China forging ahead as innovation powerhouse: Experts

Among other achievements, China last year launched a new high-speed maglev train with a designed top speed of 600 km per hour, making it the fastest ground vehicle in the world.


Farmers tend cucumbers planted in an AI-controlled greenhouse in Yuanqu village, Longli county, Guizhou province, on May 25. (YANG WENBIN / XINHUA)

October 19, 2022

BEIJING – Rise as global scientific heavyweight is the fruit of years of cooperation and collaboration

From a rover mission to Mars to diving to the bottom of the deepest place on Earth, Chinese scientists are exploring far beyond the horizon, evidence that the country is becoming a key contributor to global science and technology.

On Sept 18, the Tianwen 1 Mars mission received the International Astronautical Federation’s annual Space Achievement Award during the International Astronautical Congress organized by the space advocacy body in Paris

On Sept 18, the Tianwen 1 Mars mission received the International Astronautical Federation’s annual Space Achievement Award during the International Astronautical Congress organized by the space advocacy body in Paris.

Tianwen 1, China’s first Mars probe, lifted off from Wenchang spaceport in July 2020 and entered orbit above the red planet nine months later before successfully landing the solar-powered Zhurong rover, pictures from which were beamed back to Earth.

The mission was a historic first for China, combining orbiting, landing and deploying a rover in a single launch, making it the second country to successfully land on Mars and marking a major leap forward in its space exploration program.

Last year, Haidou 1, an unmanned submersible, reached new depths in the Pacific Ocean, breaking several world records as it dove to 10,908 meters, operating continuously for eight hours and traveling a distance of some 14 kilometers.

Other recent scientific and technological breakthroughs include the launch of the Xihe solar observation satellite and several other experimental satellites, as well as quantum computer prototypes “Jiuzhang 2.0” and “Zuchongzhi 2.1”, which have significantly bolstered China’s quantum computational advantage.

Last year, it launched a new high-speed maglev train with a designed top speed of 600 km per hour, making it the fastest ground vehicle in the world and the latest scientific and technological achievement in the field of rail transit in China.

“Over the years, China has undoubtedly made great improvements in science and technology and, at the same time, made great contributions to the international scientific community,” said Erbiao Dai, president of the Asian Growth Research Institute in Fukuoka, Japan.

“It was clear in the Japanese report that Chinese scientists are beginning to come center stage, whether in terms of science-push innovation or demand-pull innovation,” Dai told China Daily.

R&D Investment

China spent a record 2.79 trillion yuan ($387.5 billion) on research and development last year, an increase of 14.2 percent over the previous year. Investment in fundamental research reached 169.6 billion yuan, accounting for about 6.1 percent of total R&D expenditure, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Its total R&D expenditure is second behind the United States, which spent $708 billion on R&D in 2020, according to the US National Science Foundation.

Yuzo Tanaka, a professor of economics at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, said the Chinese government should be given credit for these achievements.

“The Chinese government has been leading investment in both fundamental research and clinical research,” Tanaka told China Daily. “The money put into it and the vast number of PhD holders in the country is making China an undeniable actor in spearheading global innovation.”

China attaches great importance to innovation as a driver of national development. It has set the goal of creating a country of innovators with a strong science and technology culture, as well as an innovation-driven development strategy.

Innovation is focused on four main areas: exploring global scientific and technological frontiers, serving principal economic sectors, meeting major national needs and improving lives and health.

“The Chinese say that ‘science and technology constitute the foremost productive forces’, and I think that’s why it can achieve so many things and be the world’s second-largest economy despite the fact that it is still a developing country, and it has unbalanced development between its east and west,” Tanaka said.

The Rathenau Institute, an organization in the Netherlands for technology assessment, views China as “a scientific superpower in the making”.

“China is catching up to and even overtaking the EU through impressive growth in R&D investment,” it said in an article published on its website in July.

According to their statistics, China was at the same level as the Netherlands in 1996 in terms of R&D investment, but in 2020, its total R&D funding was higher than that of the 27 EU countries combined.

Although the US is still the largest investor in R&D, China’s R&D expenditure grew 2,722 percent from 1996 to 2019, compared with 117 percent of the US.

Scientific Output

China also has the largest number of researchers and scientific publications in the world, and that number is growing faster than the EU and the US, according to the Rathenau Institute, which added that China has overtaken the US in scientific output.

“The phenomenal growth and unparalleled manpower in Chinese science results in the largest and fastest growing number of scientific publications worldwide,” Rathenau said.

In 2019, China surpassed the US by producing more scientific publications than any other country in the world.

“The impressive increase in the number of Chinese publications is visible in every field of science,” the institute added.

The number of Chinese patent applications made under the Patent Cooperation Treaty also increased from 19,000 in 2012 to 69,500 last year, making the country the top filer in the world for the third consecutive year.

As a result, China’s ranking in the Global Innovation Index, released by the World Intellectual Property Organization, rose from 34th place in 2012 to 12th place last year.

Despite these achievements, some observers doubt that China can assume global technological leadership. However, Naubahar Sharif, acting head and professor of public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said there are very good reasons to believe it will.

He said there are four factors comprising technology leadership: R&D intensity, R&D personnel, the number of scientific publications and the number of patent applications.

The fact that China offers innovators a massive domestic market and that the government has the authority to shape industrial policy and provide infrastructure also contributes to China’s growing technological capacity and eventual global technology leadership, he said in a recent paper.

At the same time, emerging technologies such as supercomputing, artificial intelligence, big data and blockchain have promoted the vigorous development of new industries and new business formats, such as the digital economy.

As an example of digital innovation, China’s mobile payments make up almost 60 percent of all noncash retail transactions, and its mobile payment business was more than 11 times the value of the US.

According to a study published last year by the Ivey Business Journal, a publication of the Ivey Business School in Canada, Chinese tech companies labored under accusations that they were copycats for years, but it was time for the West to learn from Chinese firms about adopting digital innovation to generate sustainable profit streams.

In recent years, China has surpassed the US in certain areas, especially in wireless communication, mobile payments and certain applications of artificial intelligence, said George Koo, a retired Silicon Valley international business adviser.

There is still the misperception among leaders in Washington that China remains behind in every aspect of technology and only knows how to copy and imitate, Koo told China Daily.

“Presuming that we have nothing to learn from China will cost the US dearly,” he said.

International Cooperation

Over the past decade, China has established partnerships in science and technology with more than 160 countries and regions and has launched joint research projects on climate change, food security, health and other fields.

In Africa, the development of space technology and capabilities is a crucial area for cooperation with China, said David Monyae, director of the Center for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

“The integration of space technology in the management and governance of water resources, marine resources, environment, climate, and infrastructure can yield enormous societal and economic benefits for Africa,” Monyae wrote in an article published by IOL, a South African news website.

He said that China and African nations are already collaborating extensively in the space sector. China has offered to set up centers for China-Africa cooperation in satellite remote sensing and train African aerospace professionals.

Chinese companies have helped build five satellites for African countries, including Nigeria, Algeria, Ethiopia and Sudan, and these projects included a significant transfer of skills and technology, he said.

Between 2016 and last year, China launched 207 space missions. Some had groundbreaking outcomes, such as a soft landing on the far side of the moon, as well as those of huge importance domestically, such as returning lunar samples to Earth and orbiting around Mars, Monyae said.

When China launched its first satellite, Dongfanghong 1, into space on April 24, 1970, it was a poor nation, said Monyae.

“China’s success shows that even a poor nation can make remarkable achievements in the space industry with solid leadership, long-term sustainable investment and patience,” he said.

READ MORE: Innovation and ecology are key: Xi

In developing high-speed railway technologies, China has moved from being a follower to a leader over the past three decades and is willing to share its knowledge and experience with other countries. International projects in which it has already participated include the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway in Indonesia, the China-Laos Railway and the Belgrade-Budapest Railway, which links Serbia and Hungary.

The first batch of trains manufactured in China have arrived in Jakarta, and Indonesia’s first high-speed line is expected to open in June next year. The trains will be the fastest in Southeast Asia.

US Tech Cold War

China and the US have been collaborating in a wide range of areas, including agriculture, energy, environmental protection and basic research, since the US-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement was signed in 1979.

Measured in terms of co-authored scientific research papers, US collaboration with China exceeded collaboration with traditional partners such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. China and the US were each other’s main partner in scientific collaboration, according to a 2014 research report prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The trend reversed when former president Donald Trump took office in 2016 and began imposing export controls, cracking down on Chinese tech companies and targeting researchers with ties to China in an effort to contain the country’s technological development.

Despite criticism, the administration of current President Joe Biden has continued the policies, further aggravating tensions with China.

“Denying them access to American technology will simply provide extra incentive for Chinese scientists and engineers to work harder and seek other innovations that go around American-owned technology,” Koo said.

Confrontation with China will lead to a lose-lose situation, and the US might lose more since China has a complete, robust manufacturing base that the US does not have, he added.

Jenny Lee, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, shared similar concerns.

Her study shows that many of the upward trends in US scientific output are supported by China: US research publications would have declined without Chinese co-authors, whereas China’s publication rate would have risen without the US.

Her observations echoed another study by Margaret Roberts, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

By analyzing publication records for 102,000 scientists during the 2015-20 period, Roberts and her colleagues found that the US government’s investigations coincided with a decline in the productivity of scientists with previous collaborations with scientists in China, especially when the quality of publications was considered.

Particularly in the field of biotechnology, the US and China are more complementary than competitive, Scott Moore, director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an article examining the impact of US-China decoupling on biotechnology.

For individual researchers, collaboration with a different country, especially China, will significantly increase the quality of their work, he said.

He said that COVID-19 vaccines were “a powerful example” of how US-China knowledge networks helped translate basic biotech research into commercial and medical applications.

“Washington’s security-driven approach to China risks harming US competitiveness in biotechnology instead of enhancing it,” said Moore, adding that the US may miss the opportunity to share in mutually-beneficial technologies and collaborate with China in addressing shared challenges.

A worker displays a smart flight research platform developed by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China at an exhibition highlighting China’s scientific development during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period in Beijing in Oct last year. (CAI YANG / XINHUA)

A worker assembles auto parts at a factory in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, on Aug 3. (YANG SHIRAO / XINHUA)

A researcher works in the State Key Laboratory of Quantum Information at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, on Jan 31. (ZHANG DUAN / XINHUA)

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