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China Science Superpower, Redux

by Adam Segal
January 6, 2010

Following his excellent article on energy and innovation, Evan Osnos has a blog post on China as a science superpower.  While the post points to some of the markers many have seen as signs of China’s rise and America’s relative decline, every sign of strength comes with some underlying weakness.

As with so much China watching these days, trends are much clearer than outcomes.  We know that China considers science and technology as critical to its future and as a result is spending more, training more, and producing more.  We just do not know when it is going to get all of the software–the social institutions that ensure transparency, promotion based on merit, academic honesty, etc–right.  Without them, the whole is less than sum of its parts.

While China’s share of world scientific publishing has gone up significantly, the articles Chinese scientists publish are not, as Osnos notes, highly cited by others in the field. [Update: And the BBC is reporting that there is a $100 million a year market in ghost-written papers, bloating publication lists]  China is the leading exporter of laptops, digital cameras, and mobile phones but Osnos does not mention that the companies exporting these products are foreign-invested enterprises and the technology is not Chinese, but owned by American, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and European companies. In fact, over the last decade, the share of high-tech exports produced by foreign-invested enterprises has actually gone up, which is one of the reasons Chinese decision makers are so interested in “indigenous innovation.” A number of prominent scientists have returned to China; this report from Singapore quotes another study saying of the top scientists involved in the 863 Plan, 72 percent were returned scholars.  But Cong Cao’s research on returned scholars suggests government plans to attract expatriates have “yielded mixed results at best” and “there is little doubt the best and brightest have not returned.”

Osnos’ post mentions Qian Xuesen, the former Caltech rocket engineer deported from the United States in 1955 who became instrumental in China’s missile program and later in pushing the 863 plan, so I’ll leave the last words to him. Soon after his death late last year, People’s Daily published a final conversation with Qian in which he remembered his time at Caltech very fondly and worried about the future of China:

Today, the party and the state emphasize new technological innovation programs and has invested a lot on “innovation projects” and “innovation plans.” These are necessary. But I think it is more important to have talented people with innovative mindsets. The problem is that there is not a single university in China that is based on a model that develops talents for technology invention. They echo the views of others and do not have unique innovations. They received the influence of feudal ideas and has always been like this. I think this is a great problem China faces.

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