China will continue boosting state investment in and support for science and technology research this year, even as top officials refrained from mentioning a controversial industrial plan that has drawn criticism from the West.
Instead, Minister for Science and Technology Wang Zhigang yesterday stressed the softer aspects of Beijing's innovation drive, such as a greater focus on talent development and giving scientists and institutions more freedom.
China will continue to invest in cutting-edge research and development (R&D) on artificial intelligence, biomedicine and new materials, Dr Wang said, without mentioning the initiative.
However, these are among the sectors outlined in the Made in China 2025 industrial plan, which had raised the ire of the White House. It argued that China's state-led interventions to boost high-tech manufacturing create unfair competition and are aimed at global dominance of important sectors. Tariffs imposed by US President Donald Trump took aim at many of the sectors included in the plan.
But Dr Wang stressed Beijing's plans to also build more national laboratories while it reforms funding and incentive systems to promote innovation.
"In each of these fields I've mentioned, people are the key to research activities," he said. "So we want China's science and technology strategy to align with our scientists' interests and goals."
Among the key reforms is the overhaul of government-funded projects' management system "premised first of all on trust of our scientific personnel", he said.
This means Beijing will cut red tape, such as around reimbursements and funding limits, to encourage more innovation, he added.
Chinese leaders have studiously avoided mentioning Made in China 2025 this year -- it was missing from Premier Li Keqiang's annual work report for the first time since the plan was launched in 2015 -- but using technology to retool its manufacturing sector remains a priority.
On Sunday, Beijing said its R&D budget will increase to 2.5 per cent of GDP gross domestic product this year compared to with 2.18 per cent in 2018 last year. This means China will meet its R&D budget goal a year ahead of schedule, and that will put its spending ahead of the average spent by OECD countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries for the first time.
"To promote the development of high-quality manufacturing, we will strengthen the foundations of industry and the capacity for technological innovation (and) work faster to make China strong in manufacturing," MMr Li said at the opening of China's annual parliamentary session last week(Mar 5).
China's annual budget also reiterated the importance of innovation and technology in moving the country up the manufacturing value chain.
Science and technology will underpin the development of both the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, and there are "plans for building several national manufacturing innovation centres in key sectors", the National Development and Reform Commission said.
Yesterday, MDr Wang said China remains committed to President Xi Jinping's plan to become an innovative country by 2020 and a global innovation powerhouse by 2050, as measured across different metricematrices. Noting that China broke into the world's top 20 most-innovative countries (at 17th place) on the Global Innovation Index for the first time last year, MDr Wang said the goal is to reach 15th place next year (2020).
"Whether you become an innovative country depends on whether your economic development strategy treats technological innovation as a core factor," he said.