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President Xi Jinping swears under oath after being re-elected as president during the National People's Congress in Beijing

President Xi Jinping re-election for a third term was formalised during the National People’s Congress in Beijing.Credit: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty

Science has been elevated in the Chinese national agenda following two high-level policy meetings of the Chinese Communist Party.

During the concurrent Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress, which ended on 13 March, government officials sent a strong message that science and technology are the driving forces in China’s efforts to achieve self-reliance and high-quality development, say researchers who are watching events closely. The announced changes include the creation of a high-level body to oversee the country’s science and technology efforts.

The Chinese Communist Party is mobilizing science and technology to achieve its goals, says Jing Qian, who heads the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis in New York City. That focus will see increased emphasis on key technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductors, many of which have dual civilian and military uses, he says. The meetings were the first time that Xi Jinping, who officially began a third term as China’s president on 10 March, had “full control” over political appointments without needing to make compromises with other powerful factions, says Jing.

Also at the two sessions, Li Qiang was appointed China’s new premier. Qiang is widely regarded as a pro-business and pragmatic official, who has left a positive impression on foreign investors, says Jing. At a press briefing yesterday, he noted the importance of science and technological innovation and transitioning to a green economy.

The move towards more centralized control over research that requires significant investment and coordination is driven by geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, says Marina Zhang, who studies innovation with a focus on China at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. Last October, the US government imposed rules restricting China from purchasing advanced computing chips and manufacturing semiconductors.

The prominence given to science at the concurrent meetings, known as the two sessions, follow President Xi’s declaration of support for science during his reinstatement for a historic third term as party general secretary in October 2022.

Ministry reshuffle

At the latest meetings, officials announced that Wang Zhigang, the current minister for science and technology, who has reached retirement age for government ministers, will retain his position for now. But researchers say it could be a temporary decision.

Meanwhile, state councillor Xiao Jie said the party would establish a new permanent body called the Central Science and Technology Commission, which will delegate tasks to the existing Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). It is not yet clear who will sit on this committee, but researchers say that it will probably be led by high-level officials, possibly even Xi himself. Such commissions are not uncommon and have been established in the past for several critical areas such as in 3G cellular technology, says Zhang.

This creation of the body will “elevate the status of the MOST in the national science and technology enterprise”, says Cong Cao, a science-policy researcher at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.

To streamline the ministry’s policymaking, some of its current administrative tasks — such as allocating budgets in agriculture, ecology and environmental protection, and public health — will be handed to other ministries. This could result in some cost savings and prevent duplication of research efforts, says Cao. The work of attracting talent from abroad will also move to be under the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

Slow progress

There are hints that Xi and other party leaders might not be satisfied with the pace of research progress, says Scott Moore, a political scientist who manages global research programmes at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The ministry reforms are “a sign that progress has not been as significant as was hoped”, he says. Zhigang called on Chinese researchers and companies to contribute to developments in large AI language models such as ChatGPT, which Moore interpreted as a “frank admission” that China had faced hurdles in developing similar tools despite increased investment in AI in recent years.

Science and technology funding is also expected to continue to rise. The government’s expenditure on research and development is projected to reach 328 billion yuan (US$48 billion) in 2023 — an increase of 2% on 2022 levels, according to a draft budget report. Overall, China’s spending on R&D has increased from 2.1% to more than 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) over the past five years. At the press briefing, Zhigang emphasized that investment in basic research will need to expand.

Researchers expect this funding will flow principally to areas in which China faces increasing pressure from the United States and other Western countries. These include AI, big data, energy storage, semiconductors, biotechnology and the clean-energy transition.

The choice of delegates who attended the two sessions demonstrate the importance of these technologies, say researchers. The heads of e-commerce company Alibaba and technology platform Tencent have attended previous meetings. But this year saw the appearance of leaders of the AI software company SenseTime, the semiconductor manufacturer Hua Hong Semiconductor and many representatives of chip design, automobile and battery companies. This reflects a “clear change of the focus of the country’s innovation policy”, says Zhang.

Downside of self-reliance

China’s emphasis on home-grown technology raises questions about its openness to collaboration, says researchers. Some are concerned that no country can achieve self-reliance in the current global economy. “It’s pretty unrealistic to expect different countries to be able to develop totally sovereign technological bases,” says Moore.

Jing says the increased emphasis on self-reliance will restrict international research collaborations in certain areas. Moore notes that, despite China’s focus on security and competition in recent years, the Chinese research community has so far continued to welcome international collaboration. There has been “an open invitation to renew the exchanges and collaborations that we saw before the pandemic”, says Moore.

But, he adds, he is not sure that the non-Chinese academics who engage in these collaborations will be given the same access as they have in the past, especially on technologies deemed sensitive.

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