Whither China’s Science Policy


Chinese Science Policy at a Crossroads
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Anything written by Richard P. Suttmeier, the author of “Chinese Science Policy at a Crossroads” (Issues, Winter 2020), is worth serious reading; if there is a dean in the field of China science and technology (S&T) studies, he is it.

His article appears at an important inflection point in our understanding of the Chinese research and development system and the nature of the relationship between the United States and China with respect to bilateral S&T cooperation. The notion that after multiple decades of expanding cooperation, the United States may be embarked on a path of disengagement is quite disturbing. Although the bilateral S&T relationship clearly has not been problem-free or without an array of critical limitations—political and otherwise—the reality is that even during the most difficult periods surrounding Sino-US relations since 1979, transpacific interactions in science and technology have provided a solid foundation for helping to sustain overall bilateral engagement.

As Suttmeier points out, China is no longer a technological laggard. Now that the United States and China have moved from a relationship characterized largely by asymmetry in capabilities and knowledge to a situation of greater overall symmetry, the United States finally has a chance to leverage its past involvement to secure access to key areas where Chinese progress is now meaningful and internationally recognized. For the first time, the notion of mutual benefit in science and technology has a real chance to have substantive meaning. Moreover, the fact remains that there is no major global S&T-related problem—clean energy, climate change, health, water, and so on—whose long-term solution will not require some form of in-depth cooperation between the US and Chinese scientific communities.

Simply stated, access to China’s S&T system and associated resources is now more important than ever. Access to the Chinese high-end talent pool is critical in a world where progress in innovation is increasingly underpinned by participation in a range of globally oriented knowledge networks. There is no doubt that China is embarked on a path that will result in closing the science and technology gap with the United States in appreciable ways across many fields. In all likelihood, China will become a serious competitor across many key domains. Its overall presence in international S&T affairs is undoubtedly becoming more pronounced. Under such circumstances, does the United States benefit more from being engaged with China or by trying to marginalize its ties and diminish its interactions?

Suttmeier provides many things to think about as the United States ponders its overall foreign policy toward China. One thing to remember, however, is that unlike the situation in the 1980s and much of the ’90s, government-to-government ties in S&T are no longer the main game in town. Connections in S&T between American and Chinese companies, universities, research institutes, and think tanks far exceed in both depth and breadth the S&T ties associated with the recently renewed bilateral government-to-government agreement. Most of these organizations, while sensitive to warnings from the FBI and others about intellectual property violations and beyond, continue to remain much more enthusiastic and optimistic about cooperation than the American government.

Maybe they know something more about the future of research and innovation than the current flock of China critics who would like to see the United States walk away from this strategic relationship.

Executive Vice Chancellor
Duke Kunshan University
Kunshan, Jiangsu province, China

Richard P. Suttmeier provides valuable insight into China’s science and technology (S&T) policy and the larger S&T collaboration of China and the United States. As he noted, with the potential decoupling of China and the United States, Chinese S&T policy is at a crossroad: grow more global or more independent?

China has made huge progress in the past 40 years, which can be seen in the number of international papers, patents, and so on. As Suttmeier wrote, “China has made notable achievements in space technology and in civil engineering for large infrastructure projects, including the construction of an impressive high-speed rail network, and is forging ahead in the construction of world-class ‘big science’ research facilities.”

I think there are two important factors for this kind of progress. First, Chinese S&T has been increasingly embedded into the global system, especially with the United States, the European Union, and Japan. Second, the Chinese government has given S&T the role of the production force for economic development, ever since Deng Xiaoping rose to power and became the propeller for international competitiveness. The government has persistently supported the S&T development since the 1980s. In 2019, research and development spending in China was about 2.1% of the nation’s gross domestic product, a level comparable with the European Union. China has built a very modern S&T infrastructure, with lots of megascience projects going on in Beijing, Shanghai, and other places.

But the modern road for Chinese S&T development is different from that in countries in the West. First, there has been deep intervention by the party and government—as Suttmeier put it, from long range S&T programs, megaprojects, and various technology policies to strategy-making for indigenous innovation. Second, China lacks a culture of science, as Suttmeier also noted. For example, China rewards technological inventions not based on intellectual property rights, but on the government’s title and honor. So for progress to expand, China’s S&T efforts need to more independently value innovation, and its S&T needs to be even more deeply embedded in the global science system. Thus, for government officials and policy researchers, whether to couple with or decouple from the United States is always a choice. The questions become when, why, and how. Some officials and researchers in China may not support this.

Could US efforts to decouple from China’s innovation system end up making China more independent and more capable? This is the key question that Suttmeier asks—but it is hard to answer. For one thing, if the United States does uncouple, it won’t be good for efforts to deal with so many global challenges today, such as climate change, disease, and coordinated development for science development. Second, I think it will depend how China will reform existing institutions for S&T and innovation. China needs institution-innovation driven development as it approaches becoming a middle-class country.

Professor, School of Economics and Management
University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
Beijing, China

Richard P. Suttmeier’s article comes at a moment when the United States is increasing its pressure on China not only in trade relations but also in science and technology. Even as scholars are proclaiming “The Collaborative Era in Science” (which also provided the title of a recent book by Caroline Wagner) and open international cooperation is needed more than ever for addressing global challenges, political leaders in the United States see China’s rise in science and technology (S&T) as a threat.

Suttmeier provides a welcome insight into key aspects of the situation, including China’s moves toward self-reliance, leapfrogging, and strengthening the research-industry links. There is an urgent need for carefully assessing the conflict and the possible consequences for China, the United States, and the rest of the world.

These tensions arise 40 years after the 1979 Deng-Carter agreement on S&T cooperation. Since then, US-China collaboration and exchange played an important role—not only for training Chinese researchers and facilitating their integration into global networks but also for strengthening the US S&T workforce and developing close US-China scientific cooperation and interdependencies in global production networks.

Since a majority of the best Chinese scientific talent stayed in the United States, that unidirectional researcher mobility means a significant brain drain for China. Talent programs try to balance that situation by offering Chinese researchers working abroad attractive conditions for returning home.

For the United States, attracting and retaining excellent scientists from around the world means substantially benefitting from and depending on foreign S&T talent. Decoupling from China may substantially reduce the inflow of Chinese S&T talent into the United States, disrupt mutually beneficial US-China scientific collaboration, and endanger industrial ties in areas such as information technology, manufacturing, or low-carbon technologies.

Such radical intervention into the complex fabric of international S&T networks may have drastic consequences at the global scale.

US authorities launched their campaign against China’s S&T community because of some severe cases of misconduct where appropriate reaction was necessary. But general suspicion and mistrust should be avoided even as the S&T community works to safeguard common rules for international cooperation in areas such as common interests and mutual benefits, openness and fairness, reciprocity, scientific integrity and ethics, and codes of conduct for peer review and conflicts of interest.

The best way forward will be that the scientific community actively and autonomously reaffirms and strengthens the rules and values of S&T cooperation. A workshop on “The Future of Funding Research” organized by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and UK Research and Innovation in Beijing in December 2019 was attended by 33 agencies from the United States, Europe, Israel, Russia, and Asia; this was a step in the right direction and an example of good practice in the present situation.

Honorary Professor, European and International Research and Technology Cooperation
Vienna University of Technology, Austria

Cite this Article

“Whither China’s Science Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 3 (Spring 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Spring 2020