Oct 20, 2022 - Science

Xi pushes to accelerate China's scientific "self-reliance"

Illustration of tow hands holding test tubes facing each other over a background of stripes and stars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Science was front and center in Chinese President Xi Jinping's address to the Communist Party Congress on Sunday, reiterating the country's aspirations and potential paths to becoming a global science and tech powerhouse.

The big picture: "Science and tech is the most important aspect of China’s overall desire to be self-reliant," says Kit Conklin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's GeoTech Center. "It fuels everything."

  • In his speech, Xi said a key goal is to "accelerate the realization of high-level scientific and technological self-reliance and self-improvement."
  • China should be "guided by the national strategic needs, gather strength to carry out original and leading scientific and technological breakthroughs, and resolutely win the battle of key and core technologies," he said.
  • Those technologies include high-end AI and supercomputing chips that are subject to restrictions on being exported to China under new Biden administration policies, which could significantly set China back.

Key takeaways: Xi laid out the CCP leadership's goals for improving the country's innovation system. They include:

A national laboratory system: China for decades has had a network of State Key Laboratories that conduct basic and applied research for commercial and military purposes.

  • But Beijing has seen where research led and funded by the U.S. federal government has succeeded and is seeking to emulate the U.S. national lab system, Conklin says.
  • National laboratories create long-term employment opportunities for the large number of STEM PhD students about to graduate in China, who have the option to go abroad to work, he says. "It's as much a talent retention plan as a science one."
  • The national system in China could evolve to include more civilian focused technologies like electric vehicles and bioinformatics, not just military technologies, he adds. "The Chinese economy doesn't rely on supersonics for GDP growth."
  • It's unclear how national labs would be managed and integrated with China's existing science and innovation system.

Expanding international collaborations: China and the U.S. are among each other's top scientific collaborators.

  • But China trails the U.S., EU and Australia in its rates of international collaboration, measured by collaborations on papers.
  • Beijing aspires for more cooperation with other countries, but China's scientific collaborations along the Belt and Road Initiative with countries like Russia are "still nascent — their ties with U.S. and allies are still more important," says Cole McFaul, research analyst at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET).

Talent: China's long-term technology and innovation goals require STEM experts.

  • There is intense focus in the U.S. on programs to recruit global experts in STEM fields to China, but "domestic investments are also really important and shouldn’t be discounted," McFaul says.
  • China has invested heavily in its university system, which is now awarding more STEM PhDs than U.S. universities.

The bottom line: "China and the U.S. don't have enough scientists and neither invests as much as they wish they could in science and tech," Conklin says.

  • "But both Beijing and Washington recognize whoever wins the science competition will become the most powerful of the two."
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