As China’s legislature prepares to meet tomorrow, we’re bringing you a special edition of our Insights column: a preview of tech in the 14th Five-Year Plan. We’ve looked through the last plan, and the documents describing priorities for the new one, to give you our baseline expectations for key tech areas in the new plan.

Greetings from Beijing, where the weather is just turning to spring, the air this week feels like taking a bath in an ashtray, and, across town, about 3,000 people are getting together Friday to kick off the annual meeting of China’s national legislature.

This is one of the big meetings: This year, the National People’s Congress will approve China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, which will set out the government’s economic priorities for the next half-decade. The meeting lasts from March 5 to March 11, and in previous years the plan has come toward the end of the session.

Technology and innovation are sure to play a leading role. “Innovation-driven development” was one of the first topics addressed in the 13th Five-Year Plan, issued in 2016, and the phrase is equally prominent in previews of the new plan.

What is (likely) new is emphasis on another key phrase: “self-sufficiency.” As the US has used its control of key technologies as a weapon, China’s efforts to produce its own have a new urgency.

For people with tech projects, the start of a new plan period means opportunity. The “money spigot” for homegrown tech and innovation is likely to get even more generous, said Uny Cao, vice president at the Zhejiang University Intellectual Property Exchange Center and friend of TechNode.

What are we looking for when the new plan is published next week? What’s likely to get the most attention—and which will get less? Below, you’ll find TechNode’s roundup of key mentions of technologies we expect to see highlighted in the 14th Five-Year Plan.


How to read a five-year plan

Macro focus: Above all, five-year economic plans are strategic documents. The most important decisions will be macro goals for the economy as a whole: whether to set a GDP target and how high; how to pace the economy’s transition to meet a 2060 carbon neutrality goal; and how to balance such factors as imports, exports, investment, and consumption. We’re not going to cover all those issues below: You’ll find lots of sharper macro commentary from our friends and colleagues at other outlets.

Don’t expect details: A five-year plan gives you a 10,000-foot view of the government’s priorities, reflecting agreement on goals but probably not how to reach them. If you’re interested in a topic, look for more specialized plans issued by ministries and provinces for implementation.

Compare, compare, compare: Most important political documents don’t make much sense in isolation. To identify key decisions, policy analysts compare successive versions of the same plan to see what’s changed—additions, subtractions, or even changes in the order of topics may indicate shifting priorities. We’ve looked at the 13th Five-Year Plan (full text in English), which ended in 2020, to set a baseline for key technology issues.

Decisions, not surprises: You probably have already heard of most topics to be covered by the Five-Year Plan. Stakeholders across the Chinese political system have been advocating, piloting, and negotiating ideas for years in the hopes of influencing this plan. Much like a major plan in any political system, it bears the fingerprints of hundreds or thousands of political actors of all kinds.

Basis for our expectations: Last October, the Party’s Central Committee met in Beijing to discuss the upcoming five-year plan in a meeting called the Fifth Plenum. The most relevant of the reports that meeting produced was the Central Committee’s “Suggestions” or “Guidelines” for the 14th Five-Year Plan. Although much shorter—around three pages compared to three hundred—the structure of this document usually parallels that of the published five-year plan. We heavily relied on it to make the predictions below.


Data

A new approach to data management will reverberate across tech industries. The next stage of China’s tech policy will shift from an emphasis on developing cybersecurity and big data, to building up the data economy.

Mentions in the 13th Five-Year Plan: The last five-year development plan focused on building up cybersecurity and control over data. But it also set goals to get government offices to share data with each other and industry.

  • The 13th plan promised crackdowns on black markets for personal data, and strengthened privacy protection for big datasets, including government credit information systems. The government also aimed at opening up government big data to the public through a digital platform.
  • The 2017 Cybersecurity Law was the first big step for reform of China’s information security. Implementation of the Multi-Level Protection Scheme, a key part of the CSL, picked up in the summer of 2020, Carly Ramsey, who leads regulatory and political risk consulting at Control Risks in Shanghai, told TechNode. 

