What Do China’s Scientific Ambitions Mean for Science—and the World?

Taking a deep look at how China has transformed its capacity for scientific research and innovation provides a window into the country’s ambitions and possible paths in the future.

In the past two decades China has become a leading international scientific contributor—not only in resources and publications—but also through its ambition to achieve technological leadership in key industrial sectors. In the early 2000s, China’s share of the top 10% most highly cited publications was well below the world average, but forthcoming research shows that it has recently overtaken the 27 countries of the European Union. China’s elite universities place increasingly higher in international rankings, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences consistently tops the Nature Index of institutional scientific output. As the second-largest spender on research and development, in 2019 China’s gross domestic R&D expenditure was $514.8 billion (US dollars), close to the $612.7 billion spent by the United States and higher than the European Union’s $390.5 billion.

Cooperating with China will undoubtedly be important for the future of US and EU—and global—innovation, and, if managed properly, all could benefit. Thus, taking a deep look at how China has transformed its capacity for research and innovation provides a window into the country’s ambitions and possible paths in the future. The mystique of China’s rise has created anxiety in other countries, as they have watched the growth of China’s scientific, economic, and commercial strength, its clear declaration of its ambitions to become a global leader and key player in several strategic technology areas and industries, and its promotion of its Military-Civilian Fusion (junmin ronghe) policy through which the Chinese Communist Party aims to build a world-class military. Apart from strategic and competitive concerns, how China builds on its scientific position and whether it assumes a leadership role in the world’s scientific community to work on global problems such as climate change or pandemics will be felt everywhere.

Taking a deep look at how China has transformed its capacity for research and innovation provides a window into the country’s ambitions and possible paths in the future.

The rapid increase in China’s scientific strength can be explained by a combination of public and private investments; government priorities and policies; the public’s strongly positive view of (and willingness to invest in) science, technology, and education; and a capacity to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization and an open international research system. The former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping described science and technology as one of the four forces of modernization, and S&T has been closely linked to nation-building as well as social and economic development since the 1970s. Since 1995, when the strategy of revitalizing the nation with science and technology and education (kejiao xingguo) was initiated, China’s expenditure on R&D as a share of its gross domestic product increased, from less than 1% in 1980 to 2.4% in 2020.

In addition to increasing spending on R&D, China has undertaken institutional innovations that include allocating increasing funds through the National Natural Science Foundation of China, which, like its Western counterparts, funds investigator-driven projects following rigorous peer-review selection.

During this time, the size of the Chinese research workforce has grown to 1.87 million researchers in 2018. Although this sounds large, it is a small percentage of the workforce (at 2.3 per 1,000 workers), and significantly less concentrated than in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s average of 8.1, or of the world leader, Denmark, which has 15 per 1,000. However, when Denmark is compared with just the Beijing region, which is of comparable size, the R&D to GDP ratio in this area was 5.6%, 1.8 times that of Denmark.

As China’s universities have increased the quality of their programs, they have become leaders in producing scientists. In 2018, Chinese universities granted close to 49,500 doctorates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, significantly more than the United States (42,000) and the European Union (45,000).

China’s leadership also emphasizes the importance of science and learning. An important element of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policies was to send Chinese students and researchers abroad, building on a long history of overseas study. When some of them returned, the thinking went, they would help modernize Chinese society, economy, and the research system, and set an example of high-tech entrepreneurship.

As Chinese scientists have adapted to the norms of the global scientific community that they are now an integral part of, such international collaboration and exchange have also contributed to improvements in research culture and praxis.

While the government sponsored the initial cohorts of students studying abroad, the number of self-funded students overtook them around 1990, first largely through scholarships from foreign institutions, and later at great personal expense to their families. As of 2020, an estimated 6.6 million Chinese students have studied abroad, the majority in the United States. Though many have stayed abroad, China’s government does not consider them “lost,” but rather as distributed resources. US and EU research and innovation enterprises have benefited greatly from the inflow of Chinese human capital, but the question of who benefits remains one for debate.

