China’s ambitions and faith in science and technology were the focus of the all-important 20th Communist Party Congress in Beijing, which ended on Sunday.
Opening the meeting, which is held every five years, President Xi Jinping said the country must “regard science and technology as our primary productive force, talent as our primary resource, and innovation as our primary growth driver.”
On Sunday he was reinstated for a third term as the party’s general secretary, breaking a convention established four decades ago, and there was a major reshuffle in the party’s top leadership. The decision-making body, called the Politburo, gained several members with qualifications or experience working in science or technology: 6 out of 25 members now have a scientific background, compared to just one member in the previous Politburo.
Nature spoke to science policy analysts about Xi’s opening speech, an abridged version of a written report setting the party’s agenda to 2027 and beyond.
Analysts say China’s epic investments in science are likely to continue.
In 2021, China spent 2.8 trillion yuan ($386 billion) on research and development (R&D), equivalent to 2.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP), a measure known as R&D intensity. The country’s latest five-year plan aims for an annual increase of more than 7% from 2020 to 2025. If this continues to 2035, China’s R&D intensity could reach the average of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has reached nearly 2.7%, says Marina Zhang, the Innovation in China at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia educated. However, China’s GDP growth this year could make it harder for companies to increase investment in research and development, she says.
There is little doubt that China will increase its R&D investment despite the economic slump, says Futao Huang, a higher education researcher at Hiroshima University in Japan. The importance of science and technology is reflected in how often the term appears in the written proceedings of Congress, according to an analysis by Jing Qian, who heads the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis in New York City.
Qian’s analysis also revealed that about 42 officials with formal degrees and professional experience in science were selected for the Central Committee, a political body that includes the party’s top leadership, including the Politburo. These members typically assume leadership of government bodies, including science-related ministries and research funding agencies.
Semiconductors and Self-Employment
Earlier this month, the United States introduced new restrictions on the export of advanced semiconductor technology, along with manufacturing equipment and know-how, to China. The controls are the latest in a long line of US-imposed trade barriers that China would have relied on to build its innovation economy. Xi stressed the importance of self-reliance in science and technology in his speech; Researchers say this priority could lead to increased investment in strategically important industries such as semiconductor manufacturing, the digital economy, quantum computing and biomedicine. “If you can’t buy it, you have to make it,” says Denis Simon, who studies Chinese science and innovation at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
But researchers will be watching how China plans to allocate funds. Zhang says more money needs to go into basic research, and companies need to shoulder more of that investment, which so far has mostly come from the government.
The report’s allusion to the important role of the corporate sector in distributing R&D investment is encouraging, Zhang says. “Innovation requires diversity, innovation requires autonomy, and innovation must tolerate failure,” she says. But Qian says the central government is increasingly interfering with market dynamics, and it is likely to remain so. In such an environment, the majority of money is likely to continue to flow to researchers in state-owned companies, leading technology companies and top universities, rather than to smaller companies and universities. Qian says China’s scientific community doesn’t seem very optimistic about the research environment due to policies that curb academic freedom.
China is also expected to prioritize research in aerospace — including space science — defense, climate change, clean energy and agriculture, among others, Qian says.
Xi noted in his speech that China already has “the largest cohort of research and development personnel in the world.” He said investments in the country’s skilled workforce will continue to boost innovation.
Studies have shown that despite tremendous efforts to train China’s researchers in some areas, such as artificial intelligence, “a quality gap still exists,” says Jacob Feldgoise, who studies science and technology in China at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology in Washington DC. For example, Chinese researchers produce more papers on artificial intelligence than researchers in the United States, but US papers receive twice the share of global citations.
To increase the workforce, China may seek to recruit international researchers and lure back Chinese scholars from abroad while training local scientists, researchers say. But hiring foreign talent is a sensitive issue, Simon says, so local efforts “will be given high priority and overseas recruitment will be done more quietly and without fanfare.” In recent years, academics in the United States have come under scrutiny for failing to disclose financial ties to talent recruitment programs in China.
Some analysts suspect that political tensions between the United States and China have spilled over into academia. In recent years, fewer researchers have published papers explaining dual affiliation between the US and China, and the number of papers co-authored by scientists in the two countries has declined. In the short to medium term, US and Chinese researchers will likely continue to engage, but nowhere near the levels seen “during the heyday of bilateral collaboration” in the 1990s to mid-2010s, Simon says. China’s increased emphasis on nurturing domestic talent may come with more pressure to show results, he adds. “It is no longer just desirable for China to improve its innovation performance; it is now a national imperative.”
Nevertheless, China wants to “expand scientific and technological exchanges and cooperation with other countries,” according to the congress report. This could see China shifting its focus from cooperation with the United States to other regions, such as Europe, Australia or Canada, and even expanding its scientific ties with countries involved in its global infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, he says Simon.
Researchers in China say travel restrictions as part of the country’s strict zero-COVID policy have made it harder for them to form and maintain relationships with colleagues abroad. Limited flight availability, high ticket costs and extensive quarantines make it almost impossible for foreign scientists to travel abroad or enter China, says Cong Cao, a science policy researcher at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China who would like to meet face-to-face with foreign colleagues and take part in international conferences again.
Before Congress, analysts presented conflicting views on whether restrictions could be eased soon. Xi only mentioned zero-COVID once during his speech – to indicate its merits. Qian says this may be because zero-COVID is an established policy, so Xi saw no need to dwell on it. Or it could indicate that Xi wants to remain flexible and is open to change, Qian says.
Some researchers say it’s possible China will try to lift some restrictions after the party congress, while others say it won’t budge until the country’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, meets early next year.