China faces major challenges in achieving goal of global technological pre-eminence
13 Oct 2022|

China has overtaken the United States to top the world in the number of high-quality scientific papers it is producing.

Analysis by Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy indicates a marked improvement in the quality of China’s scientific and technological development over the past two decades.

The institute’s Japanese science and technology indicators 2022 report says that in 1998–2000, China ranked 13th in the world in the index of adjusted top 10% scientific papers it produced. Twenty years later, China has topped the ranking for 2018–2020.

China’s National medium- and long-term program for science and technology development (2006–2020) aimed to raise the number of internationally cited scientific papers by Chinese researchers to within the top five in the world by 2020. Now China has become the most influential science and technology nation in terms of generating the most prominent papers, far exceeding its target. As this process built momentum, President Xi Jinping’s administration began to proclaim China a ‘science and technology major power’ (科技大国).

The Chinese government has not yet adopted its targeted status of a ‘science and technology great power’ (科技强国). Xi has called on scientists to help make that happen within the larger story of achieving his mooted ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ by mid-century, when the People’s Republic marks its 100th anniversary.

Chinese researchers say comprehensive indicators defining a country as a science and technology great power include expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP, the proportion of researchers in the working population, the number of internationally influential papers produced, the proportion of international applications in the Patent Cooperation Treaty system, the balance of intellectual property royalties in international trade, and the number of Nobel Prizes and other awards.

Indicators of the conditions for a science and technology great power

Japan Germany United States China China’s objectives
2017 2035 2050
Expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP (%) 3.1 2.9 2.7 2.1 3.5 4
Researchers per 100 citizens (%) 0.996* 0.919* 0.914** 0.218* 0.4 0.5
Internationally influential papers published (%) 3.32* 5.81* 25.53* 14.01* 20 25
Volume of patent applications as a percentage of GDP (US$ billion) 8.9 4.6 2.9 2.1 4 8
Intellectual property revenues as a percentage of trade (%) 2.1 1.2 5.0 0.1 X Y
Number of Nobel Prizes awarded in three natural sciences (cumulative totals) 14 61 172 2 ≥10 ≥20

* Data for 2016; ** data for 2015.
Source: Table compiled by the author based on the table in Zhang Zhiqiang, Tian Qianfei and Chen Yunwei 2018, ‘Research on main scientific and technological indicators of science and technology power’, Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 33(10): 1060.

In 2021, Xi’s administration set the goal of making China a science and technology great power in its 14th five-year plan and goals until 2035.

Seven goals for strategic science programs were next-generation artificial intelligence; quantum information; integrated circuits; brain science and brain-mimetic artificial intelligence research; genes and biotechnology; clinical medicine and health; and deep space, deep earth, deep sea and polar exploration. The 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, starting on Sunday, will also uphold the goal of making China a science and technology great power.

The CCP leadership has acknowledged that this will not be easy. At a conference of Chinese top scientists in April last year, Xi said the world was undergoing a once-in-a-century transformation, the international environment was challenging, the world economy was entering a period of stagnation, global supply chains were being restructured, and instability and uncertainty were increasing. He added: ‘Technological innovation has become the main battleground of international strategic competition, and the race for science and technology strategic high ground is more intense than ever. We must have a strong sense of urgency and make our efforts sufficient.’

The administration’s sense of crisis stems from factors including the increasing technological clampdown on China by developed countries. In the past, China’s science and technology capabilities were enhanced mainly through the introduction of technology in exchanges with advanced countries. However, Western countries believe much of this technology has been obtained illicitly using methods that slip through conventional trade and investment regulations. They are concerned that this is strengthening China’s military power and its ability to challenge the liberal international order. The US government has radically strengthened its trade and investment restrictions on China and other democratic countries have made similar moves.

Rising military tensions with the US have also spurred a sense of crisis in Xi’s administration. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan became widely discussed in Western countries.

To realise a ‘world-class military’ on a par with that of the US by the middle of the century, Xi’s administration is accelerating the transfer of cutting-edge technology to the military sector to transform equipment, weapons, organisational culture and capabilities, and generate a ‘new military revolution’. Senior People’s Liberation Army officials recognise that harnessing emerging technologies is key to reversing the military inferiority of the PLA vis-à-vis the US military. However, achieving this through the use of science and technology is becoming tougher in the environment of tighter trade and investment restrictions by Western countries.

Xi’s government has repeatedly used the term ‘self-reliance and self-strengthening’ (自立自) in the context of China becoming a science and technology great power. This means developing core technologies that are key in global value chains through a ‘whole nation system’ (举国体制).

Around 2015, the government began using the slogan ‘Made in China 2025’ to increase technological self-sufficiency and it adopted the ‘military–civil fusion’ development strategy to promote the military use of advanced technology developed in the civil sector. However, this does not appear to be progressing as it hoped. For example, China aimed to be 70% self-sufficient in semiconductor manufacturing by 2025, but an estimate puts current domestic production at less than 20%.

China will continue its efforts to improve its science and technology capabilities and this will have an impact on its international relations. While upgrading its industrial structures, China has strengthened regulations governing technology exports to protect its national security interests. Xi has said he wants to increase China’s role in global supply chains and to strengthen its economy against deliberate supply chain interruptions. In the past, China has applied pressure on other countries by tightening import and export controls on mineral resources, agricultural products and cultural projects. Technology exports and investment are likely to be added to this list. That could increase China’s influence over developing countries keen for its technology and investment.

China’s attempt to become fully self-sufficient in core technologies will create its own dilemma. To develop its science and technology capabilities, China needs to exchange technology and personnel with advanced countries. Such countries will likely not welcome this exchange as long as Xi’s administration continues to pursue its military–civil fusion strategy.

Concerned Western countries have already restricted the access of researchers suspected of having ties with the PLA and suspended joint research projects.

The more the Chinese leadership promotes self-sufficiency, the harder it will be to maintain an open-door policy—and to realise its dream of becoming a science and technology great power.