In the next 100 years, is China likely to become the world leader in scientific research?


It seems as though Chinese culture is ‘extremely’ conducive to academic achievement and scientific advance. In contrast, the US is all too eager to slash funding for research and education, and from what I’ve seen, the culture here in America is growing towards one which doesn’t value education and promotes little ambition or competitiveness. However, the US has excellent universities where academia thrives, as well as an established foothold in just about every single area of scientific research.

Short answer:

  • China has made formidable R&D investments. She is on-track to lead.
  • That said, with intense globalization, the nature of R&D in a 100 years may not be nation-based.
  • New collaborative paradigms which defy national demarcation, defy current conceptualization, will emerge, rendering this question, and my answer, moot! This will enrich humanity, opening up fresh collective dimensions and directions in human endeavor.

Detailed answer:

(1) Recent Breakthroughs

China recently achieved impressive breakthroughs in Science and Technology (S&T).

  • launch of the world’s first quantum satellite for ‘hack-proof’ communications,
  • world’s fastest computer – the Sunway TaihuLight, which extends China’s lead in supercomputing.
  • In space technology, sent 10 astronauts into orbit over the last 13 years,
  • launched its first moon probe, and
  • two space stations (Tiangong 1 & 2).
  • Recently launched the Shenzhou XI manned spacecraft with 2 astronauts to the Tiangong II space lab for a 30-day maneuver.

(2) Leading Areas

China is ahead of the US in

It is also catching up fast in

(3) Military

China’s military modernization is such that the Pentagon has started to worry. Beijing’s growing arsenal of modern weapons includes the

(4) Funding

As the world’s second largest economy, in 2015, it devoted

  • 2.1% of its GDP to R&D, lower than Japan’s 3.6%, US 2.7%.
  • But, China’s R&D war chest is a bulging USD220b,
  • the world’s second largest R&D spend, after the US.

(4) Outcomes

Consequently, China has become the

  • world’s largest source of new patents, industrial designs and trademarks.
  • According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Intellectual Property, WIPO), China in 2014 filed 34% of the world’s patents, compared with US 22%, Japan 12%.
  • China also filed 50% of the world’s new industrial designs, against US 9%; and
  • 76% of new trademarks, compared with US 13%.

(5) Manpower

One word: formidable.

  • Total 2014 R&D personnel was 4m, against 2.4m aggregate EU, 0.9m Japan.
  • Huge reserve army of graduates, from 2,900 tertiary education institutions, as of 2015,
  • with a total enrolment of 37m, against US 21m.
  • One in 5 of the world’s university students is in China, and
  • consistent with other East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, China has a relatively high proportion (40%) of its university students on STEM.
  • And not forgetting the quarter million diaspora of students in the Ivies, Stanfords, and other top tertiary education institutions of the world.

(6) What About the Quality?

In the quality dimension,

  • 2014 Nature Index Global which tracks high-quality scientific publications, ranked China 2nd in the world in terms of number of scientific papers published, behind the US.
  • Another indicator is the performance of elite Peking and Tsinghua universities, in the Ivyesque C9 League, were listed in the 2015-16 Times Higher Education World University Rankings as among the world’s 50 best universities.

(7) The Tumultuous Journey of China’s R&D

Innovation as well as S&T in China have, from the start, been promoted and directly managed by the state, and thus subject to periodic swings in domestic politics and ideology.

Following a century of war and internal strife, the formation of the PRC in 1949 brought peace and stability, which gave rise to a short period of rapid economic growth and S&T development in the 1950s. USSR financial aid and technology transfer was a major influence. Then came Mao’s anti-intellectual ideology during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution which brought the S&T and the nation’s higher education system almost to a complete stop.

(8) Post-Mao: Return to Sanity, and R&D

After Mao’s death, Deng returned to power and among his first policy initiatives was the move to restore tertiary education, and revive S&T activities, which he considered to be the very foundation of The Four Modernizations. Successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, continued the drive. Today, Xi’s support of S&T development is by far the most vigorous yet.

(9) Xi Era: Hot-buttoning S&T

Xi sees a

  • direct connection between S&T progress and China becoming a rich and powerful nation, and
  • these are part and parcel of his Chinese Dream.
  • A second factor is the economy, which is entering a “new normal” of lower growth. Future economic growth will depend on productivity growth, producing more output per unit of input, driven by technology.

Accordingly, Xi has promoted S&T development by

  • giving more financial support, and
  • also forcing the S&T establishment to undergo drastic restructuring and reform.
  • With his strong backing, the State Council in Aug 2016 crafted China’s 13th 5-Year Plan of Science, Technology and Innovation.
  • The plan targets an increase in R&D spending, from 2.1% GDP in 2015, to 2.5% in 2020.
  • Other targets include improving China’s comprehensive innovation ranking from 18th to 15th in the world;
  • raising the global citation index of scientific papers from 4th to 2nd,
  • and doubling the number of new patents filed by 2020.

(10) Challenges

Historically, all cultures and all civilizations were capable of innovation, not just the Europeans, but also the Indians and the Arabs.

Ancient China was famous for its Four Great Inventions: the compass, gunpowder, paper-making and printing. The great Cambridge sinologist-cum-scientist, Sir Joseph Needham, in his Science and Civilisation in China, had painstakingly documented both its past discoveries and inventions and sought to explain why these inventions did not take off and develop in China as they did in Europe. He cited these unfavorable factors:

  • agrarian economy,
  • bureaucratic obstacles,
  • failure of its scientists to mathematize their hypotheses.

Today, however, China’s S&T sector enjoys strong state support and ample funding. Thus, the pre-conditions for strong growth. Indeed, many of its research institutes are flushed with funds and their labs equipped with state-of-the-art instruments. And yet, these are necessary, but not always sufficient conditions, for achieving real scientific breakthrough. Indeed, any highly state-managed S&T system is apt to have problems such as

  • bureaucratic rigidity,
  • lack of individual initiative.
  • China’s S&T regime is known to have these flaws:
    • corruption,
    • cronyism,
    • misappropriation of research funds.
  • Arising from the state’s dominance, commercial innovation is particularly weak.
  • Apart from global brands like Huawei, ZTE and BYD, most Chinese firms are not sufficiently R&D-intensive.
  • Problems pertaining to the conduct of R&D personnel also abound: falsified findings, plagiarism. These are much less common today, but the Chinese scientific circle has
  • yet to firmly establish a strong culture of honesty, integrity and humility.
  • A much more vigorous and objective governance and auditing system is needed.
  • A reform program is necessary.

(11) Going Forward

Without doubt, China is rapidly narrowing its scientific and technological gaps with developed countries. But “narrowing” is not the same as “closing” the gaps. The S&T sector has the potential, and the pre-conditions, to make further progress. Scale helps.

China will continue to score new achievements, but most of its S&T results still represent “catch-up” work or incremental refinement of imported technological knowledge, rather than real breakthroughs. That will be so for many years to come and it will take at least a generation before China becomes a technological leader.


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