The wakening of Chinese innovation

Lauren Johnston
Research Associate, SOAS China Institute
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Napoleon once famously said that “when China wakes, it will shake the world”. Well, the world is certainly feeling shaken now. As one Chinese newspaper noted following the recent change in leadership, China’s transition is about a “new start, new expectations and new era”.

China’s reform programme is three-decades old and there are signs that the economic model of growth driven by exports and infrastructure investment may be running out of steam. So, China’s economic policy-makers are seeking to instigate an era of innovation-led growth instead.

China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, which runs until 2015, includes the goal to increase public R&D expenditure to 2.2%, and to 2.5% by 2020; the OECD average in 2011 was 2.3%. Increased funding for science will see the national budget for 2012 reaching an estimated RMB 228.5 billion (US $36 billion), up more than 12% year-on-year. Of this, about 14% is being allocated to basic research. Saving energy and environmental protection are priorities.

Chinese innovation and higher education

When it comes to R&D, analysts and leaders in economics, education and science should take a close look at what is happening in China’s fast-developing cities like Wuhan and Suzhou. In November Wuhan saw the inauguration of IUCES (International University Consortium on Earth Sciences) – which involves 11 universities from seven countries – initiated by the China University of Geosciences (CUG). The consortium explores training opportunities for undergraduate students, graduates and professional researchers. It seeks to establish an international forum on earth science education and collaborate on laboratory-sharing and field practice.

The People’s Daily English edition describes the purpose of IUCES as “…carrying out Sino-foreign cooperation programmes on higher-learning education and scientific research in the field, and sharing educational resources among member institutes”.

Meanwhile Suzhou lies in the heart of China’s Jiangsu Province, one of the country’s more industrial, outward-looking and, indeed, richest provinces; it is like China’s California. The public-private partnership models of innovation pioneered by Stanford and Silicon Valley in the US are now being replicated at the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park.

Just 30 minutes by fast rain from Shanghai, the park is the largest economic and technical cooperation project between the governments of China and Singapore. It covers 8,000 hectares, with up to 20,000 more hectares available for expansion, and aims to transform ideas and research into high-value industrial processes and products. A Chinese consortium owns 52% of the project; a Singapore consortium owns 28%.

To date, more than 100 Fortune 500 companies, including Philips, Nokia, Samsung and BP, have invested in the project. And over 15 international universities and research institutes have also invested, with joint ventures and new degree courses springing up all the time. For example, Australia’s Monash University and China’s South Eastern University have teamed up, as have Xi’an Jiaotong University and Liverpool University.

Who knows what innovations will be brought to market over the coming decades as a result of this extraordinary R&D clustering and cooperation in Jiangsu? It will be fascinating to see how other countries respond.

A recent piece in Nature magazine suggested that, while scientists around the world understand the rising importance of China in the field of research, it is still unlikely we will see a wholesale shift of science and innovation to the East. Rather, as China shakes the world, other countries may wake up and instigate similar innovative clustering projects themselves.

But it would be foolish to ignore what China is doing. Global cooperation will key to achieving the innovation the world clearly needs.

Author: Lauren Johnston, founder of Sinograduate.

Photo: Robots perform a dance at a science and technology center in Nanjing, east China’s Jiangsu province. The eight robots, twenty-six centimeters (10 inches) in height, were made by a working group from the University of Science and Technology of China. REUTERS/Sean Yong

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