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Thursday, April 22, 2021 | 03:25 am
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US Sanctions Drive China Towards Hi-Tech Self-Sufficiency

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US Sanctions Drive China Towards Hi-Tech Self-Sufficiency

China’s military budget naturally attracts the most foreign media attention. But if the country is to be lucky to avoid a major war in the coming years, it will be through advances in science and technology that it aims to become the next superpower.

In that sense, its science budget within the latest five-year plan from the “two sessions” is as revealing about its ambitions as its military spending, if not more so. One simple takeaway is that the country aims at self-reliance whenever possible, both in terms of training and promoting researchers and developing advanced products such as microchips domestically.

This stems from tough restrictions imposed by Washington – and some of its Western allies – on the export of advanced chips and other technologies, as well as the targeting – some have called it a witch hunt – of scientists and engineers, often of Chinese ethnicity, in the United States suspected of working illicitly with Chinese government institutions. But even without the American sanctions, the global shortage in computer chips since the outbreak of the pandemic would have forced Beijing to boost its domestic chip-making capability.

In line with the economic slowdown from last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there will be a lower annual increase in science spending compared with the last four years, with 7 percent annual growth being targeted over the next few years. However, the proportion of the budget devoted to basic research will increase, especially in materials science, whose advances are closely tied to the design and making of semiconductors and advanced computer chips.

China aims to boost spending on basic research by 10.6 percent this year, which will account for 8 percent of the overall science budget, from the previous 6 percent. Even so, it is still behind the US with a comparable figure of 17 percent on basic research.

As a proportion of research and development spending to the gross domestic product, the figure will approach 2.4 percent in the next few years. Back in 1995, it was less than 0.7 percent. By comparison, the US currently spends about 2.7 percent of GDP on R&D.

For a self-styled communist government that is supposed to be big on central planning, Chinese university researchers often work in isolation, relying on academic publications to advance careers rather than translating pure research into commercial applications.

To make up for US restrictions or crackdowns on collaboration and exchange, Beijing aims to foster closer relations between research and industry within China, to develop more commercial and industrial products such as those in artificial intelligence, quantum, and other advanced computing, genomics, and clinical medicine.

One initiative, announced last year, is to allow university researchers to work for up to six years in the private or commercial industry, with pay and subsidies, along with recognition for academic career advancement. They may also create their own start-ups, potentially with government funds.

While economic decoupling between China and the US may be premature, relatively unrestricted collaboration and exchange in science and hi-tech research in recent decades between the two countries is likely to become increasingly restricted, as China evolves from being a follower to a competitor.

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