READ MORE: Dust has yet to settle two years after China’s landmark cybersecurity law

Expectations in the 14th Five-Year Plan: In the Fifth Plenum guidelines, data has joined an impressive new crowd: “[We will] advance the marketization and reform of the economic factors of land, labor, capital, technology, and data.” When a Communist Party puts you on the same level as labor and capital, you know you’ve made it big.

The Fifth Plenum guidelines call for the development of a rules-based data economy. Or as they put it: Establish basic systems and standards for data property rights, transactions and circulation, cross-border transmission, and security protection to promote the development and utilization of data resources.

“Ensuring the fluid circulation of data is now an economic imperative,” said Kendra Schaefer, head of tech policy research at Beijing-based strategic advisory firm Trivium. “In practical terms, that means that the overarching theme of China’s data policy over the next five years will focus on allowing data to be shared, transferred, bought, sold, and utilized,” Schaefer said. The plenum’s recommendations called for “systems and standards” in data property rights, market mechanisms for data, as well as cross-border data transfers.

READ MORE: China sets the rules for its new data economy

So what? “The 14th Five-Year Plan will mark the beginning of a new era in China’s approach to data policy,” Schaefer said. China is stepping up from the securitization of data resources to developing a system in which data can be exploited as a resource. In the upcoming plan period, we can expect more support for trade in data alongside a continued crackdown on bad cybersecurity practices and insufficient privacy protections.


Environment

One of the biggest components of the 14th five-year plan deals with action to combat the environmental damage that followed years of rapid industrialization and economic growth. In the wake of a vow to set China on a path to carbon neutrality by 2060, economic planners will be under pressure to come up with big changes. China’s tech sector stands to benefit: To reach the country’s emissions goals, investment in clean technology could reach $16 trillion in the next 40 years.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: The 2016 plan laid out targets to reduce carbon emissions by cutting the country’s carbon intensity—the amount of carbon dioxide produced for every unit of GDP. Through subsidies, state planners pushed prices in the solar industry so low that it effectively went from being a high-tech sector to a commodity business.

  • The document laid out action plans to combat air, water, and soil pollution. By last year, Chinese cities were expected to meet “good” air quality standards for more than 80% of the year. 
  • The plan sought to reduce the country’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, and promote environmentally friendly construction and mining. 
  • Also included were “improvements in supportive policies” for renewable energy sources.

Expectations: The new plan will likely clarify how China will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon net zero by 2060, goals laid out to the UN General Assembly by President Xi Jinping in September.

  • The thrust of Xi’s speech has been factored into energy and environmental planning in the new five-year plan.
  • The new plan will likely outline ambitious capacity and consumption targets for wind and solar energy production, while placing further caps on coal-fired power plants. 
  • Energy storage is also expected to play an important role in the new plan, as China seeks to improve grid and power security. 
  • It is unlikely that there will be a move away from carbon intensity caps to hard carbon caps, as the country attempts to balance economic growth and cutting emissions, analysts said. 
  • While the last five-year plan placed emphasis on reducing emissions from energy production, the new plan will place increased focus on minimizing pollution from industry, including steel and transportation. 
  • Further integration between China tech and energy industries is expected, a goal laid out in the 13th five-year plan. 

So what? The world is waiting to see how China plans to reach its emissions targets by 2060. We expect the plan to create more targets and pressure on local governments to improve carbon emissions, but details on how these will be implemented—and how cleantech investment will be affected—will likely be spelled out in lower-level plans.


Autos

A pillar of China’s economic growth, the automotive sector has long been dominated by well-established foreign brands, which hold more than 60% of the market share, while domestic automakers are concentrated in the low-end segment. But that is changing as China’s strength in electric vehicles is boosting its position on the global industry value chain, thanks to strong policy support over the past five years.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: When China’s cabinet in 2010 initiated a development plan (in Chinese) for seven strategic emerging industries, new energy vehicles (NEVs) was one of them. In 2016, Beijing set an ambitious target of 5 million sales of NEVs in the coming five years, a number which would mark the beginning of mass adoption. This initiative became part of Beijing’s larger goal of becoming the world’s next innovation powerhouse.

