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

Su-30MKK China

When Steve Jobs passed away, experts debated as to 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.

Chinese plans for the new proposed engine have triggered wide-spread skepticism…

Chinese Innovations

A few months ago, The People’s Daily provided some details on the Chinese Dream, so dear to President Xi Jinping. The mouthpiece of the Communist Party first explains why a Dream, “The concept of Chinese dream has been widely spread for some time. In the context of weak economic recovery, complicated security situation and accelerated adjustment of international order, the world needs dreams indeed.1”

But who is this Dream for?

Beijing answers that it is for peace, for the world, “The Chinese dream is a dream for peace. Adhering to peaceful development is China’s choice of the times. China stands for peace settlement for global disputes and issues and the new security concept of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation. The country strives for development under peaceful global circumstances and promotes world peace by self-development. China has actively participated in the dialogue and cooperation for international security. It has contributed to world peace.” But there is more to the Chinese Dream, “The Chinese dream is a dream for cooperation. The interrelation and interdependency of countries have deepened largely, and cooperation and mutual benefits have become a common view.2”

The new Chinese President Xi Jinping dreams of harmony for China and the rest of the world, “The Chinese dream is a dream for harmony …the Chinese dream belongs to the world.” Well, it is unfortunate that recent events on the ground do not reflect these high philosophical objectives. The South China Sea, the East China Sea as well as for the Himalayan borders between India and China, whether in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal or Arunachal Pradesh, have witnessed only tensions, not harmony.

Chinese Dream Passes Through an Innovative China

It is certain that India has to learn something from China in terms of ‘dreaming’. But first Delhi should realise the true objective behind the Chinese Dream which is to make China a dominant, self-reliant superpower. Very early in its history, the Communist leadership in China realised that the great renaissance of the nation was dependent on ‘innovation with Chinese characteristics’. Beijing has now taken decisive actions to remedy some of the nation’s deficiencies in this field. India has not yet done so.

The Chinese Dream goes hand-in-hand with military modernisation. It is not new but in the recent months it has been taken up by the new leadership in Beijing with renewed vigour.

On June 22, 2013, The South China Morning Post affirmed that, “China’s top scientific advisers have listed 19 projects as the research priorities of the next decade. These include quantum telecommunications and a high-performance jet engine that could dramatically improve the capability of its indigenous fighter jets.3”

According to the Hong Kong newspaper, the report was prepared by more than 200 experts associated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It was a roadmap for breaking into the US dominance in domains as diverse as military, space, new materials, energy or agriculture.

Though not all the projects have a direct military implication, ultimately, all the projects will help the progress of Chinese indigenous technology and most of them will have a dual use. The South China Morning Post stated, “The most eye-catching one is a new jet engine that promises to deliver thrust equivalent to 15 times its own weight. The thrust-to-weight ratio is a key indicator to measure a jet engine’s performance. In comparison, the Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engine that powers the American F-22 Raptor jet fighter has a thrust-to-weight ratio of eight and is widely considered one of the most advanced jet engines today.”

This particular field is usually considered to be the weakest in China’s aviation sector. Beijing has had to rely on imports mainly from Russia, for its fighter jets. Even China’s purported heavy-hacking activities have not so far been able to reduce the dependence on Russian technology. Of course, the Chinese plans for the new proposed engine have triggered wide-spread skepticism but the point is that China has the political will and the economic means to jump into such innovative adventures. The Chinese Dream goes hand-in-hand with military modernisation. It is not new but in the recent months it has been taken up by the new leadership in Beijing with renewed vigour.

History of Chinese ‘Innovations’

Following the ‘Two Weapons and One Satellite’ program included in the science and technology development plan for 1956-1967, China took the decision to overcome deficiencies in areas critical to its national security, initiating in March 1986 the National High Technology Program known as Program 863 – for 1986/03. Program 863 was launched to promote China’s high-tech development in key areas such as information technology, biology, aeronautics, automation, energy, materials and oceanography. Government institutes, university research laboratories and state-owned company R&D departments were all asked to participate in Program 863. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) was the main recipient of the 863 funds.

What ‘assimilation’ and ‘re-innovation’ means is well-known from those who deal with China, “Importing technology without ‘transforming it into Chinese technology’ is not acceptable to China anymore”, the report states.

According to a Chinese official document, “In 1983, the United States put forward the Strategic Defence Initiative i.e. the Star Wars Initiative, then came the EURICA of Europe, …which are all strategic plans aimed at the twenty-first century. Implementation of those plans has created impacts on the great development of high technologies in the world.4” It was enough to convince the Communist leadership in Beijing to undertake a similar ‘indigenous program’, especially after four top scientists, Wang Daheng, Wang Ganchang, Yang Jiachi and Chen Fanyun submitted, in March 1986, a letter to leadership suggesting that China should adopt appropriate counter-measures to catch up with the development of high technologies in view of the impact on China of recent advancements in the world in the field of high technology. Deng Xiaoping immediately instructed the government, “Quick decision should be made on this matter without any delay.” It was done.

The 863 Program with the objectives, “to combine military use with civil use, with stress on the latter, limit objectives and concentrate on focal points”, was soon included in the Ninth Five-year Plan. Fifteen years later, another landmark document was published, “The National Medium and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (2006-2020)”, is also known as the MLP. The MLP describes itself as the ‘grand blueprint of science and technology development’ to bring about the ‘great renaissance of the Chinese nation’. The preamble calls for the Chinese people to, “seize the opportunities and meet the challenges brought by the new science and technology revolution…despite the size of our economy, our country is not an economic power, primarily because of our weak innovative capacity.”

An excellent report “China’s Drive for Indigenous Innovation” prepared by James McGregor for the Global Regulatory Cooperation Project of the US Chamber of Commerce says, “The MLP blueprint is full of grand visions, good intentions and gilded rhetoric about international cooperation and friendship. …It also sets goals for expanded cooperation with foreign universities, research centers and corporate R&D centers.5” The MLP defines indigenous innovation as “enhancing original innovation through co-innovation and re-innovation based on the assimilation of imported technologies.”

What ‘assimilation’ and ‘re-innovation’ means is well-known from those who deal with China, “Importing technology without ‘transforming it into Chinese technology’ is not acceptable to China anymore”, the report states. “One should be clearly aware that the importation of technologies without emphasizing the assimilation, absorption and re-innovation is bound to weaken the nation’s indigenous research and development capacity,”6 adds the MLP. The plan is often considered by many international technology companies to be a blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before. That is not true innovation but re-innovation.

Many observers believe that the present Chinese system is not congenial to innovations…

A Few Innovations

When President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came into office in March 2003 as the President of the PRC and Premier of the State Council respectively, innovation in science and technology was at the top of their minds, particularly as Beijing was to be the centre of the world for the 2008 Olympics. Apart from the launch of Shenzhou V, its first manned spacecraft and a first home-grown Chinese microprocessor invented by Chen Jin, a 35-year-old Fujian native with a University of Texas PhD working at Shanghai Jiaotong University. Apart from the microprocessor that had the capacity to process 200 million instructions per second, proudly fulfilling amany nearly two decade-long national goal, there was little innovation in China in 2003.

At the same time, the US employed some 62,500 Chinese-born science and engineering PhDs. Mainland natives were heading many American research laboratories and university departments. Further, most of the 60,000 Chinese students living in the US had been granted residence permits by President George Bush in 1990 in the aftermath of Tiananmen events. Interestingly, the ruling nine-member politburo Standing Committee was composed of eight engineers and one hydrologist. They could therefore grasp the importance of ‘innovation’.

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McGregor explains, “With the rallying cry of ‘innovation’, Premier Wen in mid-2003 used his position as head of the Leading Group on Science, Technology and Education to bring together the two heavyweights of science and technology in China – the CAS and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), to coordinate an old fashioned Soviet ‘big push’ style campaign.6” The ‘Nature’ magazine had a special issue (Fall 2004) with a collection of essays from prominent Chinese scientists also criticizing the draft plan for giving bureaucrats of MOST too much power over scientists. They believed that if megaprojects should remain the central focus, money was bound to be allocated to mediocre projects, based on ‘connections’, a well-known Chinese disease. It was suggested that the power of MOST over research funding should be reduced and perhaps the organisation ought to be disbanded altogether.

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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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