese scientists are becoming each other’s favorite foreign research partners. Americans represent about half of China’s overseas collaborations. Chinese researchers can learn the best practices of U.S. laboratories — and Americans can glean Chinese insights.

All this bodes well, say Freeman and Huang. Global knowledge will “advance more rapidly than if China had remained a scientific backwater.” Everyone benefits. Scientific collaboration could spill over into broader “cooperative relations between the two countries.” That is the upbeat view. It is plausible.

But so is the pessimistic view that the two countries are already economic rivals and might become military adversaries. Cooperation with China might then seem shortsighted behavior that made us more vulnerable. The central question remains: Are American and Chinese interests compatible — or on a collision course?

Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.