Chinese Innovations
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Issue Vol. 28.4 Oct-Dec 2013 | Date : 20 Dec , 2013

Assimilating and Absorbing

The idea of megaprojects for ‘Assimilating and Absorbing’ technology was mooted. It was an import substitute action plan in order to create Chinese indigenous innovations through ‘co-innovation’ and ‘re-innovation’ of foreign technologies. The megaprojects have an objective of ‘assimilating and absorbing’ imported advanced technologies to help the country to ‘develop a range of major equipment and key products that possess proprietary intellectual property rights’. The MLP speaks of ‘major carriers of uplifting indigenous innovation capacity’.

India depends in a large measure on imports.

While the MLP identified the goals and specific sectors in which government innovation was of strategic importance, the 11th Five-Year Plan issued in December 2007 formally detailed the 16 megaprojects. While 13 were listed, three remained classified.7 Michael Raska, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS), quotes Professor Tai Ming Cheung, a leading scholar on China’s defence industries at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California San Diego, suggesting that the three military megaprojects were8:

  • Shenguang Laser Project for Inertial Confinement Fusion. The Shenguang (Divine Light) laser project explores the Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) as an alternative approach to attain Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE) – a controllable, sustained nuclear fusion reaction aided by an array of high-powered lasers.
  • Second Generation Beidou Satellite Navigation System. According to Jane’s magazine, by the end of 2012, China had 16 operational Beidou satellites in orbit, six geostationary satellites, five Medium Earth Orbit spacecraft and five satellites in Inclined Geo-Stationary Orbits covering the Asia-Pacific region. By 2020, Beidou 2 envisions a full-scale system of at least five geostationary and 30 non-geostationary satellites providing a global coverage.
  • Hypersonic Vehicle Technology Project. Available data show that China has started developing conceptual and experimental hypersonic flight vehicle technologies such as Hypersonic Cruise Vehicles (HCV) capable of manoeuvering at Mach 5 speeds (6,150+ km/h), flying in near-space altitudes.9

There is no doubt that even the ‘civilian’ innovations are useful to the defence sector in China.

Michael Raska says, “Taken together, China’s long-term strategic military programs are deeply embedded in her advancing civilian science and technology base, which in turn is increasingly linked to global commercial and scientific networks.” There is no doubt that even the ‘civilian’ innovations are useful to the defence sector in China.


China has her own problems; one is the rigidity of its bureaucracy functioning under the Communist Party. The Chinese are however serious about tackling the babudom. In April 2007, Party leaders nominated a former Audi engineer with great experience, Wan Gang, as MOST minister; it was the first non-communist party member acceding to minister rank in 35 years.

In June 2007, Wan Gang established a ‘Special Projects Office’, the equivalent of an economic zone headquarters to make sure that the megaprojects would not be buried by the bureaucracy. The megaprojects office was to evaluate applications, approve funding and closely monitor projects. The budget for each project was specific and identified both central and local government contributions. McGregor says, “This unprecedented high-level hands-on micromanagement demonstrates that the indigenous innovation program is the government’s highest strategic economic priority.” Of course, the 16 megaprojects which, as seen earlier have become 19 in 2013, have been a source of controversy and debate both in China and abroad.

Many observers believe that the present Chinese system is not congenial to innovations considering its structure and the restrictions imposed by the unique Party system. Though Xinhua announced than more than 1.02 million scientific theses have come from Chinese scientific and technical personnel in the past decade, the second-highest number worldwide, doubts still persist about the quality of the theses.

The Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China under the MOST, affirms that the quality has risen, “Theses published from 2002 to 2012 have been cited a total of 6.65 million times, ranking sixth in the world.10” The Institute adds, “More than 7,920 scientific theses qualify as ‘highly-cited theses’ or those among the top one per cent in terms of citations, climbing one place to rank fifth” but also admitting that “Chinese scientists in 2011 published 141 theses on Nature, Science, Cell and other world-class magazines and journals, moving down a spot from 2010 to rank tenth.” It is not easy to compete with the West in terms of innovation in this domain.

HAL hardly does any R&D other than development connected with a production project…

On July 2012, an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) entitled “China as an Innovation Centre? Not So Fast” warned that ‘innovations’ may take more time. Anil K Gupta and Haiyan Wang admitted that the Chinese ‘inputs’ in the field of innovation were very impressive, the R&D expenditure increased to 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2010 from 1.1 per cent in 2002, and should reach 2.5 per cent by 2020. Its share of the world’s total R&D expenditure grew to 12.3 per cent in 2010 from 5.0 per cent in 2002, placing it second only to the US whose share remained steady at 34 to 35 per cent.

