Explainer | China’s hi-tech direction for the next five years
- Beijing has changed strategic gears in its new blueprint for the country as it confronts roadblocks on technology, especially from the United States
- Now the focus will be less on integrating advances from other countries and more on developing its own
In the new document, Beijing has signalled a shift in focus from “integrating and assimilating” foreign innovations to investing in home-grown innovations.
What is the five-year plan?
This is the 14th five-year plan that China has produced to lay out the general direction for the country.
A summary of the plan was released in late October after the 300 or so members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee met in Beijing to discuss the blueprint.
According to the summary, artificial intelligence, quantum communications, integrated circuits, health, and biological engineering have been added to a list of “forward looking and strategic” key technologies warranting state-sponsored research.
This list already includes aerospace, deep sea and deep underground and neuroscience research.
The document says that over the next five years Chinese scientists and researchers should focus their efforts on the understanding of frontier sciences; social and economic development; economic and national security; and human health.
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Why is this important?
Tang Li, a public policy professor and specialist in innovation policy at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the plan marked a shift of emphasis in Beijing’s thinking.
In the previous five-year plan, which covered the period from 2016 to 2020, Beijing’s strategy focused on strengthening basic research and improving innovation capacity. It also stressed the need to bolster innovation through integration of foreign technologies.
But that was before relations between China and the US nosedived.
“Even if China and the next US administration resume cooperation on global affairs like climate change and health … the West is unlikely to relax its bans on [China’s] access to some core technologies and scrutiny of academic exchange with China in critical STEM disciplines,” Tang said, referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She said the previous plan’s strategy of integration and assimilation would be less effective now.
“Reducing dependence on foreign critical core technologies has become imperative if China wants to achieve its 2035 modernisation goal.”
Who else is saying this?
Zhang Xiaoqiang, a former vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top economic planning agency, told a forum in Beijing in November that as China became competitive, the room for integration and assimilation was shrinking because advanced countries were worried about losing their edge.
He said China had caught up with other countries in areas such as satellite positioning systems, advanced shipbuilding, new energy vehicles and robotics, and might have to rely on its own efforts for future developments, Chinese financial news outlet Caixin reported.
What happened at the Chinese Communist Party’s major policy meeting, the fifth plenum?
What are the new areas of research?
In a related five-year plan document, the NDRC laid out an ambitious range of scientific frontier exploration, such as the evolution of the cosmic structure, the origin of life, cognitive science and atomic physics.
On support for industrial development, the NDRC identified areas like telecommunication, energy, materials science, aerospace, machinery and equipment, and pharmaceuticals that China should strive for its own breakthroughs.
Green technologies that can help cut pollution and repair the environment are also priorities. These range from water conservation to smart agriculture. Public safety and smart city management technologies are also listed among those relating to social development.
Under health, priorities include chronic diseases and precision medicine, prevention and control of communicable diseases, drug development, medical devices, and traditional Chinese medicine.
“Research on strategic high technology … is fundamental to safeguarding the country’s economy, defences and other security concerns,” the NDRC said.
What are the strategic hi-tech priorities?
Advanced computing, mobile communication, blockchain, and fundamental software are listed as priority information technologies.
On smart manufacturing technology, the priority push for proprietary innovations will be in high-performance manufacturing, smart factories, laser manufacturing, 3D printing, and semiconductors.
In the new energy sector, the focus will be on advanced nuclear power, advanced energy storage systems, hydrogen fuel and batteries, wind and solar power, as well as unconventional power transmission.
Molecular breeding of plants and livestock, gene editing, new materials, astrodynamics, in-orbit spacecraft servicing, and space manufacturing are also among some of the strategic technologies identified by the NDRC as research and development priorities.
What support is there from the top?
Beijing is giving businesses a bigger role, showing that it is prepared to change its top-down and state-led system in advanced science and technology research.
Under the new approach, commercial entities can drive empirical research efforts and undertake national key research projects – something which used to be the exclusive domain of national research bodies, top scientific institutes and universities.
According to the five-year plan summary, private companies will be given tax breaks to encourage them to take part in research.
The NDRC said investment in new infrastructure that supported the innovation drive – including space exploration projects and major scientific research facilities – were expected to help spur the economy.