Recently, the number of overseas students and scientists returning to China has increased significantly, partially incentivized by the government’s return migration programs, which include providing permanent research positions, internationally competitive salaries, research funding, and administrative support in the migration process and an overall improved research environment. In the mid-2000s, most life science professors in elite research departments at universities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences had studied abroad. As a 2020 report showed, returnees are responsible for a large share of China’s top 10% most highly cited publications. International collaboration has been a major factor in driving the qualitative improvement of Chinese science. And as Chinese scientists have adapted to the norms of the global scientific community that they are now an integral part of, such international collaboration and exchange have also contributed to improvements in research culture and praxis.

Increasing Chinese scientists’ publication in high-impact journals has become an explicit goal of government leaders and university administrators. Over the past decade, some attempted to directly incentivize the qualitative improvement of Chinese science output, through monetary rewards to publications in high-impact journals. Although this practice is reportedly coming to a close, individual institutions may still provide such incentives to boost their performance in domestic rankings. While this incentive system had some negative effects, including fraudulent papers and citations, it did offer a clear signal to Chinese scientists that their country’s leadership values high levels of scientific ambition.

Today, China combines research capacity with significant economic strength, impressive innovative capabilities, strong entrepreneurship, and increasing military ambitions, factors that catalyze each other to make China a unique and daunting science power. China’s size and importance in the international science and technology landscape is illustrated by its share of patents in strategic sectors and technologies and the number of Chinese firms that are innovation leaders in a range of high tech industries, including financial tech, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, blockchain, new materials, and telecommunications.

China’s size and importance in the international science and technology landscape is illustrated by its share of patents in strategic sectors and technologies and the number of Chinese firms that are innovation leaders in a range of high tech industries.

The increasing output of China’s innovation system is evident in the rapid rise in both its domestic patents and patents targeting the international market. Strategically, even though a large share of Chinese domestic patents are not in cutting-edge technologies, their economic impact is felt by foreign firms trying to compete in the Chinese domestic market.

However, looking beyond patents at China’s total factor productivity (TFP), a broad measure of how efficiently and intensely inputs are used in production processes, analysts disagree on the extent to which R&D efforts have contributed to China’s economic growth. The assessment of the success of Chinese R&D in terms of productivity depends on which productivity data are used. According to a forthcoming report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on the relative EU and Chinese economic performance, TFP estimates based on Chinese official data show a higher growth than any other country with a similar or higher level of R&D expenditure, while alternative TFP estimates paint a less rosy picture. A World Bank study on China’s TFP suggests that there is significant room for China to improve the efficiency of its R&D investment.

Although China’s advance in science and technology is impressive, and to some extent unparalleled in history, there are still some challenges and potential knots in the country’s research and innovation system. Chinese science is world class in several areas, but the strength is still concentrated in a relatively limited number of geographic regions, and often linked to areas of government investment. Much of the S&T system tightly links defense and industrial applications, presenting a challenge to collaborators. These differences—and even potential incompatibilities—with the current global scientific culture will have implications for both China and the world.

As China’s science has developed, its research system has become more similar to that of many Western countries, not just in terms of research quality, but also in terms of funding and evaluation models, institutions, policymaking and governance, and even rising inequality in funding. These similarities, and the social pressure to accept certain common practices, can be an opening for deeper discussions with China.

However, Chinese science and science policy also differs from its Western counterparts in significant ways. First, China has put a stronger focus on research and education in the STEM fields than have many other countries, particularly in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. This can be seen in the fact that many of China’s relative research strengths, in terms of quantity and quality of publications, are found in the fields of chemistry, computer science, engineering, materials science, mathematics, and physics (as opposed to humanities and social sciences). Premier Xi Jinping also recently called for further strengthening of “the build-up of basic disciplines such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology,” while calling for bringing China’s story in development to global attention, suggesting a role to be played by Chinese social scientists. Despite the advances in China’s educational system, until the pandemic, many outstanding Chinese STEM students still preferred to pursue advanced education and even professional careers in developed countries, especially the United States.

Second, the Chinese science enterprise is less international than that of Western scientific powers. In North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, immigrants make up a significant proportion of the S&T workforce. In contrast, while many prominent researchers in China have studied and worked abroad, Chinese S&T is still overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Chinese, with a very limited presence of foreign scholars and students who often find difficulty in pursuing their professional career in China, especially in universities and government R&D institutions. In this way, China resembles Japan and South Korea. China’s leadership appears to acknowledge the limited diversity in the country’s science system and wants to change it to look more like the United States or the European Union. In a recent speech, Xi Jinping declared: “We must progressively open up to international S&T organizations setting up in our country’s territory, and foreign-national scientists taking up positions in our country’s academic S&T organizations, making our country into a broad global stage for open S&T cooperation.” But an increasingly techno-nationalistic China would risk turning away those techno-globalists.

