In the wake of Chinese leader Xi Jinping‘s recent article emphasizing that China must become the world’s “major scientific center and innovation highland” if it is to become strong, the official media has been building momentum for several days, saying that science and technology innovation should be placed “at the heart of the overall national development”. The official media has been making strong efforts for several days to put science and technology innovation at the “core of the overall national development. There are growing signs that, having firmly dominated much of the global manufacturing chain, China is increasingly not content to play the role of a maker on the production side, and is attempting to replace the United States in leading the scientific and technological innovation that will be crucial to rewriting the future.
Although China now has the most complete industrial chain and supply chain in the world, and Chinese manufacturers have extensively penetrated all parts of the global industrial chain for decades, almost every new industry and disruptive invention in the modern economy has come from the United States and other Western countries, and has no connection to China at all. While the Chinese are still imagining Chang’e running to the moon, others have already landed on the moon. When the Chinese were looking forward to having a telephone at Home, others already had cell phones.
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), said China has realized that its development has reached a stage where it must break through the key to technological innovation. He said that although China has been saying for years that it wants to improve its science and technology innovation capabilities, it has only recently felt a real sense of urgency.
He told Voice of America, “It was only after the Trump administration began restricting exports to China that the Xi administration really decided that China desperately needed to remove its weaknesses in science and technology, and the U.S. restrictions gave Xi a lot of impetus to accelerate the development of science and technology innovation.”
A report by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) earlier this month said China was the top international patent filer under the Patent Cooperation Treaty for the second year in a row, with more than 68,000 applications filed, up 16.1 percent year-on-year.
In addition to patent applications, the organization’s statistics also show that China now holds the world’s top position in a number of key output indicators, including exports of creative products, and the intangible assets sub-pillar. China has “established itself as an innovation leader,” the organization said.
According to China’s official National Bureau of Statistics, China now has more than 4 million R&D personnel, the highest total in the world, the most complete disciplinary system and the largest talent system in the world.
In terms of capital investment, China recently proposed a GDP growth target of 6 percent during the two sessions, while according to the previously announced 14th Five-Year Plan, China’s annual average growth in social investment in R&D will reach 7 percent, which means China’s R&D spending will grow higher than its GDP growth target.
Scientific papers are an important indicator of a country’s level of scientific research, and a Japanese government report says that China has surpassed the United States in the number of papers published, jumping to the number one position in the world. As the number of papers published fluctuates significantly from year to year, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun said the Research Institute for Science, Technology and Academic Policy of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology conducted calculations on a three-year average and found that China averaged 305,927 papers from 2016 to 2018, surpassing the U.S.’s 281,487 papers.
In terms of high-quality papers, the 2020 statistics released by the China Institute of Science and Technology Information show that China ranks 2nd in the world by only a small margin behind the United States in the number of selected world representative science and technology journals in all disciplines. China accounts for 31.4% of the world’s share of high-quality papers, while the U.S. accounts for 32.9%.
While Chinese companies have always been known as “copycats,” some observers say they appear to have caught up with or even surpassed the U.S. in some industries in recent years, particularly in certain aspects of the mobile business, and some large Western technology companies look to Chinese companies for ideas.
China’s challenge is unprecedented
The steady stream of technological revolutions since the industrial revolution has triggered dramatic changes in human Life, and it is the advantage of technological innovation that has laid the foundation for the West’s leadership in a range of political, economic and military fields.
A group of Chinese scientists developed a roadmap to lead the world in innovation back in 2009. The roadmap, developed by more than 300 scientists over the course of a year, concluded that the world is on the eve of a breakthrough in science and technology innovation and a new technological revolution, and that a new technological and industrial revolution characterized by green and intelligence is likely to occur in the next 10 to 20 years, for which China must prepare early.
Based on this roadmap, China has since set a “three-step” strategic goal of entering the ranks of innovative countries by 2020, being among the top innovative countries by 2030, and becoming a world power in science and technology innovation by 2050.
Speaking to the Voice of America, Atkinson, who served in the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, said that throughout the history of the industrial revolution, the Western world has never faced such a powerful opponent in the field of science and technology innovation. In the face of the challenge, he said, European and American governments have made little vigorous counterattack to maintain their innovative edge. “If we continue to do nothing, we will lose to China,” he said.
In response to China’s challenge, U.S. lawmakers from both parties co-sponsored a bill last year called the Endless Frontier Act, which aims to consolidate U.S. leadership in science and technology innovation by increasing investment in future technologies. The bill proposes to invest $100 billion in the National Science Foundation over the next five years for research in ten key technology areas, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
Carl Benedikt Frey, a professor of economic history at Oxford University, has taken a comprehensive look at the history of technological innovation from the industrial revolution to the age of artificial intelligence in his book “The Technology Trap. In an interview with the Voice of America, he said that while China’s socio-political system is not conducive to innovation, and the United States has the advantage of an innovative culture, the competition between the two countries in this area may become increasingly intense.
In a recent article, Frey pointed out that in the 19th century, the last great power competition, Britain and Germany went all out to remove all kinds of barriers to technological innovation, and that while the current U.S.-China confrontation may also accelerate innovation in both countries, the outcome of the great power struggle may not be what one would like to see: a lesson learned from Europe’s two world wars.
The system stifles innovation
Although China has placed innovation at the center of its overall national development and claims to have the institutional advantage of concentrating its efforts, creating an innovation platform, and pooling innovation resources, critics have argued for years that China’s restrictions on individual freedom and freedom of expression and institutional rigidity have largely stifled its ability to innovate.
Charles Kenney, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD), an organization dedicated to research on the innovation economy, said there is no question that a society without fairness and openness is hardly an innovative society. He told VOA that while it’s not a zero-sum concept or that China won’t innovate under the current system, the fact that “China is not as open as some other countries in the world is likely to be a barrier to China’s ability to innovate more.”
Chinese media reported last year that Alibaba founder Jack Ma had also been critical of China’s regulatory system, saying it stifled innovation.
Frey, a professor at Oxford University, said that under Xi Jinping, China’s greater emphasis on group values and suppression of the flow of ideas has made it less likely to become a leader in innovative technology. In an interview with the Voice of America, Frey noted that while China’s patent filings have soared in recent years, the country still relies heavily on intellectual property from foreign companies, particularly U.S. companies.
He cited the example that in China, while all levels of government value innovation and strongly reward patents for inventions, many are duplicate applications. If you look at the number of applications, it seems to be soaring through the roof,” he told Voice of America. Local governments also encourage applications and set targets.” He gave the example of a patent that could be divided into ten applications. The numbers look pretty, even though they actually cover all one technology.
Dong Yunting, director of the expert committee of the China Electronics and Information Industry Federation, said in a speech that “maybe 90 percent of the patents published by the Chinese statistics bureau are garbage, serving only as a vase and circling money for projects.
Policy spillover to the world
A recent study by Atkinson’s Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that China’s system has not only limited domestic innovation, but that many of its policies have severely discouraged foreign companies, causing the overall innovation capacity of developed countries to begin to decline. The report notes that the debate over the impact of China’s economic rise has often focused on employment, yet the negative impact on innovation capacity is likely to far outweigh employment.
Atkinson told VOA that China has repeatedly used massive government subsidies to prop up companies that have little innovation capacity and are unwilling to invest in research and development to capture markets, creating excess capacity with a large number of cheap products, causing European and U.S. companies to lose profits, decline in performance and be forced to cut back on research and development spending.
He told the Voice of America, “As a result, these companies are doing less and less R&D, innovating more and more slowly, and the whole innovation system is getting slower and slower because Chinese companies that are lagging behind in innovation are competing with foreign companies that are more innovative and have the upper hand.”
A series of statistics in recent years show that while the Chinese government has been increasing its investment in R&D and innovation year after year, companies themselves have invested very little. The European Commission recently released The 2020 EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard, a summary of 2,500 companies’ R&D investments over the past year. The EU’s statistics show that despite the market dominance of Chinese companies in many sectors, only three Chinese companies are among the top 50 companies in global R&D investment.