China’s Roadblocks to Becoming A Science Superpower
Historical and structural problems complicate Beijing’s vision of tech leadership.
A future in which China is the world’s dominant scientific power fills the imagination of leaders in both East and West. In Beijing, China has entered its latest policy-planning period, the 14th Five-Year Plan. Building on strong performance in common science-and-technology indicators and advances in cutting-edge areas such as AI, quantum computing, and hypersonic flight, China is now striving to achieve two of the remaining milestones outlined in its 2016 Innovation-Driven Development Strategy: joining the front rank of innovative countries by 2035 and becoming a “global scientific great power” by 2050.
All this has animated calls for an American response to ensure the United States’ leading position in scientific and technological progress. Countless articles and reports frame it as a new “Sputnik Moment” and a key element of U.S.-China strategic competition. This has led to a host of new proposals and policy initiatives, ranging from increases in DoD research spending to the recent debate over the China competition bill in Congress.
China’s ability to realize these visions depends on its answer to the question that any government has to ask of its science and innovation policy: “What is the best way to organize and oversee scientific research in pursuit of national objectives?” That is, how can the regime best support the scientific research community, nurture scientific talent, and harness the power of S&T to advance national goals?
A recent report from BluePath Labs for the China Aerospace Studies Institute found that answering these questions may not be as easy as Beijing hopes and these fearful narratives portray. In examining Beijing’s approach to S&T planning, processes, and funding, the research found that while China has indeed made impressive science gains in recent years, it continues to suffer from multiple structural problems that hamper its goal of becoming a self-reliant innovation powerhouse. These include an imbalance between basic science research and technology development; a top-down approach that prioritizes Party control over effective S&T policy; and an inordinate, and often self-defeating, focus on quantitative indicators to measure performance.
The first challenge for the Chinese Communist Party is shaped by the 19th-century circumstances surrounding the origin of modern Chinese thinking on science policy. A series of catastrophic defeats in the Opium Wars showed Chinese leaders the terrible consequences of neglecting the development of science and technology. In the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms, perhaps the first significant Chinese work on the West, scholar-official Wei Yuan put forward the idea to “learn skills from the foreigners in order to gain command of them.” The “skills” here mostly referred to “warships, firearms, and methods of training soldiers.” Western technologies were thus embraced as a “means” in service of “national salvation,” leading to a view of S&T which was both highly utilitarian—as simply a means to an end—and often falsely equated science with technology.
This utilitarian view continues to this day, with major implications for China’s S&T policy. One example is an overly strong emphasis on the D in R&D, at the cost of spending on the kind of basic and applied science which is critical to innovation and scientific breakthroughs. In recent years, basic and applied research accounted for 36 percent of U.S. R&D expenditures, versus 17 percent in China. Total estimated U.S. basic and applied research expenditures in 2018 were $211.5 billion, about quadruple China’s $51 billion. This problem is recognized by CCP leaders. Xi Jinping himself has said that China pays too little attention to basic research to make original, transformative scientific and technological breakthroughs. Yet the imbalance remains in policy and strategy.
As well, China continues to apply a highly centralized “whole of nation” approach to scientific research, influenced by its top-down Marxist-Leninist culture. This prioritizes Party control over S&T policies. Premier Zhou Enlai said, “Science cannot be divorced from politics, and is dominated and governed by politics,” while more recently Xi Jinping has tightened Party control and leadership over all aspects of the S&T ecosystem, declaring that firm Party control over S&T policy “provides a fundamental political guarantee for the advancement of China’s Science, Technology, and Innovation endeavors.”
The freedom of inquiry, which is a hallmark of Western scientific research institutions, thus continues to be a major blind spot for Chinese S&T. Simply put, there is a comparative inability to pursue scientific truth in whatever direction it may lead, with the promise that technological progress will eventually follow.
China’s preference for top-down centralized S&T planning not only stifles innovation, but also assumes that advances can be scripted via large-scale mobilizations and R&D megaprojects. This is attempting to predict the unpredictable. Planning can certainly facilitate advances in technology, but scientific advance is characterized by an embrace of uncertainty. Beijing’s long-term development plans are often hidebound and unable to adapt to unexpected scientific breakthroughs. This can frequently leave Chinese researchers a step behind their global peers, who can pivot more rapidly than a 5-year plan.
All these factors lead to a system that is overly focused on quantitative S&T indicators for both performance assessment and personnel decisions. While quantitative indicators provide useful metrics of progress, the numbers don’t always tell the story of a truly successful policy. For example, China has rocketed to number one in patent quantity, and second for journal publications, giving an impression of looming scientific dominance that can be reported back to CCP leaders, as well as cited in Western punditry.
But a narrow focus on raw numbers hides a wide range of serious problems. There is the widespread phenomenon of xueshu laji: the “academic garbage” that takes the form of mountains of useless “garbage papers” produced only to check a box rather than advance the field. In one survey, 93.7 percent of researchers said that their primary motivation for publishing is to meet requirements for promotion. More seriously, it has led to a culture of widespread academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, falsification of results, and the use of personal relationships to gain promotion. In one particularly egregious case, 107 articles from the peer-reviewed cancer journal Tumor Biology were retracted en masse when it was found that “Their reviews had been fabricated, and many papers had been produced by paper mills,” as Nature put it.
The result is massive science policy inefficiency. Even according to China’s own government statistics, Beijing has seen a remarkably low return on investment for the massive amounts it has plowed into R&D. By one metric, China’s “transfer and conversion rate” of technology born out of government-funded R&D is less than 10 percent, a fraction of the 40 to 50 percent rate in developed nations. This suggests a deficiency in turning research into concrete innovation gains.
None of this downplays the massive gains in science and technology that China has made over the last generation and likely will in the next. Indeed, Chinese policymakers have recently begun to recognize and attempt to ameliorate many of these limitations. They have drafted plans for supporting and more generously funding basic research for the next five years. They have also begun addressing China’s faulty research evaluation mechanisms, seeking to quell harmful publishing practices and improving overall research quality.
Yet the biggest issue may be baked into the system. Suggestions to free the scientific community from Party and bureaucratic influence have been actively ignored, and it is hard to see how such a policy could co-exist with China’s increasingly repressive political environment. The authoritarian system also makes it difficult to attract, recruit, and retain researchers from the outside, happy to make China their home and help create truly world-class ecosystems of innovation in the way that Silicon Valley boomed in the last generation.
It is therefore critical in any strategic competition not to focus only on the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese model of science, but on what they also illuminate about what is needed to compete with it. Ultimately, human capital is at the heart of great power competitions in science. Thus, U.S. science policy must be designed to attract, support, and retain brilliant minds, free to pursue truth wherever it may lead.
Ma Xiu is a senior analyst at BluePath Labs, LLC. This article is drawn from research by BluePath Labs analyst Alex Stone’s report for the China Aerospace Studies Institute, China’s Model of Science: Rationale, Players, Issues.
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