China will seize chance to gain global tech edge: Minister

He cites 'rare' opportunity from AI even as US seeks to stymie Beijing's tech development

China will seize the "rare historical opportunity" presented by game-changing technologies such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) 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 of Science and Technology Wang Zhigang said on Thursday as he rallied the country'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 American products, moves that Beijing views as attempts to preserve the US' 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, 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 technology development and discussed ways to meet President Xi Jinping's goal of making China a technological superpower by 2049.

Some, like Chinese Academy of Sciences president Bai Chunli, said Beijing should use its 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 proven models like that of 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 China's former science and technology minister 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 have developed special talent entry policies, (putting) 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 competition for talent."

Scientist Li Guojie said China's linear mindset towards research and its obsession with the marketability of technology 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2019, with the headline 'China will seize chance to gain global tech edge: Minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe