In the early 1960s, when Chairman Mao Zedong was worried about a possible war with the Soviet Union after an ugly political falling out, he responded with an extensive industrial campaign known as the Third-Front Construction to relocate China’s key institutions, research facilities and military factories farther inland.
As a result, Mianyang city in the southwestern province of Sichuan became a major destination for facilities and talent, turning the once-sleepy town into China’s stronghold of defence research and development. The work done in the science and technology hub helped bring China atomic weapons and space satellites.
The city’s relevance in terms of China’s economic development, however, has been relatively weak since much of the research that comes out of Mianyang is specifically tailored for military use, with few commercial applications.
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However, as Beijing is preparing for a protracted trade and tech war with the United States by turning attention inward as part of a new strategy of domestic economic development, Mianyang and other places have gained new strategic importance in the push to ensure that China is not reliant on other countries for key technologies.
To that end, Vice-Premier Liu He, President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser, visited Mianyang last week and urged the city to do better in serving China’s “innovation-driven” development strategy, saying it “must enhance its indigenous innovation capacity and tackle core technologies to ensure the construction of key national projects”, according to a Xinhua news agency report.
Liu paid a visit to the China Academy of Engineering Physics, China’s top nuclear science research institution, and urged local officials to enhance core competitiveness – particularly in terms of support for satellite navigation, information security and smart equipment manufacturing.
“[The city’s activities] must be based on the needs of national defence, with an emphasis on the integration between military and civil [technologies],” Liu said. “Industrial standards for military and civil uses must be unified.”
Many key institutions in the city are closely associated with China’s military. Mianyang also has the country’s only institution that specialises in taking military research and applying it to civilian uses.
Amid its allegations of commercial espionage and threats to US national security, Washington has been expanding its restrictions on exports of American technologies to Chinese firms. And about 300 Chinese firms, notably telecommunications equipment maker Huawei and Semiconductor Manufacturing International, have been barred from accessing American components and technology.
To fight back, China is turning inward with its dual-circulation strategy introduced in May to boost the domestic economy and make advancements in home-grown technologies. That will be the basis for the nation’s upcoming five-year plan for the 2021-25 period. “We must see the idea as a system, putting emphasis on consolidating the foundation, playing to our advantages and improving the weak links,” said a statement released on Tuesday by the Politburo, the centre of power within the Communist Party.
Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in September that Washington’s list of embargoed or controlled technologies gives China a blueprint for home-grown innovation over the next decade.
“There won’t be immediate solutions,” said Iris Pang, chief Greater China economist at ING Wholesale Banking in Hong Kong. “It won’t be too late if China starts [the process] immediately.”
Beijing’s determination to address its technological shortcomings have given Mianyang the opportunity to return to its former glory.
A local worker surnamed Yan recalled that even in the early stage of China’s market economy, the No 305 factory – a code for Changhong Electronics – pivoted from making components for military use to producing colour televisions, which became popular in Chinese living rooms.
“I still use a Changhong,” Yan said. “It’s not a matter of price, but a special feeling.”
However, even in the old industrial quarter along Yuejin Road, some households have switched to other domestic brands such as Gree Electric or Hisense.
In addition, the city has long existed in the shadow of Chengdu, the provincial capital a little more than 100km (62 miles) away. Mianyang’s economic size is only about a sixth of the provincial capital’s, and Mianyang’s hopes for a resurgence are being challenged by Chengdu’s own ambitions to become a national innovation centre.
Wang Zhiguo, who has decades of planning experience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the State Science and Technology Commission, said that the government must spend money where it can be best put to use and should further embrace its indigenous BeiDou global navigation system – an alternative to US-controlled Global Positioning System.
He also noted that there were 140 semiconductor development and manufacturing projects under way throughout the country, involving a planned investment of 1.42 trillion yuan (US$208.2 billion).
“The crops and weeds are mixed together. Many of them are not meant to develop advanced technologies, but to gain state funding by cheating,” Wang said, adding that the government should implement pilot programmes in key regions. “Mianyang would be a good choice because it is already a research base with a good track record of success.”
The municipal government is also seizing the opportunity to expand the city’s influence.
If this means greater attention and more resources, the future of Mianyang will certainly be better
Xia Rui, logistics manager
“We’ll try to get more key state projects to Mianyang, particularly defence-technology-related ones, and build a pillar to safeguard national security and strategic interests,” the city’s party boss, Liu Chao, said at a meeting last week.
While taking bold steps to explore the construction of a special innovation zone, “we need to join Chengdu and Chongqing in building a west China science city and improving collaborative innovation and basic research, while tackling technological bottlenecks and commercialisation”, he said.
Beijing’s campaign for scientific and technological innovation has also boosted local enthusiasm.
“If this means greater attention and more resources, the future of Mianyang will certainly be better,” said Xia Rui, a 35-year-old logistics manager.
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This article China’s defence industry stronghold of Mianyang gets shot to reclaim former glory amid US tech war first appeared on South China Morning Post