Third, Chinese science differs from other scientific powers in the strong links between science, nationalism, patriotism, ideology, and the Communist Party. In contrast with Western notions of university autonomy and curiosity as drivers of research, Chinese science and knowledge production are intimately connected with, and perhaps even driven by, the needs of the state, thus becoming “an integral part of national efforts to fulfil the century-long dream of China’s resurgence.”

In contrast with Western notions of university autonomy and curiosity as drivers of research, Chinese science and knowledge production are intimately connected with, and perhaps even driven by, the needs of the state.

As a result, China’s nationalistic agenda seems to be at odds with the notions of curiosity-driven, open, and reciprocal science that is seen as fundamental to knowledge-creating systems in the United States and the European Union. Xi Jinping speaks of “the patriotic scholar,” and appeals to scientists to “adhere to the supremacy of the national interest and the people’s interest” and to “merge their own scientific pursuits into the magnificent undertaking of building a modern Socialist country.” And, counter to the idea that science is a global community, he has also stated that “science has no borders, but scientists have motherlands,” apparently paraphrasing what the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur said in the context of the occupation of his motherland by Prussia after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

Examining the emergence of China as one of the leading scientific powers, an obvious question becomes, what does and will China’s scientific rise mean for science and the global enterprise of science? China’s scientific development is both logical and desirable, given the size of its economy and population. China’s enormous investments in research, education, and innovation—by its government, firms, and people—are also to be welcomed as strengthening the world’s ability to tackle common challenges, such as climate change, pollution, and pandemics. China’s rise should be seen as well in the context of a significant shift in the center of gravity of scientific and economic power toward Asia.

As China’s scientific footprint grows, it is likely to become increasingly important in leading or dominating specific technology areas (such as artificial intelligence and fintech) and in shaping the rules, norms, and governance of the global research system more generally. Countries in the region and beyond may increasingly look to China as the collaborative partner of choice. China’s recent reform of research evaluation, which seeks to reduce the power and negative effects of metrics-driven research evaluation, is an example where China could have a significant positive influence on the global research system.

However, the reform of the research evaluation system, as well as recent policy initiatives, such as the Dual Circulation Strategy, which seeks to make the Chinese economy and production system less dependent on exports by focusing on domestic demand, could be indications of a government-driven “decoupling” of China from the rest of the world, and of China becoming more inward-looking. And significantly, different views on human rights and personal freedoms, academic freedom, and the relationship between science and the state could challenge or alter the current rules, norms, and governance of the international research system. More competition (and less or selective collaboration in research) may also be expected in defense technologies and technological areas, where China has explicit ambitions to become world leader. These tensions must play out within China, while other nations encourage positive collaboration.

As the world’s second-largest economy and most populous country, China’s emergence as a major contributor to scientific research is to be welcomed—since knowledge is not tied to specific localities and can be utilized elsewhere. The world stands to benefit from the increasing involvement of Chinese scientists in the frontier of scientific knowledge development, not least given their potential to contribute to addressing large global challenges in health, climate, and environment.

Conversely, both the world and China stand to lose if China disconnects from global science. When it comes to engagement, the ball is currently in China’s court; there are signs that China is trying to partially shield or cut off its economy and society, and possibly also its science, from the rest of the world. In the past decade, China’s dependence on the world (economically, financially, technologically) has declined, while the world’s dependence on China is increasing.

In the past decade, China’s dependence on the world (economically, financially, technologically) has declined, while the world’s dependence on China is increasing.

Advancing the global enterprise of science requires scientifically advanced countries to renew their commitment to universal norms, and China’s willingness to play by the rules.

Whether China can surpass the United States to become the leading nation in S&T is an open question, and perhaps presents a false heuristic. Historically, scientific leadership has been associated with military supremacy, and it is clear that the United States is still the dominant military power. However, centers of gravity in science and other fields have shifted in the past, and there is no reason to think this would not be possible in the future. Given that China is also interested in building its military capabilities, foreign governments observe the improvements in the output and quality of Chinese research with an eye on their own security. China’s global scientific and military ambitions and the concerns it gives rise to need active discussion, dialogue, and diplomacy. Meanwhile, China clearly has taken a page from the American practice of spinning off civilian technologies for military use in initiating the Military-Civilian Fusion strategy.

