China must innovate if it wants to be a world leader in science and technology, government steering group says

Jun Mai
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China must innovate if it wants to be a world leader in science and technology, government steering group says

Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, the country’s top negotiator in the trade war with the US, has called for a “comprehensive assessment” of global trends as Beijing looks to prepare a new long-term programme for scientific and technological development.

According to a statement issued by the central government late on Wednesday, Liu has been appointed head of a leading group on institutional reforms and innovation in the technology sector, which held its inaugural meeting earlier the same day.

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“We need to seriously evaluate how previous … science and technological development programmes were implemented,” the statement said. “We should comprehensively assess the world’s future technological development trends, stick to a perspective of globalisation, [and] embody the spirit of reform and opening up.”

Despite the fact that Beijing’s ambitions regarding technological advancement – most of which fall under the “Made in China 2025” plan – were a factor in US President Donald Trump launching the trade war, the statement said that the “profound changes in the external environment” and “innovation capability in science and technology will be key in determining the nation’s strength and international competitiveness”.

As China’s hi-tech sector has become a target for Washington’s punitive tariffs, President Xi Jinping has said repeatedly this year that the country would spare no effort in developing its own core technologies.

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As well as chairing the new leading group, Liu was last month named deputy head of the National Science and Technology Leading Group, under Premier Li Keqiang.

In Washington, several senior officials, including Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s top trade advisers, have expressed their concern at Beijing’s plans to become a global force in a wide range of tech sectors – from aerospace and industrial robots to high-speed trains and semiconductors.

While Beijing’s statement about the leading group’s meeting contained no concrete details of the planned reforms for the technology sector, it did offer a glimpse into the direction they might take, such as scaling back the role the state plays in approving project funding.

“[We] must speed up changing the function of the government, from distributing funding and deciding projects, to making general policies and providing services,” it said.

Chinese scientists have long complained about excessive government control over funding and interference in project development.

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State media reported over the weekend that while on a visit to the southern province of Hainan, a central government inspection team was met with a deluge of complaints from science and technology researchers about the hours they wasted dealing with financial matters.

Some said they spent up to half their time compiling financial reports and projections for their government-funded research projects.

According to Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based economics professor, the reform group’s statement suggests that China understands that if it wants to make scientific breakthroughs it must first modernise its system for evaluating research.

“I think Liu is sober minded and understands the need to review [the current] strategies on science and technology,” he said. “A huge amount of resources are wasted on repetitive research into low-end subjects … [and] plagiarism is rampant.”

Liu, who studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Massachusetts, was put in charge of overseeing China’s science and technology sectors after his promotion to vice-premier in March.

According to the government’s statement, the new leading group also called for building a better ecology within scientific research, which Hu said was recognition of the lack of professionalism of China’s research methods.

“Most experiments are conducted to obtain state funding and for the academics to apply for their tenures,” he said. “Their research is easily concluded.”

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Meanwhile, in a separate statement issued on Wednesday, Beijing announced a reshuffle of the technological development committee headed by Premier Li and whose membership was made public just last month.

Without elaborating, the statement said that Lu Junhua, a deputy secretary general of the State Council, will replace Gao Yu as a member of the group.

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