  • The central government carried out a series of stimuli to foster a new source of economic growth—by offering subsidies for NEV purchases, especially for all-electrics and plug-in hybrids—in both public and private transport sectors.
  • China’s top policymakers also vowed to achieve major breakthroughs in battery technologies, such as a higher energy-density level, which enables a longer driving range as well as better resistance to extreme temperatures.

Expectations: NEVs were briefly mentioned as one of the strategic emerging industries in the fifth plenum guidelines, but with no detail about the growth outlook.

  • However, according to a policy paper released by the State Council in November, NEV sales were projected to account for 20% of total new car sales by 2025, up from the 2020 level of just 5.4%.
  • Beijing also expected “significant improvement in the competitiveness” of its homegrown players in the fields of battery safety and in-car operating systems, among others, while promoting highly autonomous vehicles for commercial use cases in pilot programs. 

So what? China’s electric vehicle market staged a strong rebound after disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic last year and has remained the world’s biggest market since 2014. However, there have been bumps on the road, including electric car fires and the ongoing auto chip shortages.

China also lags the US in the vehicle autonomy competition, raising calls for more effort put toward core technology advancement. Pledging for quality growth amid rising superpower tensions in the next five years, Beijing would have to stay the course in boosting the sector, while realizing little near-term profit.


Semiconductors

Chinese leaders have long vowed to achieve “self-reliance” in strategic technologies, and semiconductors are one of the priorities. The sector is expected to get major attention as China issues its development blueprint for the next five years.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: The five-year plan ending in 2020 saw semiconductors, along with other high-tech sectors like robotics, smart transportation, and virtual reality, as “new areas of growth” for the nation’s economy, but didn’t make production of semiconductors a strategic priority.

  • Priorities certainly have changed over the past five years as Chinese leaders realized how troublesome it is to rely on foreign imports of semiconductors. Huawei is a brutal example.

Expectations: In 2015, China set a goal to make 70% of the chips it uses by 2025 as part of its “Made in China 2025” initiative. Now the question is how China will achieve that goal. The country only produced 6% of the semiconductors it consumed in 2020.

  • The fifth plenum vowed to implement a series of “foresightful and strategic” technology research projects including integrated circuits, quantum information, AI, and neural science.
  • Despite the industry’s importance, the National Development and Reform Commission didn’t include semiconductors on a list published last September of “strategic emerging industries.” Electric vehicles and artificial intelligence were on the list.
  • The central government will increase investment in the domestic semiconductors industry through vehicles like the National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund.
  • More favorable policies towards domestic chip companies are likely such as tax breaks and heavier tariffs on imported electronic components.
  • Bloomberg cited sources as saying that Beijing has added in a draft of the 14th five-year plan “a suite of measures to bolster research, education, and financing” for the semiconductors industry. 

E-commerce

E-commerce falls under the broader concept of the digital economy, a major theme in the plan that also covers 5G, artificial intelligence, and big data. E-commerce is expected to play a greater role in driving China’s economic growth in the next plan period.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: The development plan that ended in 2020 set out to expand the e-commerce sector by facilitating its deep integration with traditional industries and prioritizing its governance. China sought to integrate e-commerce into various areas including education, healthcare, culture, and tourism to drive innovation.

  • The 13th five-year plan set out expectations for China’s e-commerce transactions to exceed RMB 40 trillion ($6.19 trillion) in 2020, the last year of the plan—double the transaction value in 2015. The figure includes RMB 10 trillion from online retail businesses. The sector was projected to employ more than 50 million people by the end of 2020.
  • The period of the 13th plan showed mixed results for e-commerce. The country missed the plan’s goal of RMB 37.21 trillion in e-commerce transactions in 2020. Online retail sales hit their target, however, totaling RMB 11.76 trillion in 2020, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed.

Expectations: China expects online commerce to continue supporting its macro strategies, notably poverty alleviation and the One Belt One Road initiative. E-commerce has become an important means for China’s rural dwellers to sell their agricultural products. With more free trade zones on the horizon, China looks to expand its cross-border e-commerce market in the next five years.