But though the data looks impressive, “Yet there’s less here than meets the eye. Over 95 per cent of the Chinese applications were filed domestically with the State Intellectual Property Office. The vast majority cover Chinese ‘innovations’ that make only tiny changes on existing designs.”11 It does not mean that China is not trying hard to innovate. The regime gives itself the means to succeed one day.

China’s Re-Innovation

The China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation recently mentioned China’s deployment of the world’s first operational Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) which was confirmed “with unprecedented clarity by the US Department of Defense (DOD). The ASBM’s development path was unusual in many respects, but may increasingly represent the shape of things to come for China’s defence industry.”

The US Department of Defence annual report to Congress on China’s Military spoke of the status of China’s DF-21D ASBM, “China continues to field an ASBM based on a variant of the DF-21 (CSS 5) medium range ballistic missile that it began deploying in 2010. Known as the DF-21D, this missile provides the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific. The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km and is armed with a manoeuverable warhead.” For the US DOD, “It gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” But where does this technology come from?

India is suffering from the same disease as China but despite the bureaucratic deficiencies, the leadership in Beijing has tremendous political will…

The same article of “The China Brief” answers this question. Chinese sources themselves have credited the US Pershing II missile with influencing the development of China’s DF-15C and DF-21 ballistic missiles, “Following the Pershing II’s deployment, initial ‘research work’ reportedly was completed in the early 1990s and incorporated into China’s Dong Feng (DF) missiles via a ‘warhead that possesses terminal homing guidance and manoeuvering control capability’.”

When they first saw missiles of the DF series, experts realized the relation with the Pershing II. An article published in Hong Kong by a mainland-owned daily stated, “When they saw the new-type intermediate-range missile in China’s ‘Dong Feng’ family during the latest military parade held on the National Day, people would certainly like to compare it with the ‘Pershing II’ missile, wouldn’t they?” This is called re-innovation.

Can India Achieve Such a Feat?

Especially in the defence sector, India depends in a large measure on imports. For many, the main reason is the lack of large-scale Research and Development (R&D). We shall take the example of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). A few months ago, Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of the Rafale selected in the MMRCA project, expressed doubts about the capacity of HAL to absorb French technology. Without even speaking about ‘innovations’, can HAL ‘digest’ French technology?

A source associated for decades with HAL explained that tremendous efforts need to be made in the domain of ‘research’, if India is serious about catching up with China and the West in the domain of ‘innovation’. Today, HAL hardly does any R&D other than development connected with a production project. There is no doubt that government or private-funded laboratories are needed for developing technologies which are comparable to the ones in the West. Unfortunately, top ranking Indian students after graduation head for the USA where they receive generous offers providing them satisfaction both in remuneration and the quality of work. It is these very talented young persons who need to be retained to do innovative work in Indian laboratories. This will happen only if India is able create world-class laboratories and offer competitive remuneration. The question remains about whether the Indian system will be able to be a top-class innovator.

Throughout China’s history, the established order saved little respect for inventors, entrepreneurs and business pioneers.

India’s Babudom

India is suffering from the same disease as China but despite the bureaucratic deficiencies, the leadership in Beijing has tremendous political will and adequate economic means to change this scenario in the years to come. This does not seem the case in India, at least under the current political dispensation. Take the case of the HAL’s HPT 32 Deepak trainer plane being discarded by the IAF, which ultimately inducted the Pilatus PC 7 from Switzerland. The alternative proposal from HAL for the HTT 40 (Turbo-prop trainer) was also not considered as it was still at the initial design stage. This raises serious doubts on the state of Indian research, once again without mentioning ‘innovations’. The lack of good leadership and weak design ability are some of the main HAL’s problems.

When Steve Jobs passed away, experts debated why China did not produce its own Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. One contributor to Forbes explained that the emergence of such ‘innovative’ entrepreneurs, “does not blend well with China’s culture of Confucian conformity to existing norms. Throughout China’s history, the established order saved little respect for inventors, entrepreneurs and business pioneers.” There is some truth in this, but the Confucian conformity added to the Communist bureaucracy and the supreme importance of the Party’s diktats is today balanced by a tremendous will to ‘innovate’ in order to materialise the Chinese Dream. The Indian Dream has unfortunately not even been formulated as yet. It is a great pity, because the ingredients (brains) are very much present.


  1. See, 06/content_30044845.htm
  2. Ibid.
  3. See,
  4. See, Tech/ScienceandTechnologyDevelopment Programmes/t112844.htm
  5. See,
  6. Ibid.
  7. Though not listed, China has built the world’s fastest supercomputer, almost twice as fast as the previous US holder. The Tianhe-2 developed by the National University of Defence Technology in central China’s Changsha city is capable of sustained computing of 33.86 petaflops per second.
  8. See,
  9. To read about China’s advances in the field of space plane, see,
  10. See,
  11. See,
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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