China's top science advisers have listed 19 projects as the research priorities of the next decade. They include quantum telecommunications and a high-performance jet engine that could drastically improve the capacity of its indigenous fighter jets.
The report written by more than 200 experts at the Chinese Academy of Sciences paints an ambitious road map for the nation's science development, as Beijing tries to break the dominance of Western countries. These top-priority projects include military, space, new materials, energy and agriculture.
The most eye-catching one is a new jet engine that promises to deliver thrust equivalent to 15 times its own weight. The thrust-to-weight ratio is a key indicator to measure a jet engine's performance. In comparison, the Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engine used in the United States' F-22 raptor fighter has a thrust-to-weight ratio of eight and is widely considered one of the most advanced jet engines today.
Engine technology is widely known as the weakest link in China's aviation sector. The country to date has had to rely heavily on foreign imports, particularly from Russia, to power its fighter jets. The new engine mentioned in the CAS report surprised many people and caused much scepticism.
Professor Tao Zhi , an expert in jet engines at Beihang University and chief scientist of several military jet engine research projects, confirmed the project but said he was surprised the CAS had made it public. "It is a top-secret project. Anything about it is hush-hush," he said.
Tao said the US had been working on a similar project. China had to come up with something "fundamentally different" if it were to catch up with the US, which led China in the field by at least a generation.
"It is a very sensitive topic. Any discussion about it could be considered as leaking national secrets," Tao said.
The CAS report said the engine would use a totally new boosting method. The engine would not only be installed on high-performance jet fighters but high-speed cruise missiles and near-space vehicles.
The report also projected that China would build the world's first quantum communication network. With the launch of a quantum satellite in 2016, China would overcome the short-distance issue of existing quantum communication technology and achieve data transmission that could not be hacked by conventional methods.
But the CAS could be overoptimistic. In 2003, the Ministry of Science and Technology released a similar, decade-long forecast on technological breakthroughs.
The ministry report listed genetically modified food as one of the most promising sectors. But due to the lack of scientific education and protectionism in agriculture, genetically modified food on the mainland was still struggling with a negative public image and low acceptance that severely hindered the modernisation of agriculture.