The Science and Technology of China
The world is changing fast, and innovation is the driving force. But how can humanity keep pace? One way is through science and technology.
USTC is a low-profile university that aims high. Its researchers are developing such groundbreaking technologies as brain-inspired intelligence technology, fire science, and particle detection.
Many people are surprised to learn that papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the mariner’s compass all came from China.
Historically, research in China has primarily focused on applied science with the goal of producing new technological capabilities. Increasingly, however, the country is reaching the frontiers of several high-tech industries, such as semiconductors and biopharmaceuticals, and the research needed to do so calls for a focus on basic research that creates scientific knowledge that can be translated into technological innovation.
Some metrics, such as the number of peer-reviewed articles authored by Chinese scientists and the percentage that are deemed “high impact,” suggest that China has reached parity with the U.S. in certain disciplines, such as chemistry and physics. But critics argue that these indicators ignore the quality of research and do not adequately measure its value to society.
The party and the government attach great importance to basic research. According to the National Guideline on Science and Technology Development, strengthening basic research is a vital requirement for achieving high-level S&T self-reliance and self-improvement. It is also key to addressing critical technology issues at the source and at the fundamental level.
The commercialization process is a key issue in China’s quest to become an innovation-oriented country. It requires the state to allow the autonomy of the research community and a true market orientation for enterprises in innovation. This is necessary to reduce the impact of conflicts among vested interests and to maintain social stability. The commercialization of GM crops is a case in point. Despite the government’s incentives, companies are still not reporting accurate profit numbers. The resulting confusion makes it difficult for the government to make informed decisions about industrial policy and funding.
In addition, the lack of effective macro-level coordination is a serious concern. Currently, the State Leading Group for Science & Technology only acts as an advisory body and is not empowered to make macro-level policy decisions. Furthermore, the Ministry of Science and Technology is only one ministry within the state, which can be influenced by other ministries with different interests. This makes it difficult for the ministry to coordinate with other agencies and protect scientific research.
The dominant narrative in the United States, and some other countries, is that China acquires advanced technology from multinational companies through a combination of forced technology transfer and outright theft. While this narrative has merit, the reality is more complicated.
China’s industrial policy lays out a goal of replacing leading Western firms in key sectors such as the traditional auto industry and high-speed trains with Chinese competitors. Several de jure and de facto measures have been used to achieve this objective, including requirements that foreign MNCs must transfer technology to a local joint venture as a condition for market access.
These requirements have been particularly effective in the European Union, where many of these transfers are made through Chinese professional associations (CPAs). Because CPAs are not transparent about their operations, it is impossible to determine whether individual groups act as instruments of the Chinese state and Party or simply exchange technology because that is part of their mission. Future research should seek to identify overt links between specific CPAs and China’s science and technology ecosystem, especially in relation to military-civil fusion efforts and research parks.
The Xi era 14th Five-Year Plan calls for developing national strategic S&T forces, creating world-class comprehensive innovation platforms at national laboratories and national scientific research centers, and boosting the S&T ability of enterprises and talent. These efforts should focus on key and core technologies. They should also be seen in the context of the broader dream of China’s rejuvenation.
One of the great misperceptions about modern China is that it is not capable of innovation at the frontier level. In fact, many of the innovations we take for granted today were developed in China: papermaking, printing, gunpowder, the mariner’s compass, decimal mathematics, and a number of pharmaceuticals.
China will need to increase the gross rate of higher education enrolment and R&D investment, and nurture more creativity. It will also have to address concerns about its research integrity, and improve its regulatory and ecological environments. Finally, it will need to expand international collaborations and open Chinese research projects to foreign applicants.