你好, 中国 - From Workbench Economy to a Leader in Science and Technology (Pt I)

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 07/2013

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Innovation, which has been declared key to sustained economic growth, and heavy investment into research infrastructure, talent recruitment and beyond are expected to secure the global competitiveness of China.

As one of the four BRIC nations, China is very well on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy in a few years. Besides economic growth, megaprojects and advances in science and technology have become an important part of China’s national pride. The world’s fastest supercomputer, Tianhe-2, with close to 34 petaFlops, the dedicated Tiangong space programme, aiming at a new permanent space station by 2020, and two soaring mainland universities among the world’s top 50 are only a few examples that are sold as products of China’s preeminent political and economic system. China’s Premier, Li Keqiang, just announced extra money to boost education, science and innovation. Huge investment into scientific focus areas close to the market did work out for a few smaller Asian countries such as Singapore (see LT 3-2013 pp 55-60 and LT 4-2013, pp 55-60). But is this avenue also promising for the more ponderous China and its 1.35 billion citizens?


Despite some progress in the high-tech sector, China, as the global leading workbench economy, remains often a low value-adding assembler of more sophisticated imports from abroad. In the first part of this two-part article on China, Lab Times will provide some insights into the overall structure of China’s research system and introduce two major players, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). The second part will cover China’s efforts to set up world-class research universities and to recruit its own and foreign talent.

Unsteady early beginnings

The compass, gunpowder, paper­making and printing are referred to as the Four Great Inventions and had major impact on the cultural and economic development of China and beyond. They are still seen as proof of China’s prevalence in science in ancient times. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, literature and arts were cultivated. However, there was no systematic approach to promote science as a whole and the indisputable accomplishments of individuals rarely gained visibility.


Over the last century, the rapid development of science and technology was repeatedly demanded by the political leadership, not for the sake of science but rather to advance the economy as well as military and national strength. Shortly after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed in 1949 by Mao Zedong, the whole science system was re-organised along the Soviet model. In the 50s, thousands of Chinese and Soviet technicians, engineers and scientists were involved in large-scale reciprocal exchanges for training and study.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, was established with the help of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and more than 100 major cooperative research projects, including military ventures, were initiated. This paved the way for a science system, in which highly influential bureaucrats control the allocation of resources for research, in which the objectives of research are defined top-down via multi-annual plans and in which scientific achievements are not seen as individual successes, but rather as an obligation to deliver after resources have been made available by the system.

During the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s and early 70s, non-military research in China was almost abandoned completely, universities were closed, scientists were sent to rural areas for manual labour and the publication of scien­tific journals was stopped. The renaissance of science happened in 1978, when Deng ­Xiaoping launched economic reform and included science and technology as one of the Four Modernizations (besides national defense, agriculture and industry). As part of the opening-up policy in the mid-80s and forced by the lack of a well-established scientific infrastructure, China set up hundreds of cooperations with scientists from abroad and started to send thousands of Chinese students and scientists to foreign universities and research institutions for training and research. In 1984, to boost its own research activities, China initiated the State Key Laboratory Programme to support the work of individual labs at universities, CAS, government research institutes and enterprises. With loans from the World Bank, an additional National Key Laboratory Programme was launched in the 90s.

Massive input triggers some output

Due to large investment, China’s gross domestic expenditure on research and development (R&D) almost tripled between 2006 and 2011 and currently accounts for about 2% of its gross domestic product. In absolute terms, the PRC is, with more than €120 billion, the global number two in respect of R&D expenditure. Due to China’s continued efforts, its expenditure is expected to surpass that of the US within the next decade.

According to China’s official science and technology statistics, the largest source of R&D funds is the business sector with 75%, followed by the Government with 22%. Expenditure on basic and applied research accounts for less than 5% and 12%, respectively, whereas the bulk is earmarked for experimental development. More than three quarters of R&D activities are within the business sector, as the higher education sector accounts for roughly 8% and research institutes for about 15%. The absolute number of R&D personnel has more than doubled to 3.2 million between 2006 and 2012, but its relative share within the workforce in comparison to other countries, such as Germany and France is still about four times lower.

With respect to overall research output, China’s effort has started to pay off. A recent analysis by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, covering the period since 2003, revealed that the PRC is the fifth ranked country in terms of citations. Among the top one percent of most highly-cited papers, it was ranked fourth in the same period. However, it also turned out that medium-level international papers by Chinese authors are cited seven times per paper, which is less than the global average of 10.7 times. If only the most recent years are taken into account, an even better picture of China becomes evident. According to the SCImago Country Ranking, China accounted for 16% of the global and half of the Asian paper output last year. In engineering, materials science, energy and chemistry it beat the US, and was second in many others.

Highly centralised and hierarchical

The PRC’s science and technology system is strongly hierarchical and is highly centralised at the national level. However, the influence of regions (provinces and municipalities) has grown significantly over time. They have gained major influence on the local implementation of national science policies and contribute more than half of public funds for research and development activities.

The highest national decision-making body in charge of the coordination of research, innovation and education is the National Steering Group for Science, Technology and Education within the State Council. It consists of members of nine ministries and agencies involved in research, development and education such as the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), which is in charge of devising and setting regulations for the national research policy, the Ministry of Education (MOE), which is in charge of the promotion of scientific talent and research at universities and CAS.

Research policies are formulated as medium- and long-term plans. Currently, the Medium-and Long-term National Plan (MLP) for Science and Technology Development (2006-2020) with the mission to transform China into an innovation-oriented society is effective. Its overall goals are to reduce dependency on foreign technologies, to increase the contribution of science and technology (S&T) to economic growth and to raise investment into R&D to 2.5% of GDP by 2020. Milestones and scientific breakthroughs are formulated for ­specific areas in basic research, key technologies prioritised for applied research and demonstrator projects identified for the high-tech sector. In addition, the 12th S&T Five-Year Plan (2011-15) is in place, with the aim of transforming the research sector into a business-centred innovation system. A new focus was put on innovation related to societal needs, such as renewable energy, sustained mobility and climate protection. As key technologies, a series of New Strategic Emerging Industries including bio­tech, information technology, new materials and advanced manufacturing and aerospace technologies receive special support.

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Last Changed: 05.02.2014