  • As a booster for both domestic and international commerce, the industry plays a central role in goals set for the “dual circulation” concept, which refers to spurring domestic as well as global demand, creating circumstances where the two boost each other’s growth. The idea featured predominantly in recent policy statements, although the term has been a policy meme for several years.
  • Chinese regulators are stepping up monitoring for unfair competition and monopolistic practices.
  • Consulting agency Jiuhou Zongheng has forecast that China’s e-commerce transactions will reach RMB 50 trillion by 2024.

Blockchain

Blockchain could be a new item in the 14th plan. It’s had plenty of attention at top levels in the past year.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: Zilch. Blockchain was not on top policymakers’ agenda back in 2016.

Push from the top: The technology had its breakout moment in Chinese policy in October 2019, when President Xi Jinping praised the technology at a Politburo study session.

  • Since then, local governments have embraced blockchain governance projects and tried to spur innovation in the field.
  • The National Development and Reform Commission is supporting the development of the Blockchain Services Network, an “internet of blockchains.”

No crypto: Chinese regulators are not big fans of one of the technology’s most popular applications: cryptocurrencies. The past year’s clampdown on unregulated cryptocurrencies “is meant to clear a path to regulated forms of digital assets, starting first with DCEP [the central bank’s R&D project that includes the digital RMB],” said Michael Sung, co-director of the Fintech Research Center at the Fanhai International School of Finance at Fudan University, told TechNode.

Expectations: The technology was not mentioned in the 14th plan guidelines issued after the Fifth Plenum.

  • The cryptocurrency mining industry might be negatively affected by financial de-risking campaigns and sustainability goals. The industry consumes vast amounts of electricity and is dependent on volatile crypto assets. 

READ MORE: Inner Mongolia may ban crypto mining: Blockheads

So what? China is already very interested in blockchain, but has not given the technology the same level of support as, say, electric vehicles. A name-check in the 14th plan would seal its status as a key technology and could pave the way for a national blockchain roadmap.


Antitrust

China has recently tightened antitrust regulations on tech companies. Regulators started at the end of last year to look at tech giants’ market dominance and to use anti-monopoly tools to limit them. The country also changed antitrust laws and rules to better rein in big tech. As top leaders of China repeatedly vow to “strengthen anti-monopoly” and “rein in disorderly capital expansion,” what has affected tech companies so far seems to be just the start of severer crackdowns.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: The 13th development plan mentioned breaking industry monopolies and rooting out market barriers. It also intended to establish an “efficient antitrust law enforcement system,” deepen international antitrust law enforcement cooperation, and check administrative monopolies.

  • In 2018, China created the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), a  trustbuster that centralized antitrust power previously dispersed among  four market regulators.

Expectations: China is already on the move to rein in big tech with anti-monopoly tools. If the new plan pushes government agencies to impose stricter antitrust regulations and break monopolies, tech giants like Tencent, Alibaba, and Bytedance may feel a lot more pain.

  • China’s antitrust regulator drafted an amendment to the Anti-Monopoly Law in January 2020; China may push to finalize the law during the period of the 14th five-year plan.
  • The fifth plenum also called for the establishment of an “efficient antitrust law enforcement system” and to “break industry monopoly.”
  • SAMR has said tightening antitrust regulations leads the 2021 agenda for the agency.
  • While companies like Tencent and Alibaba are already under the spotlight, SAMR may launch more antitrust investigations into big tech companies. 
  • A few antitrust lawsuits between tech companies are set for court hearings this year. Among them are the Douyin vs. WeChat, and JD.com vs. Alibaba cases. The results of cases will provide precedents for how the antitrust rules that took effect in February will be interpreted by the courts.

Rural areas and agriculture

Agriculture, the foundation for feeding China’s 1.4 billion population, is facing a new round of restructuring and modernization. The countryside is a growing focus for tech companies because it is home to a group of maturing consumers as well as being a lower-cost manufacturing hub. That makes aligning with rural developments a big goal for these internet firms.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: The last plan placed a high priority on continuous modernization of rural areas and the agricultural sector. The plan promoted integration of agriculture and e-commerce and encouraged the application of big data and internet of things tech in agriculture.

