China aims to be ‘country of innovators’: science minister

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Wang Zhigang, head of Ministry of Science and Technology (Image credit: MOST)

As China pushes forward efforts to become a high-value economy, it will retain “unswerving” focus on strengthening scientific research capacity to catch up with the US to be “a country of innovators,” said Wang Zhigang, head of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) on Monday.

“Fundamental research capabilities have been one of our weaknesses and should see more emphasis across the technology landscape,” Wang said on Monday in a press conference during the Two Session meetings in Beijing. Shoring it up will be “one of the main national strategies in technological development” in the coming days, he added.

China’s total spending on research and development (R & D) rose a robust 11.6% year-on-year to RMB 1.96 trillion (around $293 billion) in 2018, of which about 5% was fundamental research, according to the National Bureau of Statistics this month.

Chinese investment toward fundamental research still lags that of developed countries, which is on average 15% to 20%, reported state-owned media Xinhua in October, citing Zhang Peng, a government official from the state statistics bureau.

Wang pointed to R & D spending as an indicator for productivity growth, saying that China should take note of “huge inputs” from the US federal government on fundamental research. “However, we have been witnessing good momentum in investment growth from local high-tech firms, which are placing basic subjects such as mathematics as their key focuses.”

Chinese tech companies have been ramping up investment in developing core technologies. E-commerce giant Alibaba launched in October 2017 a global research program, Alibaba Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum, and Outlook (or DAMO Academy), with R & D investment of more than $15 billion over three years. The company then launched a chipmaking subsidiary, Pingtouge, in late September, with plans to launch its first quantum computing chip in the next two to three years.

A recent study from PwC showed that corporate research spending for publicly listed companies in China grew 34% in 2018 compared with a year earlier. This growth outpaced all other regions, including companies headquartered in North America, which increased spending 8% year-on-year. Total investment value from US companies still tops the list, but the number of Chinese companies added to the list grew 16%, the biggest increase during the year. The three Chinese companies investing the most in R & D in 2018 were Alibaba ($3.6 billion), Tencent ($2.7 billion), and Shenzhen-based telecommunications firm ZTE ($2 billion).