China must seize 'rare historical opportunity' to close science and tech gap: Minister

Visitors look at a quadruped robot at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, on Aug 30, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - China will seize the "rare historical opportunity" presented by game-changing technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence to catch up with advanced nations and overtake them in the global tech stakes, a leading Chinese official has said.

China must also step up its pace of independent innovation as it contends with a United States that actively seeks to contain it by curbing its technological development, Minister for Science and Technology Wang Zhigang said on Thursday (Sept 12) as he rallied the mainland's scientific community.

Speaking to a forum of top scientists and bureaucrats in Beijing, Mr Wang said new technology is once again reshaping the world's competitive landscape and changing the balance of state power, which would level the playing field with advanced nations like the US.

The US has, in recent months, restricted foreign investment in emerging technology, while cutting off Chinese tech giants such as Huawei from access to US products, moves that Beijing views as attempts to preserve its lead in technology.

"From the behaviour of our opponents, we see that technology is especially important for China today," said Mr Wang.

"Once a country leads or lags behind in a certain technology field, a fundamental change in the competitive position may occur."

At the forum, China's top scientists took stock of 70 years of China's science and tech development and discussed ways to meet President Xi Jinping's goal of making China a technological superpower by the centenary of 2049.

Some, like Mr Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said Beijing should use the system's strength in marshalling talent to focus on priority areas to build a "national innovation system with Chinese characteristics".

"This will fully reflect our institutional advantages of concentrating power to do big things, and focusing limited resources to achieve key breakthroughs that raise China's comprehensive scientific and technological strength," he said.

But other scientists and officials said that China should look outwards and learn from other proven models like the US', which has produced tangible results in globally recognised benchmarks.

The US remains the country that has produced the most Nobel Prize winners because it has been able both to groom and attract top scientific talent with strong original innovation capabilities, said former minister for science and technology Xu Guanhua.

He called on the Chinese leadership to implement a world-class science and technology talent programme that would draw top overseas talent with strong incentives, noting that China's "green card" remains one of the most onerous permanent residency programmes in the world today.

"Some 30 countries around the world have developed special talent entry policies, which has put China's ability to attract talent under tremendous pressure," said Mr Xu. "It is imperative for us to emancipate our minds, relax policies, and create an environment that would allow us to participate in the international talent competition."

Another scientist, Mr Li Guojie, said China's linear mindset towards research and obsession with the conversion rate of technology to market are obstacles in the way of its technology powerhouse ambitions.

"Successful companies will seek the correct technologies based on market demand," he said.

"When they see an unmet need, they will do everything to absorb valuable technology, and there is no need for research institutes to do aimless research."

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