Head transplants, at the extreme frontier of medicine, are inching toward reality. Dr. Ren plans to turn his surgical skills to monkeys this summer, hoping to create the first head-transplanted primate that can live and breathe on its own, at least for a little while.

If a breakthrough in this futuristic work comes, China might be where it happens. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese government has been pouring money into scientific research, especially projects that are potentially high-impact or groundbreaking. China’s investment in science and technology rose to 18% of the world’s total research-and-development spending last year, from 10% in 2009, according to the Battelle Memorial Institute.

“China right now, they want to go to the top,” said Dr. Ren. “If you think there’s a really great benefit in research, China can put resources to support you.”