By Invitation

How China is fast narrowing the technology gap with the West

China recently scored impressive breakthroughs in science and technology (S&T). 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.

Indeed, China has in recent years made remarkable progress across several S&T sectors. In space technology, for instance, it 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 even 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 (S$306 billion), making it the world's second largest research and development (R&D) spending after that of the US.

Consequently, China has become the world's largest source of new patents, industrial designs and trademarks. According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, China in 2014 filed 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 the US' 13 per cent.


The size of China's R&D manpower force looks even more formidable. Its total R&D personnel last year numbered 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 army 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, China has a relatively high proportion (about 40 per cent) of its university students taking up science and technology subjects.

It is not just in quantity that China has made progress; its efforts to improve the quality of its S&T sector has also borne fruit. In 2014, the Nature Index/Global, which tracks 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.

Following a century of war and internal strife, the formation of the People's Republic in 1949 brought peace and stability, which gave rise to a short period of rapid economic growth and S&T development in the 1950s. At that time, Soviet financial aid and technology transfer played a big part. Then came Mao Zedong's anti-intellectual ideology (Red better than Expert) during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, which brought the whole S&T establishment and the nation's higher education system almost to a complete standstill.

After Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping returned to power and among his first policy initiatives was the move to restore higher education and revive S&T activities, which he considered to be the very foundation of China's Four Modernisations. His successors, Mr Jiang Zemin and Mr Hu Jintao, continued to promote the sector. Today, President Xi Jinping's support of S&T development is by far the most vigorous - politically and financially.

President Xi sees a direct connection between S&T progress and China becoming a rich and powerful nation, and these are part and parcel of his "China Dream". A second factor is the economy, which is entering a "new normal" of lower growth. Future economic growth will depend on productivity growth, that is, producing more output per unit of input. And the major source of productivity growth everywhere is technological progress.

Accordingly, Mr Xi has actively promoted S&T development by giving more financial support and also forcing the S&T establishment to undergo drastic restructuring and reform. With his strong backing, the State Council in August mapped out China's 13th Five-Year Plan of Science, Technology and Innovation. Among its many targets, the plan calls for an increase in R&D spending, from 2.1 per cent of GDP last year to 2.5 per cent in 2020. Other targets include improving China's comprehensive 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.

Historically, all cultures and all civilisations were capable of innovation, not just the Europeans, but also the Indians and the Arabs.

Ancient China was famous for its Four Great Inventions: the compass, gunpowder, paper-making and printing. The great Cambridge sinologist-cum-scientist Joseph Needham, in his Science And Civilisation In China, had painstakingly chronicled both its past discoveries and inventions and sought to explain why these inventions did not take off and develop in China as they did in Europe. He cited these unfavourable factors: China's agrarian economy, bureaucratic obstacles and the failure of its scientists to mathematise their hypotheses.

Today, however, China's S&T sector enjoys strong state support and ample funding and thus the pre-conditions for strong growth. Indeed, many of its research institutes are flush with funds and their laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art instruments. And yet, these are necessary but not always sufficient conditions for achieving real scientific breakthrough. Indeed, any highly state-managed S&T system is apt to have problems such as bureaucratic rigidity and lack of individual initiative. China's S&T system is known to have such flaws as 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 like Huawei, ZTE and BYD, most Chinese firms are not sufficiently R&D-intensive.

Problems pertaining to the conduct of China's R&D personnel and researchers also abound. Not long ago, scandals like falsified findings and plagiarism among some scientists were reported. These are much less common today, but the Chinese scientific circle has yet to firmly establish a strong culture of honesty, integrity and humility for its scientists and researchers.

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.

Without doubt, China is rapidly narrowing its scientific and technological gaps with developed countries. But "narrowing" is not the same as "closing" the gaps. China's S&T sector has the potential and the material pre-conditions to make further progress. Size and numbers also help.

China will continue to score new achievements here and there, but most of its S&T results still represent "catch-up" work or just refinement of imported technological knowledge rather than real breakthroughs. That will be so for many years to come and it will take at least a generation before China becomes a technological leader.

  • The writer is a professorial fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'How China is fast narrowing the technology gap with the West'. Print Edition | Subscribe