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How China is fast narrowing the technology gap

Nov 02. 2016
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By John Wong
The Straits Times
Asia News Network

Nuclear breakthroughs, a growing space programme and the world’s fastest computer have the West looking over its shoulder 

China has recently scored impressive breakthroughs in science and technology. These include a gigantic 500m-aperture spherical telescope, the launch of the world’s first hacker-proof quantum satellite and the world’s fastest computer – the new Sunway Tianhe-1A – which extends China’s lead in supercomputing.

In space technology, China has sent 10 astronauts into orbit over the last 13 years, launched its first moon probe and two space stations (Tiangong 1 and 2). Most recently, China launched the Shenzhou XI manned spacecraft with two astronauts to the Tiangong II space lab for a 30-day manoeuvre.

Former US energy secretary Steven Chu has observed that China is ahead of America in areas ranging “from wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail”. China is also catching up fast in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, 5-G broadband technology and the Internet of Things.

China’s military modernisation is such that the Pentagon has started to worry. Beijing’s growing arsenal of modern weapons includes the high-performance fifth-generation stealth fighter, “aircraft-carrier killer” missile, anti-ship cruise missile, nuclear submarine and long-range intercontinental missile.

All these should come as no surprise, given that China is the world’s second largest economy. Last year, it devoted 2.1 per cent of its GDP to research and development activities, lower than Japan’s 3.6 per cent and the 2.7 per cent of the US. But China’s sum translates into a hefty US$220 billion, making it the world’s second largest research and development spending after that of the US.

Consequently, China has become the world’s largest source of new patents, industrial designs and trademarks, filing 34 per cent of the world’s patents, compared with 22 per cent for the US and 12 per cent for Japan. China also filed 50 per cent of the world’s new industrial designs, against 9 per cent for the US; and 76 per cent of new trademarks, compared with 13 per cent in the US.

The size of China’s R&D manpower force looks even more formidable, at almost four million, against 2.4 million for the whole of the European Union and 0.9 million for Japan. China also has a huge reserve of graduates, thanks to 2,900 universities and colleges as of last year, with a total enrolment of 37 million, against the 21 million of the US. One in five of the world’s university students is in China and, in line with other East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, a relatively high proportion (about 40 per cent) of China’s university students take up science and technology subjects.

It is not just in quantity that China has made progress; its efforts to improve the quality of its tech sector have also borne fruit. In 2014, the Nature Index of high-quality scientific publications ranked China second in the world in terms of number of scientific papers published, behind the US. Another indicator is the performance of Peking and Tsinghua universities, which were listed in the 2015-16 Times Higher Education World University Ranking as among the world’s 50 best universities.

Innovation as well as science and technology in China have, from the start, been promoted and directly managed by the state, and thus subject to periodic swings in domestic politics and ideology.

The promise and the challenge 

Mao Zedong’s anti-intellectual ideology during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) brought the nation’s science and tech establishment and higher education system almost to a complete standstill. His successor Deng Xiaoping got progress back on track, and today, President Xi Jinping has geared tech progress to realisation of the “China Dream”. Future economic growth will depend on productivity growth – producing more output per unit of input. And the major source of productivity growth everywhere is technological progress.

China in August mapped out its 13th Five-Year Plan of Science, Technology and Innovation, which sees an increase in R&D spending from 2.1 per cent of GDP last year to 2.5 per cent by 2020. Other targets include improving China’s innovation ranking from 18th now to 15th in the world; raising the global citation index of Chinese scientific papers from fourth place to second, and doubling the number of new patents filed by 2020.

China’s science and tech sector enjoys strong state support and ample funding and thus the pre-conditions for strong growth. And yet, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for achieving real scientific breakthrough. China’s science and tech system is known to be blighted by corruption, cronyism and misappropriation of research funds.

Arising from the state’s dominance, China’s commercial innovation is particularly weak. Apart from a few large international brands – Huawei, ZTE and BYD – most Chinese firms lack R&D investment.

Problems also abound among researchers themselves, with persistent scandals of falsified findings and plagiarism confirming that the Chinese scientific circle has yet to establish a strong culture of honesty, integrity and humility for its scientists.

A much more vigorous and objective refereeing and auditing system for scientific findings is also needed. Its S&T system is still crying out for more reforms.

China will continue to score new achievements here and there, but most of its science and technology results still represent “catch-up” work or just refinement of imported technological knowledge rather than real breakthroughs. It will take at least a generation before China becomes a technological leader.

John Wong is a professorial fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

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