China will not stop at becoming world’s ‘number two’
— Dirk Jan van den Berg is president of Delft University of Technology, former president of the IDEA League of European Universities, and former Dutch ambassador to China and the UN. The opinions expressed are his own. —
This week’s official confirmation that China is now the second largest economy in the world, as measured by GDP in dollars, symbolises the Middle Kingdom’s rise to global economic power in the past several decades.
Curiously, however, while this economic ascendancy has prompted a sea-change in international perceptions of China, many across the world nonetheless continue to regard the country as being primarily a ‘backward’ agricultural and manufacturing powerhouse. The truth is much more impressive: China has also rapidly emerged as the world’s second largest producer of scientific knowledge, as measured by number of research publications.
It is this remarkable rise to scientific leadership which should, in truth, be at the forefront of the world’s attention right now. For it will have profound implications for all of us, and very likely propel China to eclipsing the United States as the world’s largest economy within the next couple of decades.
The remarkable speed with which China is rising to scientific superpower status has been achieved, in large part, because of its massive manpower (the world’s largest scientific workforce), improvement in its regulatory framework of intellectual property and corporate law, and strong government support in targeted programmes, especially its phenomenal research and development (R&D) investment. Between 1995 and 2006, for instance, China’s gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) grew at a phenomenal annual rate of 18 percent.
While the Chinese are playing a ‘long game’, to ultimately become the world’s largest economy, the results have been impressive already. For instance, the country has successfully diversified its research base beyond traditional sciences with emphasis now being given in the country’s Medium to Long Term Science Development Programme to 16 main research projects (including core electronic devices, wide band mobile communications, the breeding of new transgenic biological varieties, prevention of infectious diseases, and manned space flights); eight top technology areas (including biotech, IT, new materials, advanced manufacturing, advanced energy, marine technologies, and lasers and aerospace), eight science challenges (including deep structure of matter, mathematics, earth systems science, and cognitive science); and four major research programmes (protein research, nano-science, growth and reproduction, and quantum modulation research).
Given the strength of this research base, it is of little surprise that there are already some 1,200 foreign R&D centres. More than 400 of the world’s top 500 companies have now invested in China; and almost 40 percent of firms surveyed by the Economist Intelligence Unit said that they will spend most of their R&D in China in the coming three years.
The key opportunity here for China is continuing moving up the R&D value chain. Its firms will become innovation powerhouses.
Indeed, on this trajectory, the Chinese may well achieve the ambitious goal set out in the country’s Medium to Long Term Science Development Programme, devised in 2006, that envisages science and technology eventually accounting for some 60% of economic growth. The rest of the world will ignore this development at its peril.
To be sure, it is possible to over-exaggerate China’s overall scientific strength. Concerns still persist, for instance, about whether its educational system sufficiently encourages individual creativity, the lack of systems thinking in the country, and whether Chinese enterprises are capable of absorbing so much academic research.
These issues have real validity. However, none of this changes the basic reality of China’s emergence as a science superpower.
In my own view, the real question for much of the rest of the world, especially in the West, is how it should now adjust to this new world scientific order to best preserve its long-term prosperity in coming decades.
In broad-based terms, we would be wise to view China’s rise as much more of an ‘opportunity’ than a ‘threat’. In my home region of the EU, for instance, I believe that China’s ascendancy to scientific superpower status offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a European knowledge infrastructure to both collaborate and compete with China and neighbouring countries such as India.
The challenges for Europe, and indeed the rest of the world are real, but if we can surmount them, the prizes will not only be stronger bilateral partnerships, but also a foundation stone for a new generation of sustainable, global economic growth.