  • President Xi Jinping announced China’s “complete victory” in eliminating “absolute poverty” at a grand gathering held February 25 in Beijing. In the past eight years, nearly 100 million rural residents were lifted from poverty, Xi says.
  • Tech giants including Alibaba, Pinduoduo, and Didi Chuxing were rewarded for contributions in the poverty alleviation initiative.

Expectations: China is expected to continue to focus on improving the quality, safety, and profitability of the sector, goals that require technological assistance.

  • The focus of China’s agricultural development will shift from increasing production to improving quality, according to The China Agriculture Outlook (2020-2019) released this past April.

Policymakers are counting on tech in a plan to improve both farmers’ output and their incomes, said Even Pay, an associate director at Trivium:

“Policymakers are preparing for a future where there are fewer farmers. Some of them may be older, and in need of equipment to make their jobs easier. They also hope to attract some young people back into farming by making the work easier and more interesting—like operating ag machinery or flying drones.”

“Another big reason the government is supporting agtech is the “dual circulation strategy”—which looks to make domestic consumption the main driver of China’s macroeconomic growth. Right now China’s rural areas have the greatest growth potential of anywhere in the country—provided farmers’ incomes go up.”


Fintech + digital yuan

Fintech and the digital yuan might get a direct mention in the 14th plan.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan: Fintech was directly mentioned only once in the last plan. That plan called for a risk monitoring and crisis management system for all financial activity, including “internet finance.”

  • “Microfinance,” “inclusive finance,” and “green finance” were included in the plan, but these categories also refer to traditional financial tools, said Jonas Short, head of the Beijing office at Everbright Sun Hung Kai.
  • The plan called for microfinance to be made more “transparent” and regulated, while “Internet+inclusive finance” was to be promoted, and a green finance system was to be set up.
  • The 13th plan also mentioned the development of “multilayered” and “non-cash” “payment systems,” although it didn’t mention digital payments specifically.

Fintech development: Since the release of the 2016-2020 plan, the use of fintech has skyrocketed, and an overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens now make use of some sort of digital finance, whether that’s for lending, investment, or insurance.

  • The Ministry of Commerce released a fintech development plan in 2017, focused on cybersecurity, digital payments, and risk prevention.  
  • As big tech came to play an increasingly important role in China’s finance, especially with regards to consumers and SMEs, authorities started laying down the rules: In 2020, Chinese regulators ramped up their efforts to regulate fintech companies, especially after Ant Group’s IPO was suspended in November 2020. Rules for microlending, antitrust, and digital payments have been released since.

Digital yuan: China’s central bank has been working on a digital form of cash, the digital yuan, since 2014. If implemented, it will be the first state-backed digital currency by a major economy. The central bank appears to have accelerated the development of the currency in 2019 after Facebook announced its Libra project. Trials for the e-CNY started in late 2020 in four Chinese cities: Chengdu, Shenzhen, Suzhou, and Xiong’an.

Expectations: The guidelines directly called for the improvement of “the level of financial technology.” They also included language similar to the previous plan’s regarding inclusive and green finance, as well as on financial risk prevention and monitoring.

  • The guidelines called for continuing R&D on digital currency.

So what? China’s fintech industry will continue to grow, especially given a lift in the 14th plan. But incumbents will face more competition as a result of antitrust regulations and the opening up of payments systems that DCEP will bring. Tech companies dabbling in finance will also be increasingly brought under the fold of financial regulation.

Eliza Gkritsi

Eliza was TechNode's blockchain and fintech reporter until July 2021, when she moved to CoinDesk to cover crypto in Asia. Get in touch with her via email or Twitter.

Emma Lee

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via lixin@sixthtone.com or Twitter.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

Wei Sheng

Writing about semiconductors and telecommunications.

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

David Cohen

David Cohen is a former acting editor in chief at TechNode. Since 2010, he has covered China as a writer and editor at outlets including the Diplomat, the Jamestown Foundation, and China Policy. He’s...