We would argue that China’s turning inward, or becoming autarkic and reducing its interaction with the rest of the world when it comes to science—and seeking to develop investments in military technology in an attempt to become the leading nation in S&T—is likely to hurt China’s ambitions more than help them. A more fruitful approach, for both Chinese and global science, is to remain open and become even more so.

Significantly, the Chinese government, research organizations, and universities are stepping up their attempts to attract talent from abroad. This includes a broad wave of return migration programs along with efforts to attract foreign students and researchers. Most of these efforts focus on Asia, Africa, and the countries that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, China was close to reaching its target of attracting half a million foreign students, though the COVID-19-induced lockdown has affected these flows in 2020. According to a recent analysis in the Financial Times, China is now funding more scholarships for African students than the leading Western governments combined. Still, there is a relative lack of interest among European and American researchers in moving to China—perhaps as a result of the current global tensions and the political climate in China—and this reluctance may prove detrimental to the development of mutually beneficial relations.

Science is driven by both competition and collaboration, and it is not helpful to see this as a race between nations when knowledge is a public good. Competition between countries speeds up innovation and spurs science: after Japan challenged the United States in semiconductors in the 1980s, the United States completely changed its S&T policies and took a more innovative stance. The historically unprecedented speed to bring COVID vaccines to market also shows the spirit of competition and collaboration. The rise of China may have this effect, becoming a strong motivation for the United States and Europe to strengthen their own science and education systems. But in the case of China, unlike what happened in Japan, geopolitical strategic concerns may lead to more bellicosity, generating difficulties. Policymakers and science leaders should guard against focusing too much on competition to the exclusion of scientific collaboration, generating an insular world with little cooperation.

If, instead, leaders can focus on the tremendous opportunities for the world to collaborate around issues such as climate change, food, and water, great things could be accomplished. This would require adhering to guidelines developed by officials in several nations and agreed to by the Global Research Council to help provide the framework for collaboration at a global level. Leaders may learn some lessons from what went right or wrong around collaboration on efforts to fight COVID-19, to come to productive multipart collaborations at a global level.

Policymakers and science leaders should guard against focusing too much on competition to the exclusion of scientific collaboration, generating an insular world with little cooperation.

So far, China has had to adapt to the dynamics of the global research system to become successful. The rules of this system have been set by the incumbent scientific powers and have been defined by openness, collaboration, participation in peer review, attention to excellence, and a focus on validating research. However, the global system is not static. The world is at a critical juncture. When multiple countries simultaneously become more insular and isolationist, norms and rules are likely to change.

Some people in the world of international relations point to a “great power competition” coming between China and the United States, whereas the European Union sees China as a partner in some areas and a systemic rival in others. Science and technology would be at the crux of such a competition. Other models exist—and other visions can become goals. Discussions, diplomacy, and dialog on using the tremendous new power of China to aid climate, health, and food crises, working in cooperation with other leading nations, is one such vision. Political leadership is needed for these goals to be instilled into policy.

Furthermore, collaboration begins with personal contacts: short- and long-term international mobility is crucial to maintaining global dynamics and linkages. The pandemic has made this difficult. Governments should create conditions that allow the self-organizing dynamics of scientific collaboration to kick in. The growing involvement of the Chinese government in the funding of international research collaboration and the opening up of large facilities to the international scientific community—such as the recent opening of FAST, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope in southwest China—could also result in changing norms in the global science system. On issues such as research ethics, conflicts of interest, academic freedom, data protection, transparency, and open science, there are still discrepancies between the Chinese system and the dominant global norms. A fuller integration of Chinese science in this global system may lead either to changing norms in Chinese science, or to changing global norms. The current political debate in both the United States and China does not preclude another scenario in which China will become more insulated from global science, which would be damaging for all concerned.

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Cite this Article

Serger, Sylvia Schwaag, Cong Cao, Caroline S. Wagner, Xabier Goenaga, and Koen Jonkers. “What Do China’s Scientific Ambitions Mean for Science—and the World?” Issues in Science and Technology (April 5, 2021).